Bridging Critical Points: discontinuities in high school ... ?· Bridging Critical Points: discontinuities…

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  • Bridging Critical Points:discontinuities in high school and university physics education

    Noah FinkelsteinDepartment of Physics, UCB 390, University of Colorado, Boulder 80309

    The paper examines data collected from teaching an introductory college physics classoffered at a public high school. Assessment of student achievement demonstrates thatstudents are able to perform at a college level. Nonetheless this achievement is notrecognized by the institutions supporting this experimental course. Analysis of detaileddaily notes begins to answer why and how students are marginalized in this educationalsystem. Particularly, three themes of structural, normative and epistemologicaldiscontinuity detail why these students or institutions fail.

    Introduction:While most students in the United States

    graduate from high school, they generally do notgraduate from college. According to a recentstudy by the Stanford University Bridge Project,approximately 90% of White students graduatefrom high school, 70% enter college, and less than30% of this population graduates with a Bachelor'sdegree.[1] The attrition is yet worse for African-American and Latino students. There is aneducational gap between high school preparationand college success. The authors of the BridgeProject make several policy recommendations toaddress this gap. They advocate, "[1] senior-yearcourses linked to postsecondary generaleducation courses [and, 2] expanding successfuldual or concurrent enrollment programs betweenhigh schools and colleges so that they include allstudents." Simultaneously, the California MasterPlan for Education cites the importance of a bridgebetween high school and university [2]. Inparticular, the two-year college system plays acritical role by providing "opportunities for highschool seniors to enroll concurrently to furtherstrengthen their readiness for college or universityenrollment and to accelerate their progress towardearning collegiate certificates or degrees."

    In the Fall semester of 2002, I undertook a studyto examine the practicalities of offering auniversity level physics course inside a highschool. (A more detailed description of the class,motives and structure can be found in [3].) Theexperimental high school course was designed tomimic the University of California's introductory

    algebra-based physics sequence whilesimultaneously offering high school students onesemester of community college credit. The classwas a three-way partnership between theuniversity (where I was housed), the high school(where the class was taught) and a localcommunity college (which would provide creditand other future courses for the students).

    The following paper examines student successand how student achievement is bound to abroader framework coordination among differentinstitutional partners, and reconciliation of theirdiffering cultural norms. Ultimately, significantstudent achievement is substantively diminishedby the surrounding institutional cultures. Thisdesign experiment [4] examines discontinuities inthe structures, norms, and epistemology ofpartners begins to answer why and how studentsare marginalized in this educational system andwhy these students, institutions, or both fail.

    The Study:The class was held at a public charter school

    located in a large California city. The high schoolitself was diverse (representative of the citydemographics), progressive, project-based,relatively new, and small (approximately 400students). Students were admitted by lottery aftera pre-screening application that selected formotivated, rather than high performing students.The class met three days per week and wascomprised of three lectures and one recitationsection. We followed a traditional text, and used ahybrid of lecture notes and activities from UCPhysics 1 and University of Maryland Physics

  • 121. The recitation sections were largely based onTutorials in Physics [5]. The class began with 38students and ended with 31. Student backgroundvaried from those who had taken no physics andhad mastered limited amounts of trigonometry tostudents who had taken an advanced placementphysics course and were concurrently enrolled in acollege level calculus class.

    Two forms of data were collected: quantitativeassessments of student mastery of the domain andqualitative field-notes. At the beginning and endof term, students were issued the Force ConceptInventory (FCI) [6]. During the twelfth week ofterm, students were issued the same mid termexamination as was issued the prior year at theUniversity of Maryland. In addition to usingidentical exams, the University of Marylandscoring rubric was used to grade the exams.Lastly, approximately 60% of the class opted totake an external final exam developed andadministered by the community college system.Within 24 hours of teaching each class, I wrote adetailed account of the day's activities. Whilethese data may be considered subjective, theyserve to interpret the meaning of the "moreobjective" and quantitative measures. Analysis ofthese notes helps interpret why and how thiscourse evolves as it does by identifying criticalstructures, norms, practices, and beliefs of theindividuals and participating institutions.

    Results / Discussion:Over the course of the term, it became clear to

    me that this group of high school students couldlearn college level material. The high schoolcourse average on the Maryland mid-term was68%; the Maryland students averaged 62%. Onthe pre- and post- conceptual survey (FCI),students posted gains of 44%. During the sameterm, students in one of the most progressive-introductory physics courses at the University ofCalifornia posted the highest measured gains at theinstitution: 23%. (Both the high school and theuniversity course pre-test averages were 48%.)These assessments were corroborated by a myriadof examples from daily field-notes. A notremarkably unusual example of student masteryappears in day 43 of these notes:

    As I was grading the homework... [For] astandard, but complicated problem using

    Bernoulli's equation, Larry spent a page andhalf working from the basic equations that I hadprovided in class. In the end, he gets the rightanswer, v=sqrt (2 g h) and recognizes this is thesame for free fall. He writes, "OKAY! I nowrealize this is the same as v=sqrt(2gh). Thebook says as with Torricelli [a theorem I hadnot mentioned in class] That if P3=P1 thenv=sqrt(2gh) and this is really what I justderived."

    Despite coordinating the course outline andsyllabus with each of the partnering institutionsfrom the outset, late in the term of the course, itwas determined that if students wanted to receivecollege credit for their efforts, they would berequired to take a challenge exam at thecommunity college. The exam was created for thestudents by the faculty of the community college.If students opted to take the challenge exam, theywould receive a college transcript with the gradethey received on the exam (including D or F). Atthe end of the course, 19 of the high schoolstudents opted to take the exam. Of the 19students, 17 were the top-performers (A or B) inthe high school class. On the community collegeexam, students scored as follows: 1 A, 3 B's, 7 C's,1 D and 7 F's. In short, this evaluation is wellbelow the level of mastery demonstratedelsewhere. Notably this external exam differedfrom those exams issued as part of the course.

    While considered a success within the confinesof the classroom walls, this micro-culture sitswithin broader, existing worlds to which it isstructurally bound. From that vantage point it maybe seen as a failure of the students (to succeed inthe established cultures), or of the institutions (tosupport the educational and social development ofstudents). Three emergent themes from the dailynotes begin to detail why so many students failedthe community college exam, and why it is such achallenge to create sustainable and scalable formsof inter-institutional collaboration.Structural discontinuity:

    These systems are not designed to coordinate onjoint activity. Arguably, the high school isintended to hand students off to the universitysystem; though, the statistics presented in theintroduction would suggest even this might not bethe case. Nonetheless, a variety of organizationaland structural issues presented fundamental

  • obstacles to the success of a sustainedcollaborative venture. Most notably, initially, Iwas not allowed to teach in standard public school.While I teach current and future high school teachers, Iam not certified to teach high school students. Acharter school allowed me to teach withoutcertification.

    Further structural discontinuities arose over theuse of available resources. As I observed duringthe first day of teaching:

    For as little as UC pays attention to / caresabout introductory level physics., [THE HIGHSCHOOL] PROVIDES FEWER RESOURCESTHAN U.C. WHEN IT COMES TOEDUCATING STUDENTS in physics So I'm incharge of 40 seniors. I'm supposed to cover16 weeks of physics which will be the equivalentof [algebra-based] Physics at UC. They will notbe running a lab. I had to talk theadministration into offering recitation sections.[Although] they had told me they'd offer one fivedays per week, in fact, they are only offering 3[later, reduced to 1]. They have no equipmentfor demonstrations. I have no TA's, no graders,no proctors, no demonstration staff and no gradstudents. Just me, 40 students, a lousy textbook,and a [digital] projector

    Similar structural discontinuity may be observedin the time allotted for supporting and payingteachers. As I noted, at the high school:

    I get paid for face-time with the kids. Now I'man hourly [employee] where they wanted to payme for 6 hours (3 hours lecture, 3 recitation).

    In the high school culture, 5