STEM Class Issues from the 2017-2018 Aragon School Year: Part 3 – Physics

This is the third and final article in a three article series.  The first article was about precalculus at Aragon.  The second article focussed on AP Statistics.

In this article I comment on Aragon’s regular and AP physics program.

I found this to be a very disappointing year for physics at Aragon because the regular physics program suffered a substantial setback.

In previous articles on this blog, I have always recommended that students take regular physics before taking AP physics.  Aragon had an excellent regular physics program developed over time by a master teacher who retired in the middle of the last decade, but his curriculum was still used by the newer teachers.  This class was terminated after the 2016-2017 school year unfortunately.

I recommended regular physics first because that class tried to get students to visualize what was actually happening in a physics problem.  Far too often AP physics students who have not taken regular physics spend their time scanning through their physics formula sheets, trying to find which equation to apply to a problem without really understanding the scientific principles at stake.

Sadly I was not immediately aware of the regular physics course change until after the start of the first semester when some of my regular physics students began bringing home physics worksheets that were confusing and clearly not well designed.

When I investigated this issue further, I found that the old regular physics class had been replaced by a new curriculum in response to California’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  Mr. Ratto, the physics teacher at Aragon, is now only teaching AP physics, i.e., AP physics 1 (algebra-based) and AP physics C (calculus-based).  Mr. Doyle, who normally is the AP Chemistry teacher at Aragon, became the exclusive regular physics instructor.

I also heard from several sources that the Aragon counseling staff was encouraging students to take AP physics instead of regular physics, telling some students that the AP physics 1 class was like the “old regular physics” class.  This was unfortunately completely false information and resulted in some students signing up for a class that they were really not prepared to take.

I expect that the 2018 AP exam results will be released soon, and I am going to hazard a guess that Aragon’s AP Physics pass rate will take a hit, quite possibly a substantial one, due to the bad counseling advice given some students.

The Next Generation Science Standards recommended that students have more exposure to Earth and Space science in addition to physics, chemistry, and biology.  The standards suggest two options to do this: 1) have a four course regular science sequence or 2) integrate these two topics into the three traditional science courses.

San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) decided to adopt the latter approach, and the result is that the regular physics program has been substantially watered down.  For example, when I was assisting my students with their second semester final exam studying, I was astounded that the bulk of the review sheets for the test concentrated on radioactive half life calculations and related topics like dating sedimentary rock layers. (In the back of my mind I could almost hear Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory yelling out during a paintball match against the Cal Tech Geology Department, “Geology is not a real science!” just before expiring in a blaze of Full Metal Jacket glory.)

I tried to protest against these changes.  I met first with Ron Berggren, the assistant principal at Aragon, then with the SMUHSD Superintendent Dr. Kevin Skelly on two occasions, and finally addressed the Board of Trustees.  I talked with the head of the Aragon PTA and tried to arrange a meeting with Patricia Kurtz, the Aragon principal, who unfortunately was always too busy.

All of this effort was uncompensated and done simply as a result of my concern that the education of our local students was taking a significant hit.  My biggest disappointment is that I was unsuccessful in getting parents to take action.

The truly sad thing is that parents mainly seem to get upset and react only when the AP curriculum is the issue.  The Superintendent is well aware of this fact.

When I addressed the Board of Trustees on March 8th and stayed for the rest of their meeting, I was not surprised when the omnipresent “achievement gap” discussion came up yet again.  Unfortunately the kids who are on the lower end of the “gap” are the ones most likely to be impacted by these NGSS changes and do not usually have someone to advocate for them.  I am willing to bet that their parents frequently would feel intimidated trying to face-off with their students’ science teachers.

I addressed the Board of Trustees on 3/8/2018, and the Board president, Linda Dwyer, requested that the Superintendent report back to the Board as to why the district proceeded with the NGSS curriculum changes when there were no NGSS-aligned textbooks yet available.  There have been about a half dozen Board meetings since then, and the District has kept this agenda item on the back burner the entire time.

Parents, we elect the Board to oversee the District, but I often worry that instead the District manages the Board, i.e., a classic case of “regulatory capture.”

My efforts are fruitless if parents do not speak up.  In fact, I have been told by Aragon teachers previously that they did not have to answer my emails because I was not a parent of any of their students!  We thus reach a classic Catch-22 situation where the people who can affect change are either not aware of or do not care about the problem while those who know what is happening are ignored.

If you are a parent of a student who will take AP physics, you should hope that your child does well in that class.  In the past, I always knew students who started off the year in AP physics, found out that they had bitten off more than they could chew, but still had a fall back option in regular physics where they subsequently did well.

That fall back position is now gone.  The gap between AP Physics 1 and regular physics has widened substantially.  The choice now for a student who struggles with AP Physics 1 is to either stick it out and risk ruining their GPA, or fall back to a class which resembles more of a general science class than a physics class.

Please don’t say that you were not warned…

Meanwhile, as I have said above, the one physics teacher at Aragon is teaching only AP courses, but even here things are not as they once were.  Mr. Ratto previously used the physics course textbook for introductory problems in years past.  The last two to three years, the text has been rarely used, and the homework focus seems to be increasingly on more complicated/tricky AP exam practice problems.  Unfortunately the nationwide trend towards standardized testing continues to transform high school courses into exam cram classes.  To paraphrase Martha Stewart, “This is NOT a good thing.”  Cram courses do not lead to students loving a subject.

The highest level AP Physics C class also covers a large amount of material, particularly in the second semester when it dashes through many topics in Electricity and Magnetism.  Teachers do not set, but have to conform to, the AP curricula.  Once again I question the quality of learning under those conditions and suspect that very little of the material is retained after the AP exam is completed.

In conclusion, Aragon needs a good regular physics program like the previous course developed at the school over many years by a master educator.  Going straight to a supposedly college level AP physics course without first taking high school physics is mildly insane, to say the least.  Every year there are students who are interested in science but who may not yet have the problem solving maturity required by AP physics.  The elimination of the old regular physics class at Aragon has been a significant disservice to these students, and I strongly encourage the school to reverse course and bring this class back.

If they are compelled by the district to teach the NGSS curriculum, then at the very least call the old regular physics class “honors physics” and offer it separately under that name!

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

5 thoughts on “STEM Class Issues from the 2017-2018 Aragon School Year: Part 3 – Physics”

  1. I have been following your blog with interest–though I too am at the point that I no longer have a horse in the race (both my kids are now in college). This situation is distressing to me. Although I’m not an educator, my mother was a visionary physics professor at a small liberal arts college and I am sure she would be turning over in her grave if she were to read about this.

    I’m curious, too, what you think of the options offered by concurrent enrollment at CSM. Would this be a potential solution for kids who want to sidestep some of the curriculum challenges at the district? (Full disclosure: my younger son just graduated from the Middle College program.) I know it’s not for everyone.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Audrey. In the early 90s, prior to starting my MBA at Berkeley, I took a few prerequisite classes at CSM in financial and managerial accounting and micro and macroeconomics. The teachers that I had for those classes were excellent.

      That said, I have not compared the overall CSM course offerings to those of the high school district, so I just can’t say for certain if CSM can be an alternate solution to the issues that I am raising regarding our high school STEM classes. I’d prefer it if the high schools would address these issues directly.


  2. I attended Aragon a few decades ago. I took the standard physics class, taught at that time by the master teacher that you reference in your blog. I can attest to the class being an important building block for me as I continued onwards with taking physics classes in college.

    The main issue I want to point out is the fact that students who take AP Physics without prior taking regular Physics will not be adequately prepared for the SAT2 Physics test.Most of the high school AP Physics courses generally only cover roughly 1/3 of the topics that are presented in the SAT2 Physics test. For students who do wish to take the SAT2 Physics test, I presume the only way to get coverage of the other topics on the test would be to take a regular Physics course.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Jimmy. The teacher’s name was Mr. Neri. I know current faculty members at Aragon who took physics from him and said that he was great. It pains me greatly that his work is being set aside as a result of a ridiculous “state mandate.”

      Because of the recent change in the regular physics curriculum that watered the course down with earth science topics (not to mention no NGSS-aligned textbook!), too many students are now going straight into AP. It is quite a jump to go straight into college level physics without first having had a high school level course.


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