Are high schools teaching science backward?

By Dennis Pierce
July 26th, 2016

This simple change could transform STEM achievement, and New Jersey is the proof

teaching science

U.S. high schools are teaching science in a backward sequence of courses that is a remnant of 19th century thinking, says former Harman executive and New Jersey Teacher of the Year Robert Goodman—and changing the order in which science courses are taken and the way they’re delivered can lead to profound differences in both STEM interest and achievement.

Goodman was speaking July 22 at the Building Learning Communities (BLC) conference in Boston, organized by education thought leader Alan November. He talked about how he taught algebra-based physics to ninth graders near Newark, N.J., most of whom came from poor families—and many of whom went on to take (and pass) the AP physics exam. His approach was so successful that it has been replicated across the state and in countries around the world.

Goodman himself never took any science beyond biology in his own high school experience. Needing to fulfill a science requirement at New York University, he took a physics course because it was the only class that fit into his schedule.

“About two weeks in, I fell in love with physics,” he said. “For me, it was the thinking activity that was involved. We don’t pay enough attention to that in schools—that thinking is an activity by itself.”

Goodman ended up transferring and earning a physics degree from MIT. He went to work for Harman Consumer Group, a division of the audio electronics firm Harman International, and ultimately became its president. After 20 years, he decided to launch a second career as a high school teacher.

In 1999, he was asked to launch a pre-engineering program for Bergen County Technical High School, which at the time was a brand-new vocational school. The program he headed up began with 16 ninth graders.

Although Goodman had been assured they all knew algebra, it turned out only three of the 16 had taken Algebra I. Because algebra is foundational to engineering, he used his two hours of vocational time each day to create what he called an “on-ramp” to STEM success, consisting of 40 minutes of Algebra I instruction, 40 minutes of algebra-based physics, and 40 minutes of engineering.

Why physics? It’s required for almost all STEM career paths, Goodman said—more than any other science subject. “It makes science make sense,” he noted. Yet, less than a third of U.S. high schools even offer physics instruction—and most students (and especially poor and minority students) aren’t exposed to it.

Next page: What happened when ninth-graders took physics