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Local Systemic Change Network: From Policy to Enactment

author: Joni Falk, Brian Drayton
submitter: LSC-Net - Local Systemic Change Network
published: 07/08/1999
posted to site: 07/09/1999

Local Systemic Change Network: From Policy to Enactment

Joni Falk and Brian Drayton
TERC, Inc. 2067 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140 USA


LSC-Net (Local Systemic Change Network) is an electronic community funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).(1) It connects the 65 projects currently funded across the country under NSF's Local Systemic Change program. Each of these projects aims to systemically reform mathematics or science education at the district level. Membership on LSC-Net is limited to principal investigators, lead staff and evaluators: the senior staff who are responsible for the design and success of these Local Systemic Change projects (LSCs).

LSC-Net is a project at TERC, Inc., a nonprofit educational research and development institution in Cambridge, MA. The LSC-Net site is not intended as a tool to assess the effectiveness of these projects and is not used by NSF for accountability purposes. Rather it designed as a vehicle for enabling reflection, sharing of resources, best practices, queries and discussions among the leaders of the LSC projects. Furthermore, the project is funded for 5 years, thus enabling a longitudinal view of the community it serves.

It therefore provides an interesting lens on the struggles, challenges, roadblocks, and successes of those in the midst of an evolving reform effort designed to change math and science at the district level, where policy directives are translated into local structures and practices (Fullan 1991, Darling-Hammond 1990). The site provides many insights to those who are trying to implement policy. The issues discussed on the site are less theoretical and more "applied" in tone. The discussions represent the sense making of each project as they address issues of professional development, curriculum implementation and materials support, engaging parents and the public, student assessment, and policy issues.

Before turning to the modes of collaboration and topics of discussion being addressed on this site, it is important to understand the emergence and nature of systemic reform efforts, and of the Local Systemic Change projects.

The Landscape of Educational Reform in the United States and the Emergence of Systemic Change Initiatives

The current wave of systemic reform initiatives in the United States rests on a series of less comprehensive reform efforts in mathematics and science education over the last four decades. These earlier reforms tended to emphasize one aspect of the reform such as curriculum innovation, instructional change, assessment strategies, or teacher development programs. By the late 1980s policy makers began to conclude that correcting discrete aspects of a system often failed and in fact conflicted with other reforms being put into play. The late 1980s gave birth to a series of systemic reform initiatives that were aimed at aligning curriculum frameworks, curricula materials, pedagogical instruction, and assessment throughout an entire system. (Knapp, 1997)

The first wave of these systemic reforms was implemented at the state level with the National Science Foundation's State Systemic Initiatives (SSIs). Twenty-five states were awarded large, multi-year grants to reform teacher preparation, curriculum selection, and assessment systems. Shortly thereafter the NSF created programs for Urban and Rural systemic initiatives.

The most recent round of systemic reform initiatives, begun in 1994, has targeted a school district, or groups of districts, as the unit of change. These grants are known as Local Systemic Change Projects (LSCs). As distinct from the State, Urban, and Rural Systemic Initiatives, the LSCs are funded by the division of NSF known as Teacher Enhancement. As such, its emphasis is strongly placed on providing professional development. Yet the program differs from other teacher enhancement initiatives in that LSCs are expected reach all math and or science teachers at a given grade level throughout a district. In addition the professional development is to be aligned with instructional materials.

Currently there are 65 funded LSC projects. Each of these projects reaches between 48 and 2,500 teachers per year and provides at least 130 hours of professional development to each teacher. LSCs have been awarded to urban, rural and suburban districts. Their professional development strategies include the extensive use of teacher leaders, summer workshops in the use of specific curricula and pedagogical approaches, ongoing professional development support during the year, and resource rooms for hands-on materials.

In order to understand the experimental nature of the LSC program, and the importance of LSC-Net, it is important to understand a fundamental feature of educational reform in the United States. Despite the fact that the NCTM (National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics) developed Curriculum and Evaluation Standards in 1989 and the National Research Council developed Science Education Standards in 1995 the United States continues to adhere to a decentralized philosophy of educational reform. While many states have been strongly influenced by the above documents, each state is free to develop its own state curriculum frameworks and assessment exams. These national math and science standards were meant to set a national agenda but are not written as prescriptive guides to curriculum implementation. (Donmoyer 1995, cited in Knapp 1997) From the point of view of practice, the general nature of the reform documents ensure that districts will vary greatly in their practice. "From one perspective such vagueness in the policy's language is a strength: It may broaden the appeal of the reform movement allowing recruits of rather different persuasions to join what they imagine to be the same parade…From another perspective, such vagueness is a defect… After collecting varied and even contrary tendencies under a single banner, the parade may become a melee." (Cohen and Ball 1990)

Although the district is a more reasonable unit of measure to affect systemic change than an entire state, the district is subject to the political pressures and external assessments that are imposed by the state. A recent trend has been towards the development of statewide, high stakes assessments (Texas, California, New York and Massachusetts) which hold districts, superintendents and teachers accountable for student performance. The results of these tests are being used to determine student graduation requirements. They have recently been used to justify the firing of superintendents (NY), and to assess teachers' salary increases. These high-stakes exams make it impossible for a given district to act independently from the state.

California is an excellent example of a state which has recently adopted a conservative educational reform agenda towards mathematics education. There are 12 Local Systemic Change projects in this state. Many of these efforts now need to address how to remain faithful to a vision that is no longer supported by the state policy agenda. One is reminded of the builder of a sandcastle facing the incoming tide: will these LSCs be able to sustain an independent vision when it differs from that of the state?

While the LSCs have spelled out structural coherence for the reform such as 130 hours per year for 100 teachers, or partnerships, and alignment with instructional materials, the actual content of the professional development has been left vaguely defined. It is up to each LSC to determine the content, focus and emphasis on curricular content and pedagogy as well as to define a model in which the reform can spread to all teachers within the district.

Hence the implementers of these Local Systemic Change projects face a multitude of challenges. While the current systemic reform effort is extremely complex and ambitious it is vague and underspecified. While each LSC needs to provide professional development, the content of this professional development will vary from district to district and from State to State. While the district may be an appropriate unit of change it can not escape the high stakes assessments being imposed by the State.

Yet despite these challenges 65 current Local Systemic Change projects are attempting to make a difference for a district. While each LSC needs to deal with their own State and local situations, many of their challenges are common. These are the challenges of implementation. Each LSC is dealing with how to most effectively create wide-scale change that will sustain itself once the period of NSF funding ends. All of the LSCs are seeking effective methods for increasing teachers' content knowledge and useful models for teacher leadership. They are all seeking ways to build administrative and parental support for the reform and to create effective partnerships with scientists, universities and the business community. These are questions that move beyond policy documents to the work of implementation. These are questions that can best be answered by others who are involved in similar efforts. Yet typically there is no forum for such discussion to take place. LSC-Net was developed to create such a forum.

The Emergence of LSC-Net

Local Systemic Change Network (LSC-Net) was created in September of 1998 to promote collaboration and sharing among the LSC projects. It connects all funded LSC projects. While there are currently 65 projects it is anticipated that this program will continue to grow. The LSC-Net site has 550 members all of who play leadership roles on their projects. During the last ten months all of the projects have used the site. On average 49.5 of the 65 projects will use the site during a given four week period.

The most active usage of the site is during the periods preceding and following the annual Principal Investigators' conference. Prior to the annual conference the site is used in order to disseminate preparatory materials for the conference, to conduct pre-conference electronic discussions, and to register for the conference. At the conference itself, more than a dozen computer stations are provided in order to facilitate training on the use of the site and to promote ongoing electronic dialogue. Highlights of the conference and transcribed addresses are provided on the site following the conference to enable sharing with the many leaders that are not able to attend this face-to-face event.

Beyond the conference, LSC-Net provides a vehicle for dialogue continuing throughout the year. The three major services that the site provides is that it is a vehicle for communication and dialogue, it is a repository for shared resources, and it is an archive of both individual projects and of the effort as a whole.

Precursors to electronic collaboration

In order to promote sharing between projects one has to first make projects aware of each other and create a method that individuals can locate other leaders with common interests and concerns. Second, there needs to be a safe environment for the asking of queries and a mechanism for these queries and replies to be shared with the broader community. There needs to be a place for sustained dialogue about topics of concern to the community.

Last, there needs to be the expectation that not all dialogue is active. In conversations, or meetings there are always those who choose to speak and those who prefer to listen. There needs to be a way for participants to listen to and learn from the conversation of others without necessarily needing to post to the dialogue.

LSC-Net as a vehicle for communication and dialogue

Who's Who: If awareness of other projects' aims, interests, and goals precedes effective communication then it is critical to have an informative database with information on the projects as well as contact information for the individual staff members who lead the projects. The Who's Who section of the LSC site is an interactive database, which allows members to automatically update their information from a distance. In addition it provides a mechanism to search project and staff information. A quick search of the database, for instance, reveals that 16 projects are using the Insights Curriculum. Once this search has been done the user can e-mail all of these projects and ask a particular question pertaining to the implementation of this curriculum. This query will be sent to the e-mail addresses of participants and further communication will most likely take place via e-mail rather than on the site. Yet the site facilitated this initial communication and in fact allows members who have no e-mail address to send mail through the site.

Queries, Replies and Nuggets: This area of the site allows the user to read and submit queries and replies, nuggets (best practices or good ideas) or announcements of general interest on the bulletin board.

When we began to facilitate this forum we asked projects to share best practices ("nuggets") around topics of professional development, curriculum implementation, and assessment practices. We found that while projects began to post such nuggets they were uncertain when such an idea would be helpful to another project. They were unsure of the "size" that these nuggets should be. Should they be small implementation tips such as how to keep science kits refurbished or should they be large ideas such as a model for teacher leadership. In response to this concern we developed a new functionality called Queries and Replies. In this area project leaders could put forth a query to their peers and if they preferred they could do so anonymously. The query and its replies would appear on the site, visible to all readers to learn from. In addition, the initiator of the query would receive an automatic notification to their e-mail informing them that their query had received a reply. We found that this notification was important in "calling people back" to the site.

The query section allowed people to begin to discuss basic issues of implementation. These are the questions that a leader may be shy to ask thinking that the answer may be obvious, but in fact district-wide systemic reform is an experiment in progress. Some of the queries that were posted include:

We are interested in what types of professional development sessions have had the most impact for principals?

What has been the experience of the projects with the percentages of teachers who readily adopt the new program as opposed to those who are resisters?

How does you project train the "lead teachers?

How have you encouraged high school or middle school districts who are piloting or have adopted a standards-based curriculum for a subset of its students to move to a larger implementation?"

How has your project dealt with parents who would like to see a return "to the basics?"

What are some strategies for gaining support of experienced teachers who are approaching retirement and who are reluctant to invest the time to make the necessary major changes to teach inquiry-centered science?

How do you sustain teacher involvement in multiyear projects and specifically after the workshop ends?

Each agency (school board, State Department of Education, NSF) has changing expectations for student outcomes in math and science. What are successful strategies for maintaining consistency and alignment over a five year period?

We are beginning a K-5 mathematics adoption. I am seeking feedback from you regarding any recently adopted materials you are using. If you have adopted new materials in the last few years, please send the following information:
The series - What primary text materials do you use? Publisher? Teacher Feedback - Have teachers been satisfied with the program? The Students - Have you been able to see any measurable gains in student achievement as a result of the new program? The publisher - Are you satisfied with the publisher's end of the order?

Discussion Groups: While Nuggets, and Queries and Replies, enable the sharing of specific types of information, they do not support the same purpose as having an in-depth discussion about a topic of interest. During the course of the past year LSC-Net has conducted several moderated discussion groups. They have included:

  • From Professional Development to Student Outcomes: A discussion on the merits of assessing professional development efforts with student outcomes on external assessments.
  • Student assessment: Identifying and measuring impacts on students
  • Middle school curriculum reform: What is your growing edge?
  • Preparing for the summer workshop -- Questions, advice, and discussion about fitting in the pedagogy, content, and logistics
  • Lead Teachers and Teacher Leadership
  • Designing classroom based assessments and using them in professional development

Discussions typically last from 6 to 8 weeks. These discussions can be read on the site or members can subscribe to have each message forwarded to their e-mail account. We have found that more individuals sign up to "listen" to the discussion than those who actually post to the discussion. Our past research has indicated that those who read the discussion (and do not post) tend to share the content with their colleagues and find it equally useful for their work as those who post. (Falk et al. 1997) These discussions are asynchronous and therefore allow participants time for reflection before replying. The tenor of the discussions has been open and honest often opening up more questions than easy answers. Such is the case in a discussion on teacher leadership. The excerpts from this discussion presented below, show the value of an electronic community in helping implementers of reform reflect on policy.

In the most recent request for new LSC proposals from NSF, the guidelines state: Not all teachers need the same type of professional development, nor will all professional development require the same amount of NSF support… strategies may vary by investing heavily in development of mentors or lead teachers or in providing additional resources to strengthen content background of under-prepared teachers.

Indeed many of the LSCs have invested in a strategy to develop mentors, or teacher leaders, within their districts. Although the label seems clear it becomes apparent in the discussion group on teacher leadership that the actual meaning of "teacher leader" varies significantly between projects. While some projects have a half dozen trained teacher leaders other districts have over two hundred. While some teacher leaders are also full time classroom teachers, other projects have "freed" the leaders "from classroom teaching and serve full-time as professional developers for their colleagues."

Yet as these projects begin to talk they realize that several face common problems. One lead evaluator of an LSC writes:

In most of my conversations with teachers about leadership at their schools, they tell me that they are not sure how to interact with their colleagues as a "leader" or a "coordinator…

The idea of teacher leadership has puzzled me for a while. It seems to me, from some interviews with teachers in LSC projects, that a lot of school contexts do not have collaborative environments and that the "lead" teachers have to create ways to interact with their colleagues. These kinds of professional interactions are quite new to the teachers and have to be constructed as the teachers engage more in a leadership capacity in his/her school or district. For example, if the teachers are not used to talking about or analyzing classroom practice, then when they try to engage in conversations about pedagogy they don't have the language to discuss this with their colleagues.

Also, the idea of being a leader is unwelcomed by some teachers I've talked with because it sets them apart from their colleagues (even if you don't use the label leader) so they have to figure out how to they can represent themselves to their colleagues strategically to avoid the status problems. This is well-documented in the professional development literature, but we seem to be facing it all over again in our project.

These are just some observations. I would be curious to know what the teachers in other projects say about their leadership roles within their school settings.

This sentiment seems to resonate with some teacher leaders who have been given access to the site through their Principal Investigator. One teacher leader writes:

As elementary teachers, we feel the need for more science content. However, in this position, we also need more professional development in how to work with adults and adult learning.

Another teacher leader responds:

We are released from the classroom and located in an office or some reasonable facsimile.

It is amazing how the teachers with whom you taught, suddenly begin to treat you as they would an administrator. Many teachers are uncomfortable when another adult is present while they teach.

It does no good to tell your colleagues that you are not evaluating them. Since you are no longer a classroom teacher, then you must be an administrator. You've crossed that line; you've gone to the other side.

You're certainly not an administrator, but you are no longer a classroom teacher. You're somewhere in between, a "tweener." Your goal is to help teachers do what they do better--teach.

This position can be very effective, but the process of having teachers accept you as a resource and not a source to be avoided is very slow.

As the discussion continues it appears that the issue of feeling on the "outside" seems to be exacerbated for those teachers who have not maintained their contact with the classroom. Yet, teachers who are fully committed to their classrooms do not have the time or the structure to communicate with their peers.

Another issue that arises is that exemplary teachers are not always ready to assume a leadership role with other adults and may be hesitant about running professional workshops for others. One Principal Investigator writes:

We had originally intended to have them (teacher leaders) lead some of the discussion groups and such, but are finding so many of them that are fantastic in the classroom, but reluctant to lead any sort of discussion or workshop. Though we intended to have a lead teacher institute, we seem to have more work ahead of us to make sure each is very comfortable with their role and to be certain that nothing we ask of them is beyond what they feel equipped to presently do.… It was anticipated that lead teachers after using the kits would begin to feel comfortable taking on this role. That has not yet happened to the degree we had thought. Any suggestions?

Another PI whose project is in its second year responds:

It is our experience that many teachers need at least two years teaching a new curriculum before they are comfortable assuming significant teacher leadership roles. The confidence to express what is working well in one's own classroom is rooted in substantial experience. This is what gives teacher leader potential credibility with other colleagues who are skeptical about change.

We are in the second year of our program and we have an emerging core of 10 teacher leaders. All of them are in at least their second year of working with the new curriculum. Several have taught it for 3 or 4 years. It seems necessary for a teacher to have a significant personal foundation in the new tasks before they are comfortable standing before others advocating a new approach and direction.

Teacher leadership is but one of the many issues that implementers of LSCs must deal with. Other such issues which have no "one answer" include how to engage parents in the reform effort, how to "stay the course" of reform when high stake tests come into play, how to balance professional development courses between pedagogy and assessment, how to effectively provide teachers with increased content knowledge. The leaders of these LSC projects are building this field collectively; systemic change of all kinds is inherently experimental (Knapp 1997, Page 1995). They will know more than anyone else about the frustrations and successes of partnerships, of attempting to reach every teacher, of curriculum implementation, and of creating a coherent vision for a school system. Moderated discussions such as the one exemplified above provides individual support for projects and the perspective that the problem that they are dealing with is largely shared. In the midst of a different discussion on middle school reform, one PI remarks:

The only comfort that this discussion has offered is that the problems we have had with involving middle school in our K-8 program are clearly very similar to those faced throughout the country. Perhaps then the solutions when we find them, will be similar!

LSC-Net as a resource:

Sharing across projects takes many forms. As we expressed above there are those who feel comfortable posting to an active discussion group and others who prefer to read. Still there are other members who prefer to use the site mostly as a collective resource. The resources on LSC-Net include the electronic posting of useful papers about systemic reform, links to relevant websites on mathematics and science reform, schedule of upcoming conferences, and information about curriculum materials. These materials are submitted by members of the site and creates a shared, virtual resource room for all of the LSC projects.

LSC-Net as an archive:

Each of the LSC projects are funded for three to five years, and new LSCs are awarded each year. It is critical that projects learn from their early experiences and that new projects have a way to garner the experiences of the veteran projects. The Reports from the Field section of the site enables this type of archiving of a major reform to take place. This area of the site contains summaries of each projects' annual report which documents their progress and learning to date. In addition members of the LSC projects submit research that they are writing about their own project as well as news clippings that have appeared about their own LSC. Most LSCs conduct summer workshops for their teachers. The site collects descriptions of each projects summer workshop so that new projects can learn from the workshops of past years. In addition each submission to the site is linked to the submitters e-mail address so that further queries can be easily sent (directly through the site) from an interested reader to the submitter.

Lessons Learned about Electronic Communities

As LSC-Net has evolved as a tool to facilitate conversations it has learned several important lessons that might be of value to other sites promoting active collaboration. First it has been positive for the project to combine the electronic community with opportunities for this community to meet in person at an annual PI conference. Being able to "put a face" to the people who you are communicating with is important. In addition, the conference allowed a personal time for people to learn how to use the site, for example, how to search and update their database entries, or how to submit entries to the site. Second, it has been helpful to connect site functionality to e-mail notification, so when a query is answered the user receives a notification by e-mail to check the site. In addition we send weekly bulletins to all members detailing what is new on the site. Third, developing a collegial tenor, with "low stakes," is critical in order to encourage members to speak honestly about challenges and to ask queries. Allowing anonymous posts and establishing that this site would not be used for accountability were also important in establishing this climate of trust. Last, in evaluating effectiveness of the site we have learned not to only look to those who post, but also to examine the site's value to those who read and use it as a resource.


The dialogue about how to implement a reform, how to involve parents and administrators; how to develop effective leadership structures that will allow the reform to spread; how to implement reforms that are most easily implemented in the classroom, is critical, because it is in the dialogue that the implications, roadblocks, and successes of the reform are discovered.

If our reform demands the development of problem solving strategies, reflective dialogue, and collaboration from our students and teachers, must we not provide a learning community where this can take place for implementers as well? Policies such as systemic reform are ambitious, complex, and burdened with competing reform agendas. It is critical to create an environment for those who are charged with implementing the reform to make sense of it. "Much has been written about educational policy, but little has been written about how policy educates." (Cohen and Barnes 1993) LSC-Net provides an opportunity for this sense making to occur.


1. This work is supported by an NSF grant ESI-9812831.   Back


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