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Clues from the Classroom: Evidence of our Progress

author: Jeanne Rose Century, Mark St. John
description: Century and St. John examine and document the reform efforts in several urban districts that are participating in systemic programs to reform science education. The goal of their documentation has been to chronicle the changing stories of the schools in the context of their reform program in order to provide the leaders of these projects with an outside perspective to help them assess and reflect on the discrepancies between their theory of change and the real circumstances of the schools.

Reprinted by permission of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This article is one of 10 chapters in "Implementing Science Education Reform: Are We Making an Impact" (1997). If you would like to purchase the book from AAAS, please contact Jeff Charvat (

published in: excerpt from book from AAAS "Implementing Science Education Reform: Are We Making an Impact"
published: 1997
posted to site: 06/25/1998

Clues From the Classroom: Evidence of Our Progress1

Jeanne Rose Century and Mark St. John

Part 2 of 2

Professional Development

Just as vision and leadership contribute to the design and institutionalization of a science program, professional development is at the heart of the change process in schoolwide teaching practices. Professional development is the primary avenue through which all of the participants--the administrators, the teacher-leaders, and the other classroom teachers--can develop a common understanding of what quality science teaching and learning are and find the support they need to make the changes that reflect that understanding. The science education community recognizes the critical importance of appropriate professional development and has taken to heart what have become fundamental understandings about it. Teacher training institutes and workshops that are presented once only and "make-it and take-it" approaches that focus on discrete, showy, classroom activities are no longer sufficient for supporting quality science teaching and learning. We recognize now the importance of a diverse portfolio of professional development opportunities, for example, long-term experiences, study groups, and coaching. All must be aligned around a coherent vision. Professional development must be devised carefully, not offered as a menu of disconnected and unrelated activities.

Mrs. Laura Gorstein had been a very traditional teacher. But now she is surrounded by rocks, sand, crystals, and soil, with a teacher's guide as her only immediate source of support. She has moved her method of instruction from teacher-directed to student-directed, which is a great risk for her. However, Mrs. Gorstein is not alone as she changes her instructional style. She is supported by a professional development system that allows her the peace of mind she needs in order to take risks.

As Mrs. Gorstein directs her fourth-graders to make observations of seeds, she reminds them, "You have to write down your observations." While her students work, we ask her about the new science program. At first, her only comment is, "I don't get anything else done." But she is quick to clarify that although she is frustrated with the logistics of how to make it happen, she is exhilarated by the experience. She says with a smile and a sigh:

I'm learning with the students, and they know that. That is the only way to do it.

Mrs. Gorstein would be lost without the professional supports she is able to rely on at her school and in her school district. The administrators and lead teachers at Maple View have implemented a range of teacher supports that include group training, observations of teachers in their classrooms, and coaching. At a minimum, teachers participate in the group training sessions, which are organized by grade level. Because union rules dictate that teachers cannot be required to stay after school, the administration has arranged for the teachers to meet by grade level in the auditorium for forty-five-minute training sessions. Although these sessions are brief, they are valuable because they allow teachers to interact as a group and to receive more grade-level-focused support.

In addition to the training by grade level, the lead teachers use a variety of strategies for offering assistance. Collectively, their goal is to meet the teachers' needs not only in pedagogy and the use of materials, but also in developing their confidence to try new strategies. Mr. Jerry Weinstein, a lead teacher, explains:

The more support I give them, the more comfortable my colleagues feel about making mistakes. That is what this is about--learning to make mistakes and not being afraid to try something new.

In some cases, teachers visit the lead teachers' classrooms to observe their science lessons; in others, the lead teachers go to their colleagues' classrooms to observe them working with their own students. In addition to these formal demonstrations and coaching sessions, the lead teachers are available for informal discussions with staff at any time, even during lunch, planning periods, or after school.

While the lead teachers support the rest of the staff in using the instructional materials and developing an understanding of inquiry-based teaching and learning, the administration motivates staff to take full advantage of the lead teachers' guidance. One primary incentive (particularly for those teachers who are the most reluctant) has been to conduct one of the routine administrative observations in science. The principal, Ms. Margaret Kennedy, uses a form that provides a framework for her critique and postobservation discussions with the teachers. This approach enables teachers to understand what the principal believes are the most important components of the science lesson, and the principal can provide specific feedback on progress to each teacher who is observed. Ms. Kennedy explains:

This strategy forces teachers to improve their science instruction, but, at the same time, we believe that we are being very supportive because they know that they can call upon the lead teachers for help at any time. We want the teachers to feel that they are not on their own as they undertake this challenge.

Unfortunately, Maple View Elementary School is unusual. Engineering professional development is an enormous challenge in most schools. One of the greatest difficulties seems to be that professional development designs typically are rooted in the notion that at the end of each year, teacher-leaders o other participants in a professional development program) will be ready to take the next step--to participate in more in-depth experiences that will help them to grow and progress as leaders and science teachers. Although this reasoning seems sound, program leaders err in implementing the plans because they fail to pause and assess the needs of the administrators and teachers in the program. We have seen evidence for what should have been clear already: teachers' and administrators' needs do not always develop on the same schedule as the planned professional development program.

Adams Elementary School: Accommodating Varying Levels of Expertise and Experience

Adams Elementary School has suffered from the failure of the leaders of its school district's science education reform effort to recognize and accommodate the range of starting points that different schools and teachers have. This school is now in its second year of being a pilot school and has a team that meets once a week before the school day begins. The members of the team generate ideas such as creating a science discovery center and making trips to other schools to see what is happening in their science classes, but they never raise more important issues such as examining the schoolwide curricula, finding appropriate instructional materials, developing sound professional development systems, and building support for their attempt to reform science education. They are not aware of the critical elements that they must begin to put in place in order for their program to succeed. Initially, the districtwide reform effort offered some support but expected that future professional development agendas would emerge from the needs of the schools. Unfortunately, the school's staff does not know what professional development it needs. Staff members do not have the capacity to make those decisions yet.

Educators must find ways to create a design for professional development that includes supports for all types of participants (teachers, principals, and central office representatives). Furthermore, these supports must address the range of expertise and experience in each group. For example, in many districts, new teachers are being brought on board constantly while their veteran counterparts have long exhausted current opportunities. Designing and maintaining such a multitiered professional development system are complex challenges for school districts engaged in systemic change. The professional development program must be constructed so that it provides a variety of ways to foster growth while at the same time remaining consistent with the shared vision. And, because districts and schools always will have teachers and administrators with a range of skills, reform efforts must do more than offer a selection of professional development opportunities that vary in level of sophistication, time, focus, and strategies; they also must ensure that the availability of these supports is sustained.

Material, Logistical, and Financial Supports

The issue of "curriculum" has many facets and, often, educators approach it in a partial or fragmented manner. In some school districts, "curriculum" issues focus on alignment between the instructional materials in the school and the district's course of study. In others, it focuses on the financial support for instructional materials and the refurbishing and management of science kits. In still others, schools need systems for identifying, purchasing, distributing, sharing, maintaining, and replenishing their instructional materials. Generally, a school district engaged in systemic science education reform needs to consider all of these issues and more in order to make certain that a quality science education program is in place.

Some school districts chose to develop their own instructional materials, although most turn to commercially available, inquiry-based kits and teacher's guides. When not determined by the district, some schools employ a "mix-and-match" strategy, using kits from different companies. Other schools adopt complete programs that correspond to their particular course of study. Too often, we have seen schools engaged in systemic education science at have no money to spend on materials and that have to adopt a "science-on-a-shoe-string" or "scrounging" approach. A school district or education program that places such an expectation on a school and then does not support it at this basic level raises critical questions of political and financial support as well as of vision and leadership.

No research is necessary to know this most basic fact: schools and teachers who are expected to teach using inquiry-based approaches must be provided with the materials to do so. School districts must make sure that there is a reasonable time and assistance for organizing materials in the classroom; there is a systematic way of storing and distributing materials and making sure kits are refurbished; and, most importantly, that teachers have the time they need to teach science. Only in the rare cases where there are strong vision, leadership, and commitment to teachers with student-centered teaching strategies can schools overcome the lack of financial resources.

Thomas Jefferson Elementary School: Raising Funds to Buy Instructional Materials

As the science education reform program at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School grew, enthusiasm among the staff increased, as did the excitement of the students. But the science team still had to face the formidable challenge of providing materials for those teachers who were taking workshops and were ready to try using the curricular modules. The principal had been able to purchase three teacher's guides and kits using school funds, but they were not enough to meet the needs of the entire staff, even in the short term. Recognizing the critical role that the availability of materials could have in furthering the program's success, the science committee decided to raise money to purchase additional kits and replenish existing ones.

The approach the committee took--grass-roots fundraising--was true to the spirit at Jefferson School. On successive Saturdays, teachers, the principal, and their respective families sold concessions at baseball games to earn funds for the science program. When they had finished, this and other efforts had raised enough cash to buy one kit for each grade level.

With a basic supply of materials on hand, the team continued to develop strategies to acquire more kits. They applied for funding that would bring them closer to their goal of two kits for each grade level. Until then, they hoped that each teacher would use at least one curriculum module during the year and supplement it with other materials.

Eventually, enough grant money was obtained to provide the rest of the materials. This is a success story for Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, and, at the same time, it is a sad statement about the districtwide leadership and the district's science education reform movement. We need to recognize that there are outstanding teachers participating in federally funded reform projects who have to sell hot dogs in order to be able to buy their own instructional science materials.

Skepticism among teachers grows rapidly when there is a lack of financial support for instructional materials. This is one of the most tangible points in a reform program, where dollars link with the political messages conveyed by the school district and by reform leaders about inquiry-based science teaching. Because so many programs come and go, teachers often lower their expectations that a program will remain in a school district unless they see evidence that the district is making a financial investment in it. One teacher remarked during an interview that if school district officials really wanted him to teach this way, "they should put their money where their mouth is." In his eyes, if it was not important to the district, then it was not important to him.

Coincident with addressing the challenge of financial resources for instructional materials, school districts and schools engaged in reform also must make decisions about which materials to purchase. Schools accustomed to traditional processes for adopting textbooks and other instructional materials find that a shift to inquiry-based instructional materials requires that they reevaluate their adoption policies. Program leaders must turn their attention to district-level administrators who may not be willing to relinquish the comfort of what they know as well as to teachers who have restricted their thinking about textbook adoption to a single approach and have not shifted their criteria to those that would permit the adoption of quality, inquiry-based, "hands-on" materials. These kinds of changes in policy and practice lie at the heart of systemic change. In shifts such as these, the processes of discussion and decisionmaking are equally as important, if not more so, as the final decision.

The Waverly School: Acceptance of New Instructional Materials Through Involvement in Their Selection and Piloting

During the first year of its involvement in systemic science education reform, the Waverly School's district initiated a new process for selecting teaching materials--a districtwide instructional materials fair. The science materials on display had been narrowed by the district to four commercially published curricula. The Waverly School sent a large number of staff members who looked at the materials and evaluated each program using a checklist of criteria for inquiry-based science teaching. The Waverly team narrowed its selections to two curricular programs but realized that before they could choose a program to pilot, they needed to develop a plan for the science curricula to be used in the school.

The first step in this process was to create an overview of the available topics in the two curricular programs they had identified. The science committee developed a matrix that listed all of the modules in each of the sciences (earth, physical, and life), according to grade level. Then, using the district's curricular framework, they looked across the matrix and selected modules from the instructional programs by matching them to the districtwide objectives. A committee member, Ms. Janice Hoffman, describes the process:

We knew the topics that each of the curricular programs under consideration had developed. We looked at our grade levels, at what we had done before, and at what we wanted to do in the future. We divided these pieces into piles and then began to devise a program for the school. We developed a chart and used it to look at kindergarten through fifth grade as an educational whole to make sure that every child completing those grades will have met the requirements of the school district's syllabus.

Using this matrix, the group selected curricular modules to pilot the next fall. They invited the entire staff to participate in the pilot project but made certain to include teachers who had used inquiry-based teaching strategies. They recruited people from all grade levels and included nonregular class-room teachers (special education, bilingual specialists, reading specialists) as well. The teachers selected for the trial worked in pairs so that they could support each other and so that the district would receive comments on the modules from more than one person. After final selection of the district curricula was made and the materials arrived at the school, a cadre of teachers was in place who had invested their time and effort in piloting the curricula and who were supportive of efforts to implement it successfully.

In addition to the logistical and organizational issues related to curricula are the challenges of philosophical understandings and discrepancies. When the philosophical underpinnings of the instructional materials do not match the message of the leadership or the professional development activities, questions obviously arise about the school district's political commitment and its vision for science education. These discrepancies are not only disruptive and damaging to a science education reform effort, but also, in some cases, they can undermine the progress that has been made by suggesting to teachers that the reform is only one more in a series of ever-changing district projects.

The King School: Discrepancies between Professional Development and Instructional Materials

The professional development activity provided as part of the King School's reform program focuses on "open inquiry." However, the inquiry-based modules that are in place in the classrooms are not "inquiry" but, rather, reflect what the teachers call "guided discovery." They feel that the modules require too much direction and demonstration by the teachers and provide too little opportunity for the students to pursue their own focused investigations, as had been advocated in the teachers' professional development program. Mrs. Clarice Mansfield is one of the lead teachers who has been working with the other teachers on inquiry strategies. Her understandings of inquiry-based instruction have changed over time. She feels now that the kits the teachers must use contradict the message she has been trying to convey. She explains:

The teacher's guide that comes with the kit is saying one thing, but the teachers are doing something else. We do not want to demonstrate; we want to allow students to learn on their own, through their own experiences, which is what inquiry is all about. When the teachers are confronted with a guide that tells them step by step what they should be doing while they are learning about inquiry-based instruction in their professional development program, they know that these two things do not match.

Another lead teacher, Mr. Henry White, comments:

I feel that the kits promote teacher-directed learning. They are not inquiry-based or even "guided inquiry," which is where we are at this point. For this year, because the program is new for the teachers, it is all right for them to follow the step-by-step directions in the teacher's guides, but, for next year, I feel we should start moving teachers to much more inquiry-based science instruction.

Staff members at the King School are left with the challenge of resolving the apparent discrepancies between their instructional materials and what the teachers have learned in their professional development program. They must find ways to draw from the value of open inquiry, yet still utilize the instructional materials that are required. To some extent, their difficulty grows out of the larger issue that there are differences in understanding of the words "inquiry" and "guided discovery." As the reform program continues, the leaders must ensure that their teachers are in agreement on not only what the words mean, but also on their implications for the goals for science teaching at the school.

Political Support

Strong vision and leadership, sound professional development for teachers, and sufficient curricular materials and logistical support ought to combine to create an environment in which it is difficult not to improve the teaching of science. However, without sufficient political support, any changes that occur will not be sustained. In some cases, political support lies in the hands of the school-level administrators; in others, it is in the district office; and, in still others, it lies with the community. Everything that happens in schools is shaped by a political as well as an educational context, and until the broader system truly changes, without some assurance from those holding the political power, the future of any attempt to reform science education will not be secure.

The political events that affect reform come primarily from two sources: the turbulence that stems from continuous changes in schools, leaders, and other reforms and changes in key policies such as those that involve finance, curricular adoptions, and testing. To some extent, the overall strategy for addressing such challenges is the same: conveying successfully the vision for the reform of science education in the schools so that everyone has a clear understanding of inquiry-based science and the same expectations for reform. Beliefs about teaching and learning science must be shared widely by those in decisionmaking positions in the school system and in the community in order to build the advocacy necessary for overcoming systemic barriers. Only then can there be the willingness and the commitment that are needed to identify and change misaligned policies and practices.

Political support for the reform of science education has to be built at all levels and needs to include connections to national and statewide reform efforts, alignment with the larger agenda of the school district, and specific links with the local school community. When political support is in place, reform leaders are able to focus more effectively on the other aspects of reform that are necessary: aligning and building collective vision and leadership, planning professional development, focusing on the selection of curricula, and logistical support. Very few of the schools we visited have had sufficient political support and advocacy. More often, we have seen reform programs that cause turmoil in the school and then, because they do not have the support of strong and powerful advocates, are not sustained, leaving the school's staff jaded about the possibility of any real change.

Faulkner Elementary School: Trying to Hold On to an Identity

Faulkner Elementary School has gone through many identity changes during the last several years. Four years ago, in the first year of its science education reform effort, it was a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school. Then, it became a primary achievement magnet school for kindergarten through grade three. The following year, it returned to kindergarten through sixth grade, but, next year, it will become a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade neighborhood school. Given the frequency of these mandated shifts, it is no surprise that Faulkner Elementary School does not have an identity of its own. Although the teaching staff has remained relatively stable (more than half of the teachers have stayed at the school throughout these recent changes), they have not worked together to identify a direction for their school. They seem to have learned to take the reforms as they come, work with them when they are present, bid them farewell when they leave, and make room for the next one that "comes down the road." Science education reform has not been sustainable in these choppy waters. As a teacher explains:

You only have to be in the district five years or so to become weary of the changes. By the time you get involved in a project, the person who suggested it is gone, and the project comes to an end.

Faulkner's difficulties are not unique. Many schools feel the effects of the "here-today-and-gone-tomorrow" syndrome of many reforms, which leave them with fragmented understandings of the reform movement and cynicism about administrators' commitment to it. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that science education reform efforts suffer. Even when all of the other components are firmly and strongly in place, lack of political support can be the downfall of a school's science program. Two years ago Bridge Elementary School was a shining example of progress in the reform of science education. Now, it is a sad specimen of the absence of sustained political support.

Bridge Elementary School: A Successful Endeavor Lost Without Political Support

It is science time for Ms. Carol Waterhouse's second-grade class. They have come to the science room, which has a bank of computers on one side and science materials, books, and posters on the other. The students split into two groups. Half of the class works with a computer specialist and the other students join Ms. Waterhouse and an aide on the science side to continue with the inquiry-based science module started the day before. The children divide themselves among three tables and settle into their seats quickly.

Ms. Waterhouse stands at the front of the room and begins the class by placing her fingers on her throat. The children listen carefully as she speaks in a whisper. She asks them to do the same thing. Placing their hands on their throats, the second-graders turn to the members of their group and speak very quietly. Their whispers, interspersed with giggles, raise a buzz in the room. Ms. Waterhouse interrupts them and puts her hand on her throat once more. She explains that this time they will all make an "aah" sound and slowly make it louder.

The children notice that the vibrations from the louder sounds are easier to feel than the vibrations from the quieter sounds. Ms. Waterhouse encourages them to continue exploring and comparing the differences. As they discuss what they have discovered, she asks them open-ended questions in order to help them think more carefully about the relationship between vibration and volume and what conclusions they might make. After the large group discussion, the students work in small groups to explore this relation-ship with additional materials and to record their observations. This is a science lesson that would make any advocate of discovery-oriented science proud.

The director of special programs at Bridge Elementary School, Ms. Claire Burkholtz, is with us. She turns to us and makes a surprising remark: "Actually, this teacher does not like to teach science."

How could a teacher who dislikes teaching science have carried out a discovery-oriented lesson so well? A veteran educator who uses traditional teaching methods, Ms. Waterhouse followed the teacher's guide and con-ducted the science lesson literally "by the book." She implemented the activity described in the guide carefully and asked the suggested, open-ended questions. As a teacher who "does not like to teach science," her exemplary lesson reflected the progress that the science program has made at her school. She comments:

I want to be excited; I am trying. I was never strong in science. I had a science teacher in the seventh grade who was horrible and I hated the class. I do not want to do that to my students. That is why I have to be excited by what I am teaching. If I do not want to teach science, I will convey my negative feelings to my students.

The staff at Bridge Elementary School was able to remove many of the barriers that stand in the way of the successful implementation of "hands-on," inquiry-based science programs such as insufficient training, materials, space, time, and support. With a simple effective plan and financial assistance from a grant, the teachers have been relieved of logistical concerns, allowing them to concentrate on methodology, questioning, and other more important aspects of their teaching. To some extent, Bridge Elementary School has created a "halfway house" for teaching science. The school provides the materials that the teachers need and uses additional grant funds to employ a science aide who prepares all of the materials and papers that the students need and has them ready when the class arrives in the science room. The science aide's assistance is more than logistical; she knows the lessons and is familiar with what works well and what could go wrong. She is a valuable support for the teachers.

Another important support provided by the school's principal is the physical arrangement of the science room and the scheduling of class time. The room is set up so that a teacher works with only half of a class at a time. (Remember that one half of Ms. Waterhouse's class at Bridge Elementary School worked with the computer specialist, while the other half worked on its science lesson.) Also, each teacher is scheduled into the room at least twice a week. Time for science has been created for the Bridge Elementary School staff in such a way that it is difficult not to use it.

Two years after this visit, the science program at Bridge Elementary School had gone. The science room was used no more, the special programs coordinator and the science aide had assumed regular classroom responsibilities, and both the principal and the lead teacher had been transferred to another school, all for politically related reasons. At the time of our visit, this school promised to be one of the most successful in the districtwide program. Every component needed for reforming the teaching and learning of science was in place and thriving, with the exception of the political support needed to retain the key leaders and resources. Without attention to the importance of consistency and sustainability, a school that seems well positioned one year can be devastated by district-imposed changes the next.


Is it possible to achieve widespread, sustainable, quality, science instruction that makes an impact on schools? Our experience suggests that the answer to that question is, "Yes, but with reservations." Yes, we have visited schools that have been successful in changing their science education programs, but it is important to remember that most of the districtwide science education reform programs we examined represented the best attempts so far, and the schools that we selected were the "best cases." Schools like Thomas Jefferson elementary are rare gems, and the efforts of its teachers and administrators to reform science instruction are nothing short of heroic. They should be recognized and applauded. However, when we turn to these schools for evidence that what they are doing is connected to, caused by, or, in turn, influencing the larger systemic effort, it is difficult to find.

Schools that have made progress are those that have been able to bring all of the components of science education reform together--vision and leadership, professional development for their teachers and administrators; material, logistical, and financial supports; and political support. Ultimately, reform is an engineering effort. If all of these components are in place and growing, it is difficult not to have improved science teaching. But the schools that have succeeded had a strong infrastructure that preceded their science education reform program. They were well positioned to take advantage of the program once it arrived. The programs themselves rarely invest enough time, effort, and money to achieve schoolwide synthesis.

As evaluators and researchers, it is our responsibility to portray accurately what is and is not happening in the schools we have observed. At this point we can conclude only that real change across an education system will require sustained thorough efforts of a kind that we have yet to see. Many reform programs make worthwhile contributions to the professional growth of individual teachers and to aspects of the development of individual schools, but such contributions are not sufficient to move to extensive districtwide reform. Often, we have not found deep and sustainable change; rather, we have seen teachers and students who do not have sufficient support or who are caught up in the crosscurrents of competing reforms. We have seen educators and their practice change, but they have been left without the capacity to ensure that change continues.

Part of the difficulty may lie in a superficial approach to systemic change. In the communities we have visited, if the education system really had changed (or was in the process of changing), the issues that we found as barriers to the schools' progress should not have been there. But they were, perhaps because the schools were attempting to change in one area, science, while the larger education system remained the same. By having programs that attempt to reform science education using a systemic approach, we limit ourselves and sometimes create a contradiction that we may recognize intellectually but not in practice; namely, that science education cannot be separated from the greater education system in which it operates. "Science" should not define the limits of the area of operation for those engaged in school or school district reform efforts, only the point of entry.

Another challenge, which we may fail to recognize readily, lies in the roles that we ourselves play in the education system that we are trying to change. Evaluators, like all members of the science education community, are eager to see their programs succeed and to see changes that benefit students. Because our roles provide us with opportunities to interact directly with people at all levels of the system--particularly those in the classroom--we are often the first to see that the progress we had hoped to make has not taken hold. Perhaps because evaluators spend time in classrooms, others (project leaders, central office personnel, school administrators, and the like) tend not to. As we consider changing the education system, we also might consider changing ourselves as part of that system and changing the ways in which we typically do our jobs.

In viewing roles in conventional ways, educators limit themselves and sometimes rationalize their inability to make more substantial progress. We need to recognize that science education reform programs are not creating the intensive and extensive movements into the education system that must be in place in order for the work to be sustained. Reform leaders succeed partway and then make excuses for halted progress by focusing on how far they have come: "Yes, it's true there are insufficient professional development sup-ports, but the teachers are trying so hard; they are coming along...." or "Yes, it's true they have no instructional materials from the district, but they are doing so well with what they have been able to find on their own." Inside classrooms, the reality of the true lack of progress (despite outside appearances) is undeniable: "Yes, it's true they have a team, materials, and professional development, but they don't understand what good science teaching is."

We are gaining a collective knowledge base about what it takes to have sustainable and widespread reform of science education. Concurrently, we are realizing that the capacities required to bring about real change do not exist yet and that they must be developed. There are no shortcuts and no leveraging of funds, whereby small investments can bring about widespread changes. Nevertheless, we continue to have unreasonable, traditionally driven expectations for our reform efforts. We continue to think about reform as a single project, whereby we expect change to occur in relatively short amounts of time; we continue to implement programs without sufficient commitment from all of the collaborators; and we continue to use financial resources in traditional ways. The goals we set are not only unrealistic, but also they are counterproductive because they distract from focusing on more planned, reasonable, long-term strategies.

Too often, effective systemic reform work is not recognized by the constituencies that it serves--educators, funders, researchers, and others--as a contribution to the long-term improvement of the education system. Instead, it is judged a failure because the ultimate objective, improved learning experiences for students, has not been achieved yet. We know that real change takes a long time; we know that we must work systemically and collaboratively; and we are learning that a series of critical elements must be in place. But, ultimately, success becomes a matter of will, as well as knowledge. We have not found yet the time, the patience, and the commitment----the will--to act on that knowledge. Although we are beginning to know better what needs to be done, we seem to continue to exempt ourselves from what we require of our schools--a commitment to abandon traditional expectations and practice. We have come halfway; if we are serious about improving science education, we need to undertake the rest of the journey. Only then will we see schools like Thomas Jefferson Elementary, with whose story we began this chapter, in every neighborhood.


  1. All of the examples in this chapter are drawn from our collective experiences while working in several urban school districts over the last four years. The names of the teachers and the schools have been changed.

  2. The National Science Foundation defines systemic reform as a process of educational reform based on the premise that achieving excellence and equity requires alignment of critical activities and components. It is as much a change in infrastructure as in outcomes. Central elements include high standards for learning expected from all students; alignment among all of the parts of the system--policies, practices, and accountability mechanisms; a change in governance that includes greater school site flexibility; greater involvement of the public and the community; a closer link between formal and informal learning experiences; enhanced attention to professional development; and increased articulation between the precollege and postsecondary education institutions. (National Science Foundation, 1996, p. 5)

  3. The definitions for inquiry vary among groups. For our purposes, we will use a definition from the National Science Education Standards. "Inquiry...refers to activities, facilitated by their teachers, through which students develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world. Inquiry. . . involves making observations, posing questions, examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known, planning investigations, reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence, proposing answers and explanations, and communicating the results." (National Research Council, 1996, p. 23)


Division of Research, Evaluation and Communication, Directorate for Education and Human Resources. 1996. The learning curve: What we are discovering about U.S. science and mathematics, edited by L. Suter. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation.

National Research Council. 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

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