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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 1 of 2

Ms. Rita Thomas's classroom is filled with the manipulatives, activities, and opportunities for learning that can be found in any good classroom for young children. But, unlike many kindergarten environments, Ms. Thomas's room contains items that portray the nature and richness of science. Pictures of trees and seeds and posters of graphs that track their growth line the walls; rocks, bones, plants, and other materials surround the fish tank and gerbil cage.

Today, Ms. Thomas is teaching the children about their senses. She holds a full-length mirror in front of the twenty-eight children who are patiently sitting cross-legged on the large game-board-patterned rug in the middle of the room. She invites them to approach the mirror, one at a time, and look closely at their eyes. The first child stands at the mirror and inspects his eyes carefully, fogging up the glass with his giggles. Ms. Thomas encourages him:

I want you to see your eyes. I want you to look at them carefully. Look at the entire eye, open it up with your fingers just as I am doing, so that you can see it a little better.

The boy turns his head slightly to one side and opens his mouth wide as he struggles to get as close to the mirror as possible. When his time is up, he returns reluctantly to his spot on the rug as the next child rushes up to take her turn. After each student has had a chance to look in the mirror, Ms. Thomas passes out hand-held mirrors for them to continue the examination of their eyes in groups. The children inspect their eyes, raising their eyebrows as they turn their heads from side to side, trying hard to see their eyes from all angles.

Ms. Thomas and the children discuss their observations and finish this session by making a bar graph of eye color. She then asks a part of the class to move to work stations set up throughout the room. One group continues its investigations of the eye while the other groups work independently or with an aide on other activities. As the children move to their stations (in a remarkably orderly manner for twenty-eight five-year-olds), Ms. Thomas remarks:

The children will come up to me--now that I have introduced the eyes--and say things like, "I do have eyelashes!" That will go on for the next three days. For me, this is an important lesson.

The above account records a brief episode in a classroom at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, a school engaged in the reform of science education. Thomas Jefferson Elementary School fits the criteria for schools that the science education community says should be given priority in the efforts to reform the teaching and learning of science. Jefferson School is located in an urban school district and has a large minority population. Traditionally, the school district had not paid much attention to science education, but, for the past several years, Jefferson and other elementary schools in the district have been participating in a districtwide endeavor to improve the quantity and quality of science education.

Over the last four years, the Education Development Center (EDC) and Inverness Research Associates (IRA) (with which the authors are associated) have been examining and documenting the attempts to reform science education that are being made at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School and at other urban elementary schools throughout the country. Primarily, EDC's and IRA's efforts have been designed to support the school as the "unit of change" in a larger districtwide initiative. Based on the authors' observations and on what was known about the school, Jefferson appeared to have in place the requisite conditions for the successful reform of science education. They are:

  • The teachers and the administrators understand and believe in the importance of inquiry-based, "hands-on" teaching and learning (without this first element, little else could be expected to take hold).

  • The district has teachers, resource teachers, principals, and others with the leadership skills necessary to reform elementary school science education.

  • There are continuous opportunities for the professional development of teachers.

  • There has been sufficient allocation of resources for high-quality instructional materials and for the support of teachers.

With the above conditions in place, Thomas Jefferson Elementary School has been successful in its efforts to reform science education. The school's accomplishments are notable, tangible, and can be a great source of knowledge and help for those who are interested in improving science education in their schools. However, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the authors to judge the extent to which the districtwide effort to reform science education is responsible for this success. Systemic reform2 (which is being attempted selectively on a nationwide basis) brings with it the challenge of taking into account all of the elements of the school and the system surrounding it in order to engineer effectively progress and change in teaching science. Even the most meticulous accounting and documentation can capture only part of the complexity of the world of school, and, at best, outside researchers such as the authors of this chapter can take only snapshots of schools like Jefferson. However, if we assemble a series of these pictures, we can begin to detect all of the components and the commitments that must be in place for reform to succeed; in this manner, we can begin to create a portrait of reform.

At times, our experiences have been humbling. We have seen schools create and execute skillfully sound plans for improving science education, then have their efforts consumed, dissipated, or wasted by shifting, competing, political forces such as new superintendents, state-mandated tests, and reform initiatives in other subject areas. Other schools, like Thomas Jefferson Elementary, have been successful in changing the ways in which science is taught but, at the same time, have demonstrated that a program to reform science instruction (while a catalyst) is a relatively small factor in the overall life of the school. Also, unless a school has a hospitable environment for change already, the seeds of science reform will never grow. Thomas Jefferson Elementary School had strong mechanisms in place for increasing capacity and improving the culture of the school before the science education reform program began. The teachers communicated clearly with one another; they collaborated with each other on a variety of activities; they were encouraged to take risks by their principal; and they cared deeply about the learning and well-being of their children. We have learned from our observations of schools that a systemwide science reform program may be "systemic" in name, but may not be systemic in fact.

The fundamental question in our work and in this chapter is this: Is it possible for schools and school districts to achieve quality science instruction that is widespread and sustainable?

It will be years before anyone can know the larger impact of the collective efforts to reform science education; even those who are the most experienced in this community of reformers view their work as being in its adolescence. Leaders of systemic reform face many invisible barriers, but the most tangible one may be one of the most critical: the school walls that separate the reformers from the principals, teachers, and students. Too often, reform focuses on everything except the teaching being done in classrooms. Examining what is happening in classrooms is the only way to know the congruence between our theories on, and the strategies for, change and the reality of our nation's schools.

What follows is a sampling of classroom "evidence" that we at EDC and IRA have collected from our observations of schools and classrooms that are similar insofar as they are in urban school districts that are participating in systemic programs to reform science education, but are different insofar as the designs, strategies for implementation, and durations of the programs vary widely. While the study of each school district has differed in purpose and resources, all of the data have been gathered through interviews with administrators, teachers, leadership teams, and students; classroom observations; and review of documents such as school plans for science education and professional development, mission statements, and report cards. Our site visits have been relatively brief, so although we have been able to convey the character and culture of the schools, we have not been able to address all of the many complex factors that influence reform programs at the school site. Rather, the goal of our 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. Through such depictions and analysis, we hope to raise their awareness of potential avenues for adaptation and improvement of the design of science education reform programs.

As researchers in the science education community, we feel privileged to have the opportunity to do this work. While it is important that anyone engaged in education reform spend time in schools, conventionally, only the researcher or evaluator has the charge to observe and consider the relation-ship between what is happening and what was meant to happen. The complexity of school systems and the unique characteristics of individual schools can make any evidence of success seem idiosyncratic at times, but thoughtful consideration of the collective experiences of teachers and schools offers powerful insights for guiding our work now and in the future.

Critical Elements Needed for Systemic Reform

There is no definitive list of the elements that must be in place for reform to succeed. However, there are broad components that we have seen emerge as critical to the ultimate success of a reform effort. From our experience and from that of our colleagues engaged in reforming science education in school districts, we have identified four main elements that are necessary (although not necessarily sufficient) for success:

  • vision and leadership at all levels of the school system and in the community

  • professional development for teachers and administrators

  • material, logistical, and financial supports

  • political support.

This is not a comprehensive list, but in the communities we have visited, all of them have found that regardless of their philosophy of teaching and learning or program design, they needed to incorporate these elements in order to be successful. The strengths and weaknesses of different districts dictate the order of and intensity for addressing each of these components, but, eventually, they all must be aligned in a coherent whole if change is to be sustained.

We have organized the excerpts and samples from our research around this four-component framework. Because schools that have all of these elements in place are rare (even our "best-case" school, Thomas Jefferson Elementary, does not operate with all of them), we have chosen to describe them one at a time. In this way, we can offer the best illustrations of each component embedded in the contexts of schools engaged in reform. The samples and excerpts reflect the range of schools that we have seen, but not the distribution. Frankly, disappointment has come more often than delight as we try to resolve our hopes with what we observe. In fact, we have omitted the worst situations from this chapter. Although we do not wish to ignore those places that pose the greatest challenges, we have chosen to focus here on what we can learn from individual schools that have made progress in spite of the obstacles in their paths.

Vision and Leadership

Those people who are committed to reforming science education frequently speak about the importance of "creating a shared vision," but it is not always clear that there is a collective understanding of what this means. Despite the lack of clarity in the dialogue, as we spend time in schools and districts, the presence or absence of a "vision" emerges as one of the notable even tangible, aspects of our visits. When the vision is present, it is unmistakable--clear, driving, and pervasive. When it is absent, participants rarely notice that it is not there; they move ahead with varying agendas, never realizing that some of their difficulties stem from a lack of cohesion and purpose. Strong vision, with nothing else, can drive the development of the other components of reform; on the other hand, without vision, all of the other elements combined will create much activity but little progress.

Whether the vision emanates from an individual or is developed collectively, it must evolve ultimately into an understanding of the purpose and the process that are held in common by all of the participants in a reform effort. It need not be wrapped in lofty language or focus on hyperbolic ideals. On the contrary, a program with a cohesive vision can be one whose participants are able to define and express a comprehensible compelling description of good science instruction. Typically, such a vision is held by leaders who have had experiences that support the development of deep personal knowledge of what good science teaching is and who are committed to bringing it to their schools. And in order for systemic reform efforts to succeed and to be sustained, the vision must be pervasive from the individual classroom to the central office; in other words, it must become a part of the school system itself.

George Washington Elementary School: Districtwide Vision

The science team at George Washington Elementary School includes five teacher-leaders and an administrator. In the first year of the school's involvement in the school district's science education reform program, the team met two to three times a month, focusing its discussions on the development and definition of a shared vision. At the same time, the members of the team participated in the program's professional development activities, which involved them in inquiry-based3 science experiences. The team's conversations grew to emphasize the members' desire to move the whole school toward an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning all subjects. As the second year began, the members developed strategies for sup-porting their colleagues as they made the shift from teacher-centered class-rooms to student-centered classrooms. Now, each team member holds to the collective vision of inquiry-based teaching and learning but complements it with individual strategies for working with his or her colleagues. The lead teachers and administrators work very closely with each other. They are driven by their common belief in the inquiry-based approach and the benefits it will bring to their students. The principal, Ms. Betty Williams, describes their relationship:

The lead teachers are always telling me that if it were not for the administration, we could never have accomplished what we have here. My feeling is the exact opposite. If it were not for them, I could not do--rather, we could not do--it. Our program works because we have a healthy respect for each other and listen to each other's viewpoints. We share the same vision; that is the key.

A site-based management school with control over most of its budget, George Washington has a tradition of shared decisionmaking. A team of teachers with representatives from each grade level considers the schoolwide goals and interests and decides in what programs they should participate. The science program, however, is mandated by the school district. When the science program started, there was a need to generate schoolwide acceptance of it. The science team focused on spreading the vision of inquiry-based teaching and learning to all of the school's staff by using established commit-tees and other strategies, which included widespread piloting of instructional materials and open support. The members of the science team view their common vision as the cause, not the result, of the progress that they have made in their effort to reform science education. One of the team's members, Ms. Ella Rosario, explains:

I think we have been successful because of the common philosophy shared by the administration and the staff. Our beliefs and views about how children learn are basically the same.

Strong vision and effective leadership are tied closely. An administrator with strong vision becomes an instructional leader; an administrator without this vision is merely a manager.

Alexander Hamilton Elementary School: Developing Vision Through Instructional Leadership

The teachers' room at Alexander Hamilton Elementary School is always full at lunchtime. The staff eat together regularly and often bring homemade food to share. The lunch table conversations shift back and forth with ease-- from the teachers' personal lives to their classrooms and students--and are always sprinkled with good-natured kidding and laughter. The conversations reflect the strong sense of community and support that the teachers at Hamilton enjoy in all aspects of their work, including the teaching of science. Mrs. Claire Olson, the principal of Alexander Hamilton Elementary School, has worked for years to develop this culture and has organized Hamilton into a committee-run school with widespread participation and input by the teachers. In addition to providing a management structure for the school, the various committees give the teachers opportunities to talk with one another. The science education reform program was introduced with this decisionmaking and management structure in place. The staff did not have to start that task from the beginning: they had experience already in collaborating, reaching consensus, and delegating and dividing labor. A teacher, Ms. Carla Stephens, explains:

The science team has a leader, but everyone on the science team has responsibilities. For example, one person may take responsibility for an event, like the Science Fun Day, but all members of the science team have a task related to the event that they must make sure gets done. No one is out there by him- or herself. It works a lot better when the whole team is involved.

As another teacher, Mr. Robin Charles, continues, the practice of shared responsibility becomes even clearer:

When working as a team, no one stands in the limelight and says, "I am responsible for this and I should get credit." Everybody is always very kind and very open. It has always been that way.

Mrs. Olson initiates regularly activities designed to build collegiality and coherence into the staff members' relationships with each other. Through discussions of commonly held values and periodic self-evaluations, the staff builds continually a foundation of collective vision on which the science reform program can build. Mrs. Olson says:

We started off talking about school improvement and how we cannot have it until the staff is ready--until we have a culture in the school that supports learning and personal growth. Everyone must be working toward the same goal.

Alexander Hamilton and George Washington Elementary Schools are notable because their schoolwide vision for science is genuine and is embedded in a deeper school philosophy. They have schoolwide understanding and consensus about the fundamentals of their work and use it as a focus for their collaboration and professional development. Among the schools we have visited, these types of schools are rare. More often, schools have groups of teachers who are committed to new ideas, with other colleagues clinging tightly to their traditions, or principals who may or may not have vision and who may be poor communicators or collaborators with their staff. We also find entire schools that wish to change but do not have the capacity to find the resources to help them develop their knowledge base of what good science teaching is and how to make it happen.

Pine Ridge and Oakvale Elementary Schools: The Absence of Communication and Participation Blocks Vision

At Pine Ridge Elementary School, a small group of teachers drafted the vision statement for the entire school. Unfortunately, it was not shared with the rest of the staff. A teacher comments:

At the beginning of the year, the principal said we had to write objectives that would become part of the vision for the direction of our school. A small group of teachers was selected by the principal to write the vision statement, but none of us knows what it says because it was never shared with us.

At Oakvale Elementary School, the absence of a shared vision for good science teaching and learning has gone unnoticed. The staff view the financial resources made available through the district's science education reform effort as nothing more than generic support for staff development. Activities are determined by individual classroom teachers, with the only restriction being that they "relate to science." There is no guidance from the principal or other administrators, no common vision held by any group of teachers, and insufficient support from the science education reform program's leadership at the school district office. The result of so-called reform at Oakvale School has been a translation of "systemic reform" dollars to fragmented, individual teacher-planned events such as camping trips and field trips. One of the few teachers who had a more systemic view of reform expressed her frustration:

I am not alone, but there is only a small group of us who are concerned about schoolwide curricula. We have people here who learn a lot through trips, seminars, and so on. They bring their new knowledge back to their own classroom. As far as sharing it with others in the school, I don't see this happening.

The problems at Oakvale and Pine Ridge Elementary Schools under-score the importance of strong vision and leadership at all levels of a systemic reform effort. School district administrators must emphasize the seriousness and importance of revitalizing and renewing science education; school administrators must find ways of translating the district's message into strategies that work in their schools. Knowledgeable and eloquent teacher-leaders are critical to success too. They must be good teachers who not only are well grounded in excellent teaching practice, but who also can articulate their experience in and their vision for that practice to their colleagues.

Lincoln Elementary School: Translating Vision to Action Through Strong Leadership at All Levels

When the principal, Mr. Roberto Martinez, and his assistant principal, Ms. Eleanor Martin, first learned about the new elementary school science program from their superintendent, they took his message of its importance to heart. As Mr. Martinez explains:

When the inquiry-based science program was introduced, we understood that the superintendent was placing great emphasis on it. He was very clear about what he wanted the schools to do and what his goal was for the elementary school science program.

Mr. Martinez and Ms. Martin had been at Lincoln Elementary School only a few years. They knew that if they wanted to move the program ahead, they would need to rely on teachers who were established in the school and had the staff's respect. They believed that those staff members selected as lead teachers should be willing to enroll in the professional development course at the local university and to make a serious commitment to the program. The principal and his assistant first approached experienced teachers who had no need for the university credits that the course would bring. They defined clearly the commitment that a lead teacher would need to make. In doing so, the administration felt that they would find lead science teachers who would be genuinely interested in improving their own teaching and in assuming leadership positions in the school in order to assist other staff members. The leadership and thoughtfulness of the administration paid off. Mr. Martinez summarizes:

Now, after two years, we see the end result of our hard work. We were strangers to each other and to the staff. To be able to accomplish all of these things with people who knew each other but not us, we had to select the lead teachers carefully. The staff did not resist these teachers because they were respected and seen as exemplary teachers.

Not all lead teachers have been fortunate enough to have administrators and a program as supportive as those at Lincoln Elementary School. Often, teachers are expected to be leaders in spite of the absence of a schoolwide vision, sufficient professional development opportunities, and adequate curricular, financial, and political supports. Without a way to develop their own leadership skills and garner appropriate political and financial support, the work of the lead teachers can be frustrating and discouraging.

Sommerfield Elementary School: The Challenge of Unsupported Leadership

Ms. Joanne Weigel has been a lead science teacher for two years. A relatively new teacher, her college teacher education courses encouraged her to teach science using "hands-on" materials and student-directed investigations. She uses open-ended questioning and places her students in cooperative groups. When Sommerfield Elementary School became a part of the school district's science education reform project, she was asked to become a lead science teacher. Ms. Weigel agreed, but was uncertain how to proceed with her colleagues. She began by making herself available to come to teachers' classrooms and assist them in their science lessons, but no teacher accepted her offer to do demonstrations or to team-teach. She continued to offer in-class support, but it became clear that her colleagues were uncomfortable having another teacher in the room while they taught. Ms. Weigel explains:

I think it was a bit unsettling for some people. I walked into one room, and there were beautiful green plants growing everywhere, but they were not being used to teach science. There were no charts monitoring their growth, for example,... I felt discouraged because all of the teachers of my grade level had participated in professional development activities for the science units; we had offered to come into classrooms. I would even show up and ask when I could come in. But no one said, "Come into my room; I need help with this lesson."

Instead of mentoring her fellow teachers or providing schoolwide, in-service training, Ms. Weigel has been merely encouraging teachers to participate. She helps with curricular materials and answers science-related questions, but does little more.

Ms. Weigel's difficulty is not necessarily one of her own inability to be a leader. Rather, the school has not been provided with appropriate curricular materials; there has not been a clear message from the school district that science must be taught in a certain way; and she is not supported by her principal. When the administrative leadership fails at the school district and school building levels, only an extraordinary teacher can provide the kind of leadership necessary to support other teachers and to get them to change the ways in which they teach science.

Schools with strong vision and leadership are easy to identify: the teachers talk easily about what they want their students to know, and they are clear about their goals for all aspects of their students' learning, including social skills, processes, and scientific concepts. Despite differences in program design and in the schools themselves, they all have one characteristic in common: the staff believes that inquiry-based science education can be a catalyst or support for changing fundamentally the teachers' and students' experiences in school and that it will help students to take ownership of their learning and, ultimately, to obtain a better education.

It is difficult for us to accept that there are schools where teachers have little hope for the students, but they exist and we have been in them. This is not to say that the teachers do not care about the students. They do, but they have abandoned their expectation that the students can learn as much as they are offered. They focus instead on the "basics" and on helping the students to know enough to survive in school and in the workplace. Supporting their science education is either impossible or simply not important enough. Without a belief in this importance, little will change. The schools that succeed have a vision that has grown bigger than the science education reform program; it is rooted in an underlying commitment to the students and the community. The vision stems not from a belief in the importance of science or a particular pedagogical approach but from a belief that they must provide the best education possible for their children.

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