Evanston Township High School Superintendent Eric Witherspoon makes the case for the school’s new biology curriculum in this guest essay.
At ETHS we are committed to empowering all students to achieve academically. Our data show we have the teachers, class offerings, curriculum, academic support system, and high expectations for many of our students to soar and achieve academic growth that significantly exceeds national norms.
Our challenge is to ensure that all students at ETHS experience the best we have to offer. We must set high standards and guarantee strong, accelerated coursework for all students so their ETHS diploma represents successful completion of a rigorous course of studies.
Ninth grade at ETHS is the launch year for our students. The freshman experience is being strengthened to prepare students to take challenging classes during their four years in high school. We began by implementing a cutting-edge, earned-honors model for Freshman Humanities. Last fall, we indicated that the important next step is to develop a revised, more rigorous, more engaging earned-honors-credit biology course, which most students take their freshman year.
It is critical to align our students’ first exposure to biology to what they can expect later on in high school, as well as gaining a lifelong understanding of science concepts. To that end, this year we are aligning biology with the College Board’s newly revised Advanced Placement (AP) Biology course, focusing on the same Big Ideas as are taught in AP Biology.
Given the speed with which scientific knowledge expands, our teachers have the challenge of balancing breadth of content coverage with depth of understanding.
Notably, the College Board has shifted AP Biology from a “content coverage model of instruction to one that focuses on enduring, conceptual understandings and the content that supports them.”
Students in AP Biology—and soon in the introductory biology course—will spend less time on factual recall and more time on inquiry-based learning to develop the critical reasoning skills necessary to engage in science learning and understanding.
We know that emphasizing concepts over facts makes the content of a biology course more meaningful for students, and the College Board agrees: “A biology course has more structure and meaning when the key concepts for each topic are placed in the broader context.”
When adopted, introducing freshmen to these Big Ideas will better prepare them to accelerate their science learning. The Big Ideas are:
- The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.
- Biological systems utilize free energy and molecular building blocks to grow, to reproduce, and to maintain dynamic homeostasis.
- Living systems store, retrieve, transmit, and respond to information essential to life processes.
- Biological systems interact, and these systems and their interactions possess complex properties.
In restructured biology classes, freshmen will earn honors credit based on the quality of their work throughout the semester. The work we have done in earned-honors Humanities informs our work. Previously, the designation of honors was based on placement criteria and did not take into consideration how students performed in class.
Right now, our biology teachers are developing a sequence of rubrics and assessments that will provide students with clear expectations of what they need to know and be able to do to earn honors credit. They will also be developing differentiated instruction lessons.
In addition, freshmen taking biology will be required to perform at a high level throughout each semester and on semester exams. To ensure that we have a strong assessment program, semester exams are being aligned to the ACT College Readiness Standards. A consultant is working with a team of teachers on best practices in test construction.
Along with increased rigor comes the necessity to provide abundant supports. At ETHS, we have academic support available before, during, and after school, as well as on select Saturdays throughout the school year.
Our Science Study Center is open before, during, and after school Monday through Friday. We offer AM support Monday through Friday before school where students can receive help from their content-area teachers.
The Homework Center is open Monday through Thursday after school. Our AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) and STAE (Steps Toward Academic Excellence) academic support programs will reinforce the biology course as they currently do for Freshman Humanities.
Through the new rigorous biology curriculum, freshmen will certainly increase their science skills. Student well-being will be maintained and enhanced through supportive learning environments. Freshmen will also learn academic persistence and develop the intellectual capital required to take more challenging courses at ETHS.
Assigning our freshmen to earned-honors classes is an important step to ensuring that an ETHS diploma will signify that every graduate has taken rigorous classes and is academically prepared to succeed in a 21st Century, competitive world.