Narrowing the focus for student success

by Dr. Mary E. Wolverton

In the field of education, there is an intentional focus on programs that raise the number of students who choose to continue their education beyond high school. Studies show that in the U.S., there is a great need to increase the number of students entering the fields of math and science.

In education we also need to increase the success of our students in the field of science. An international study, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which began in the year 2000, aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in participating countries/economies. Since the year 2000, more than 70 countries and economies have participated in PISA. Of the 65 countries taking the PISA in 2009, 21 scored higher than the U.S. in the area of science.

In the state of Minnesota, students are given a state exam in science in fifth, eighth and 11th grade. In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, each year we see the test scores in all grade levels increasing. Our Anoka-Hennepin teachers provide excellent science education to our students. We are fortunate to have teachers highly dedicated in the field of science.

At the secondary level, science instruction is provided in specific courses at various levels. At the elementary level, specifically in our primary grades, a new model was implemented last year to increase the time dedicated to the instruction of science. This past year, “inquiry specialists” delivered science instruction for students in grades K-3 for an hour each week. Previously, students spent an hour each week with para educators who provided follow-up from activities from instruction in the classroom.

This model was implemented with existing budgets. It was greatly supported by our classroom teachers. An unrealized benefit is that it continues to save the district money each year with less funding needed for curriculum materials and professional development. Rather than having several hundred teachers teaching the science and some of the social studies curriculum, there is a dedicated teacher at each site providing this instruction.

The inquiry specialist model provides many benefits for our students and teachers. The new model has increased the time classroom teachers can dedicate to instruction in the areas of math and literacy. This is possible as science instruction is now delivered by the inquiry specialists. Our students have an hour each week of dedicated science instruction from teachers who have received professional development in the area of inquiry.

The feedback we have received from our teachers and parents has been overwhelmingly positive. At a recent meeting where the new model was evaluated, several teachers noted students comment throughout the year on their excitement with the new model. In a recent survey completed by classroom teachers as well as the inquiry specialists, the responses note the immediate impact it is having on our students. Teachers note that students are being provided deeper content knowledge in the area of science in an “inquiry” hands-on model. This is best practice in the field of science. Teachers also share that it has increased dedicated time for all content areas; math, science, social studies and literacy.

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board has provided great support for this structure to support our teachers and students. I am grateful to the hundreds of teachers who provided input on this model. As state standards and student data emerge, we will continue to visit the structure, continually seeking ways to enhance student success. We look forward to the positive impact on student success with this new model.

Dr. Mary E. Wolverton is the associate superintendent of elementary schools in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

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