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Julia Steiny: An American School Successfully Uses An “Eastern Block” Curriculum

Thursday, February 23, 2012

 

Julia Steiny, GoLocalWorcesterContributor

When Jay Sweeney joined the staff at the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School (AMSA), he was the only non-Russian in the math department. The school is in the middle of Massachusetts, so huh?

Now the school’s Principal, Sweeny explains that the original charter required that at least half of those teaching in math-related courses also have experience working in an industry using the skills they teach at AMSA. Sweeney himself worked for years at Intel and various start-up companies before becoming a teacher.

But perhaps as a sad comment on the quality of American math/science education, most of AMSA’s industry-experienced teachers, who now make up 60 percent of the total, were born and educated elsewhere – Asia, Russia, India.

People from those countries are also more familiar with AMSA’s highly unusual academic strategy, which they describe as an “Eastern Block” curriculum.

The lead designer of the school’s original charter was Dr. Julia Sigalovsky, herself a persecuted Russian Jew who fled to Israel before coming to this country. She and her colleagues designed AMSA’s original charter to model its curriculum after the one she knew.

So, for starters, in grades 6-12, students’ schedules include 50 percent more math than typical American schools – 7 and ½ hours per week. Math, according to AMSA’s philosophy, is the language of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. Beef up math, you beef up STEM.

Makes sense.

An AMSA kid’s week is divided into 35 periods. Of those, 10 are devoted to science and 10 to math or computer science.

I recommend checking out their elaborate curriculum, laid out grade by grade, on page five of the charter.

Geometry is not a separate subject, but woven into various subjects. Social studies is divided into history and geography. English Language Arts is split into English language and Literature. To my relief, the Literature is unapologetically classical. The 8th graders study Dante, Petrarch and non-European medieval poetry!

The charter states, “Contrary to the widely-accepted belief that every subject must be intimately connected to a student’s everyday life, the Academy believes that the foundational principles and laws of academic disciplines designed to explore the world and universe are fundamentally more interesting to and useful for students.”

This place has nerve.

The moment they arrive, students are assessed and placed in ability-level groups in their math/science courses. They’re randomly assigned to humanities courses.

In math and science, AMSA skips middle school altogether and starts immediately with high school, with all 6th graders taking Algebra 1. Students are working on or done with Algebra II by the 8th grade.

College starts in 9th, when textbooks all become college level. By the 12th grade 90 percent of the students have taken some level of Calculus. AMSA ignores the curriculum sequence required by the middle-school MCAS tests and focuses instead on acing the 10th-grade MCAS  , which they do. (See last week’s column.)

But wait! There’s no freaking way kids can do this, at least not when randomly chosen by charter lottery. Most of the students come from working-class towns with lackluster schools.

Sweeney full-on crows as he presents his “proudest accomplishment,” a graph showing the improvement of the most challenged students in the class of 2012, comprising a third of that class. In their math-related courses, they are the “college prep” group. (See graphs.) Year after year, many middle-school students arrive with dismal MCAS scores – “In need of improvement” or “Warning,” the two lowest levels. By 10th grade, almost all have reached “Proficiency” or “Advanced.”

Though all students study the same curriculum, some take the math-based subjects more slowly than others. Given this level of rigor, in the lazy land of American teenagers, teachers are relentless about checking the students’ understanding with tests developed in-school, as well as some bought off-the-shelf and those mandated by the state. Every single student must have the foundational concepts so they are building on solid ground as the work gets increasingly complex and sophisticated.

An 8th period at the end of each day allows the school to support any students who are struggling in any subject and to strengthen the language of English-language learners. Academic hotshots use it to accelerate in whatever subject they please.
The point is that with support, all students can advance impressively. AMSA manages to make good on their charter’s seemingly outrageous promise:

The “Advanced” in the Academy’s name means that every student will become an advanced student. The Academy’s innovative educational approach will ensure that students previously considered “not capable” or “underachievers” will reach a level of knowledge that is currently considered only reachable by a few gifted and talented students. The “middle achievers” of the student population will find themselves enthusiastic, engaged and passionate about learning. Those who are chronically under-challenged and bored will thrive.

Sweeney says that the school’s goal is that “EVERY student will be able to solve any STEM problem presented to them.”

Oh and btw: there’s also art instruction and after-school sports and clubs.

Next week we’ll look at the role computer science plays in both pushing and pulling in AMSA’s diverse learners.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903. 

 

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