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Supporting and Understanding Sustainability of Local Systemic Change

author: Joni Falk, Brian Drayton
published: 09/28/2000
posted to site: 09/28/2000

Supporting and Understanding Sustainability of Local Systemic Change
A research and development project at TERC, Inc.

Joni Falk, Principal Investigator
Brian Drayton, Principal Investigator

In 1994, the NSF launched its Local Systemic Change initiative, which now includes more than 70 projects across the country. The LSC program provides 5 years of financial support for district-level projects as they implement a unique reform strategy targeting teacher enhancement around innovative math or science curricula, supported by administrative changes and community partnerships. Since 1998, LSC-Net has provided additional support, helping projects learn from each other in multiple ways, through sharing of resources, discussions, queries and replies, and activities before, during, and after the annual LSC PI conferences.

In the year 2000, the first cohort of these projects are completing their NSF funding. As successive cohorts reach the end of their NSF funding cycle they will have no formal connection with the LSC community. At a time when these post-funded LSCs need to define and implement their vision of sustainability, they are distanced from the yearly PI conferences, as well as resources, dialogue, and other substantive support that colleagues have provided largely through LSC-Net.

Some critical questions that face these post-funded projects are: [1] What is our vision of sustainability? How does this vision get transformed as circumstances in the system change? [2] What are the strategies and tactics for implementation of this vision? [3] What are promoters and inhibitors of sustainability? These questions, which are of practical importance for each PI of a project approaching the end of NSF support, are also of great interest to researchers trying to understand the nature and fate of systemic reform of science and mathematics education.

We proposed, and NSF has funded, a 3-year project that will provide continued access for post-funded LSC projects to LSC-NET, design and facilitate an annual electronic conference around issues of sustainability for post-funded projects and those nearing the end of their funding cycle, and conduct collaborative research with staff of post-funded projects on aspects of sustainability. Each of the three initiatives - access, virtual conference, and collaborative research - are interdependent.

The three main objectives of this project are:

  • to continue to provide a support mechanism to projects after their funding ends by allowing them full access to the activities hosted on LSC-NET as well as providing expanded access to enhance intra as well as inter-project communication;
  • to create the additional functionality for, and implement, an annual electronic conference on issues related to sustainability;
  • to conduct collaborative research on what "sustainability" actually means for LSC projects who are operating within a larger systemic context, what factors promote and inhibit sustainability, and what elements of projects are most likely to be sustained.

This project will benefit three main constituencies:

  1. The proposed project is aimed primarily towards the constituency of recently "graduated" PIs and lead staff of LSC projects
  2. A second constituency is the currently funded LSC projects. These projects will benefit from lessons gained from the experience from the post-funded projects. These projects will also benefit from technical innovations to the LSC-net system developed for the post-funded projects
  3. A third constituency benefiting from this project will be the research community, which has a growing interest in models of systemic reform and its sustainability, and yet has a paucity of data on these topics

    Currently we envision that the project activities will move forward in three concurrent strands:

    Strand 1: Continued access with additional, targeted functionality

    We will provide continued access and support to members of post-funded projects who are currently members of LSC-Net. In addition, we expect that post-funded project will be invited to add new colleagues, such as teacher-leaders, to the site.

    A. Current LSC staff will stay on LSC-Net post-funding with full privileges, including the weekly e-mail notification of what is new, and technical support. Post-funded projects will thereby keep access to the resources posted on the site, can participate in discussions, can post and read nuggets, queries and replies, e-mail other participants through the site, and read materials from the annual PI LSC conference.

    B. Post-funded projects will eventually be able to add new colleagues from their districts, such as teacher-leaders. Because of the technical work required to accommodate a larger community with new constituencies, we will phase this feature in.

    Strand 2: Virtual conference

    During their NSF funding, LSC principal investigators have participated in an annual PI meeting where they have shared work and discussed issues with colleagues. The meetings are augmented by discussions, queries, and the posting of best practices that were shared on LSC-Net both before and after the conference. Post-funded PIs will no longer be able to participate in such a conference. We propose to create a virtual conference that would include a keynote address, discussions, on-line focus groups and a virtual poster session hall in which all participants would both present, browse and interact with each other. The conference will be hosted over a six-week stretch of time. The virtual conference is primarily intended for post-funded projects. However, we will also invite projects who have completed their last summer workshop but who still have funding to take part. The lessons learned from the conference will be shared with all members of the LSC-Net community including projects that are just beginning.

    Strand 3. Collaborative Research on Sustainability

    We will conduct collaborative research with participating PIs and lead staff who are still involved with their districts post-funding. It is not our purpose to do classroom evaluations, to rate the quality of lessons, or to track details of professional development projects. It is rather to explore with PIs involved in a long-term systemic reform effort what sustainability can look like within a systemic context. From this initial data, we will be able to formulate hypotheses about successful sustainability models. We will work closely with one or two contact people within each project who will contract with us to provide data for our study; we anticipate that these people will usually be one or more of the PIs of the LSC projects, with preference given to PIs located in the school districts. Participating PIs will be compensated for their time in providing this information.

    Our initial research questions include the following: We have the following initial research questions, although others may emerge over the course of the study.

    • Visions of reform and visions of sustainability. How does each project describe what it hopes to sustain? For example, do they focus on one or more of such elements as an enhanced teacher population, changes in administrative or collaborative structures, new program elements added to district or school routines, and processes to maintain reform momentum?
    • Plans for sustainability. What are the projects' plans for implementing their vision of sustainability, and what are their reflections on their plans during the following years?
    • Promoters and inhibitors. What factors within the system and outside the system (as defined by the original scope of the LSC during funding) promote and inhibit sustainability as originally envisioned?
    • Transfer and transformation. In what ways do the LSC-based reforms shape subsequent reforms undertaken within the system? In what ways are the LSCs' visions of reform transformed by their experience during the study period?

    An important aspect of the research we will be conducting will be its value in enriching the LSC community's understanding of the process of sustainability. Therefore, results of the research (preserving anonymity of individual respondents) will be shared with the community at large through digests, reports, and archives of the virtual poster presentation. They will also be shared with the research community and with NSF through the writing of research papers to be submitted to professional journals concerned with educational reform in science and math.

    The project has just been funded to begin in Sept. 2000. We will be communicating in the near future with LSCs whose NSF-funded activities are coming to an end, to discuss their continued membership in LSC-net, and their participation in our low-impact, collaborative research plan. If you are a project in your last year of funding, or if your project has recently ended, you will be hearing from us shortly, and we look forward to communicating with you about this new work.