Sarah Sterling Laldee

Supervisor of Science
Paterson Public Schools

Paterson Public School’s Guiding Coalition, a working group in academic services composed of content area senior staff, began its journey with improvement science in the fall of 2016. As we examined the various issues that we faced in curriculum and instruction, one flash point was the extraordinarily low state achievement test scores in science on the Grade 8 and high school biology assessments. Our Grade 4 scores were almost on par with other students around the state, but with each successive assessment, we saw greater declines in proficiency rates.

Over the course of the fall, the Guiding Coalition gathered data to identify the root cause of our problem. We worked hard to avoid “solutionitis” as we examined what was happening not just at the middle and high school level, but also in elementary schools: What was the key to their success? We met with focus groups of teachers and administrators at each grade-level band and brought this feedback, along with assessment data, to our Guiding Coalition meetings. With thoughtful guidance from IFL’s Rosita Apodaca and Jennifer Zoltners Sherer, we used driver diagrams to uncover some hard truths: What looked like success at elementary school was, in fact, something else. Sixth grade teachers had been able to share data from their baseline assessments that showed students were arriving at middle school under-prepared to engage in meaningful science
instruction, both in terms of content knowledge and inquiry skills. This directly conflicted with the state assessment scores and led to an interesting finding: Our state’s cut scores for the fourth grade assessment were so low that this created an inflated passing rate. Additionally, elementary teachers and principals lamented the limited time for science in the bell schedule, suggesting that it was not being taught as frequently as suggested by both the district and state. In order to verify this, we collected a sampling of class schedules from kindergarten through Grade 5. We found that only 36 percent of schools were meeting the recommended weekly minutes for science in these grades.

These findings helped narrow the focus of our problem of practice: How might we create more time for meaningful science instruction for kindergarten through fifth grade students so that they will have the necessary content knowledge and inquiry skills to be successful in secondary school and scientifically literate citizens? There were a variety of contributing factors that we identified in our driver diagram, including schedules, accountability, curriculum, teacher and administrator content knowledge, and instructional practices. We recognized that several of these contributing factors hinged upon the support and decisions of school administrators. In our first PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) cycle, we sought to provide administrators with additional training during their Superintendent’s Institute regarding the interdisciplinary nature of elementary science instruction, with particular emphasis on how it supports literacy instruction and critical reasoning. Our expectation was that this training would help make the case for expanded science instructional time in school schedules during the following school year. Following the training, we pulled school schedules again for the same schools and found that 66 percent of schools now met the science instructional time recommendations, and all but one had increased instructional time by at least one class period.

While the Guiding Coalition has moved on to work on other problems of practice, the math and science department have continued to pursue additional PDSA cycles related to improving science instruction, with a particular emphasis on kindergarten through fifth grade. We are particularly interested in how integrated curriculum at kindergarten through second grade might better meet the needs of both students and teachers, while also eliminating artificial scheduled blocks for independent subjects. We look forward to sharing the results of this work and are thankful for the ongoing support of IFL.