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The Challenge and Promise of K-8 Science Education Reform:

author: Center for Science Education (CSE)
description: In this chapter, practitioners who have been actively engaged in systemic science education reform offer some lessons that emerged from their experience with leadership.

published in: Center for Science Education
published: 1998
posted to site: 11/12/1998


Everyone talks about the importance of leadership for successful systemic change, and there is no doubt that without it, reform in science or any other aspect of education will not happen. Leadership implies change and movement. To lead is to move a group in a specified direction. Without leadership there is no purposeful change. Without change there is no re-forming.

Yet there is enormous confusion about what leadership really is. Many people assume that leadership is what leaders do, and that educational leaders are, naturally, the people in positions of authority–primarily district and school administrators and supervisors. Much research into the process of educational change–as well as the experience and testimony of teachers–tells us that this is an overly narrow, disempowering viewpoint. One need only look as far as the nearest top-down reform effort. These, based solely on directives from administrators, simply do not work very often.

Those who believe that leadership means the communication of a mission from the leader to school personnel are omitting a crucial element of organizational dynamics. Real leadership can be exercised by people at all levels of an organization, whether or not they hold formal authority for making policy or day-to-day decisions.

For schools, this means that the superintendent, assistant superintendent, science coordinator, principals, teachers, parents, students, and other members of the community can all exercise leadership, with varying levels of authority and responsibility. Indeed, systemic school reform is so complex and so difficult that real progress often depends on having as many people as possible take responsibility for making it happen.

This is not easy. In many districts where decisions have typically been made centrally, for example, there is talk of "flattening the organization" and "empowering teachers." Many teachers are skeptical of such talk, having lived through earlier periods of "shared leadership" that often left them with the responsibility but little of the authority or power. Those engaged in change should systematically consider the relationship between responsibility, authority, power, and leadership; and how to engage the whole community of leaders in that process.

Leadership in the systemic reform model is the sharing of authority and power so that others gain a meaningful degree of control over their own work. Leadership also means being able to reflect honestly and critically on one's own practices and being willing to reconsider and perhaps change some deeply held beliefs. In this chapter, practitioners who have been actively engaged in systemic science education reform offer some lessons that emerged from their experience with leadership.

Exercising leadership requires decision-making power or direct access to decisionmakers.

Leaders of science reform efforts must understand how the system works and know how to interact with people at all levels (U.S. Department of Education, 1996). This means figuring out what systems are in place, how those systems are structured, and where the science reform initiative fits in. The next steps are identifying what has to be modified, and how that might happen. Negotiating this kind of authority can be tricky, but it is essential.

Leadership in the systemic reform model is the sharing of authority and power so that others gain a meaningful degree of control over their own work.

One science coordinator reports that in his community, no reform effort has credibility unless the superintendent personally endorses it and reiterates support on a regular basis. The challenge facing the science coordinator, however, was finding a way to develop the widespread, grassroots support in the program necessary to ensure its sustainability. That kind of leadership could not come from a superintendent's mandate.

Another coordinator had the opposite problem. She had successfully developed support for the program from teachers and school administrators across the district. Her frustration came from the fact that the people above her lacked deep understanding of the reform, a prerequisite of vision that is necessary to drive the right decisions. Decisions were ultimately made anyway, this time based on political reasons, which led to negative impacts on the program and serious ripple effects. Her leadership challenge was to find a way to persuade the people in authority to make the right decisions.

"Without some measure of autonomy, some ability to make decisions on behalf of their colleagues...teacher leaders cannot create effective positions," writes Pat Wasley (1991). In some cases, access to decision-making power is accomplished by including teacher leaders in the planning of a reform program from the beginning. Annabelle Shrieve, formerly with the San Francisco City Science project, points out, "it shouldn't be the central office deciding that the teacher leaders should do this or that. The teacher leaders should contribute to the discussion about what they will be doing–what they feel comfortable doing." District-level leaders need to listen closely to what those teachers are saying and, at times, "they might have to take a risk," says Shrieve. "That's hard for central office staff."

Those with decision-making power or formal authority are sometimes not effective leaders. "Lots of people who have titles may be exerting management, says Sam Alessi, the associate superintendent in Buffalo, "but they aren't exerting leadership." Paradoxically, teachers who exercise leadership in more informal ways are often more successful. Melva Greene in the Baltimore City Public Schools has noticed two kinds of teachers involved in reform: "The ones who do it themselves, and the ones who are able to influence others to do it." The ones who do it themselves teach science in their own classrooms, have a sense of what is good for children, and provide a grounding or reality check for their colleagues. The others, the informal leaders, step outside their own classrooms and begin to persuade others that inquiry-based science is good for their children.

John Cafarella, director of science in New York City Community School District 6, has found that some of the most effective leaders in his district lead in subtle ways, such as through example. "They have the knowledge, but they don't tell people what to do," he says. "They make the experience come alive for the participants."

School and district personnel who want to exercise leadership are helped by having clearly defined responsibilities, adequate support, and opportunities to do their work.

Most communities beginning a systemic science education reform effort need to identify those who will take responsibility at the outset for planning, communication, and professional development. As an initiative begins, however, there can be a great deal of confusion about these roles. The leaders themselves may not know exactly what kind of support and authority they will have. Often, other teachers and administrators do not clearly understand what the leaders are supposed to do. Clear descriptions of these roles are essential (Carter and Powell, 1992).


In offering advice about identifying leaders, John Cafarella, the director of science for New York City Community District 6, says, "don't make the mistakes we made." During the first years of professional development for point lead teachers, District 6 offered college credit and enrolled people in the course, but there was no way to hold them to a commitment back in their schools.

Identifying and supporting leaders was successful, but only in isolated ways–they had what Carafella calls, "boutiques of success." In other words, the district was not on a trajectory toward sustained, systemic change. This year, they decided to focus on full-time teacher-leaders they call science facilitators. The facilitators customize their support to each school and focus on building leaders at each site. This approach has proven successful and is increasing confidence that they are headed toward sustained change.


Clarifying the roles of leaders must go beyond putting pen to paper. In one community, for example, the expectations for school-level teacher-leaders were not clearly defined; there was widespread confusion about what they were supposed to do. One teacher thought her role was limited to "sharing information about the science program with other teachers in the school." Another thought she was expected to provide professional development for her colleagues. Others focused mainly on providing materials to colleagues or on doing demonstration lessons. The science coordinator learned about the confusion from the project evaluator and responded by writing descriptions of the leadership expectations for the teacher-leaders and administrators. But without real models or direct experience, this document had neither the authority nor the credibility the teachers and principals needed to translate the role descriptions into real classroom practice. "If you've never seen or sensed it, it's hard for you to know what to do. Somewhere along the line you hope that someone has modeled for you what leadership is," explains Bill Bladders, a science resource teacher in Cleveland.

Bladders has found that teacher-leaders need continuing, meaningful professional development–a subject also familiar to Sam Alessi, who believes that it is just as important for teachers "to share what has been working and not working, and to reflect on and discuss their own leadership," as it is to provide them with opportunities for professional development in inquiry-based science. In Las Vegas, teacher-leader Lorraine Blume experiments with "bring alongs"–joining a potential leader with a more experienced leader. The two work collaboratively to plan and facilitate professional development, much like a mentorship, and then meet with others in small study groups to debrief.

Educators have found that professional development for leaders needs to go beyond honing leadership skills. It also must include support for the leaders' own understanding of science content and how children come to learn that content. This is the aspect often overlooked.

Even when teacher-leaders know what to do and have professional development support, they do not necessarily have adequate opportunities to fulfill their roles. This is a cue for administrators to exercise their leadership and to provide support and access. Teacher-leaders cannot be expected to support others when they themselves do not get sufficient support. Initiators of reform cannot ask them to do something with nothing. Teacher-leaders must have sufficient time during the school day to plan and support others, and they must have access to the people they are supposed to be supporting (Powell and Carter, 1992).

Bill Badders credits his principal, Jim Balotta, with enabling him to become a leader in his Cleveland district. "It really was what he did those first years when I worked with him," says Badders. "He tended to let me try things. He found ways to support everybody. Good leaders know the strengths and weaknesses of the people around them and are willing to give up some of their power or control over an issue. They trust others to take the lead, and support them when they are successful and also when there are failures."


Las Vegas, Nevada, is growing faster than nearly any other school district in the nation. Linda Gregg, supervisor in the office of mathematics and science, faces the challenge of identifying and providing professional development to a constant flow of newly minted teacher-leaders.

Despite the challenges, Gregg has managed to succeed. The NSF-funded Local Systemic Change project, focusing on both mathematics and science, uses a number of innovative strategies. First, there is a site liaison at each school who takes on a range of roles depending on the progress of that school and the liaison's experience. Second, they have released a cadre of teachers on special assignment who provide full-time professional development support and participate in the planning and leadership of the project. Finally, they have developed mentorship strategies to bring new teachers into leadership roles.

Due to the increasing demand, these new teacher-leaders are sometimes given responsibilities before they are completely comfortable, but Gregg is never far behind with support and professional development.


Leadership functions best when it is distributed across several people who work as a team.

Change cannot be imposed, particularly when the scope of the change is a whole system. Researchers have found that it is useful to identify and support a group of individuals in every school in a system in order to seed widespread support for reform (Kober, 1993). Some practitioners seem to have found ways to move beyond creating a few new roles for individuals in a school and have reorganized their schools to "create an open collaborative mode of work to replace teacher isolation" (Lieberman, 1988). The Center for Urban Science Education Reform has found that the most successful schools have incorporated the leadership for the science program into the leadership structures and cultures that were already working in the school.

Collaborative leadership is practical: when individuals leave the system, others are already in place to support the continuation of the initiative.

But, sometimes leadership by committee is not the answer. In these instances, the critical intervention of an individual with authority is essential. At Orchard Elementary in Cleveland, principal Teacola Offett acknowledges that her school's participation in a district-wide science program did not really work until they started to use a team approach. There have been times, however, when the committee "can't agree on what they want to do," she reveals, "usually because they don't know what they are trying to do." At such times, Offett believes, she must step in to focus the group on its purpose. But, she reminds herself, "it takes more than one person to carry out the mission."

Collaborative leadership is also essential at the district level. This does not necessarily mean that all decisions are made democratically or "driven to consensus...nor does it mean that empowerment is something that leaders dole out to employees like scoops of ice cream" (Meunier and Gabor, 1995). Rather, the greatest value is in creating opportunities for open communication, mutual critique, and collaboration. "I don't know that there's any other way to do it," says Sam Alessi. "There is a leadership role that needs to be played at all levels. The more you broaden that cadre, or leadership bank of support, the more successful your initiative will become." Alessi also points out that collaborative leadership is practical: when individuals leave the system, others are already in place to support the continuation of the initiative.


Even before the shake of a hand, Andrea Bowden spontaneously cautions, "it's easier said than done." She views her work with Melva Greene in the district's central office as a "continuing saga." Bowden and Greene are the leaders of Baltimore's teacher-leaders.

Bowden continues, "that's one of the [big] issues with systemic reform. It doesn't happen overnight. It's an ongoing effort that takes more resources than you ever thought were going to be necessary and I don't just mean money," she pauses and sighs. "It takes people cooperating and all kinds of policy changes that sometimes fall into place and sometimes don't. Sometimes you take one step forward and two steps back."

Bowden and Greene perceive their role as leaders in many dimensions. They support the other district-wide teacher-leaders, support teacher-leaders who are based in their schools, and provide opportunities for continuing growth for all leaders and classroom teachers.

But when it comes down to it, however, they view their role as setting the vision and mission of the group. Though they are committed to widely sharing leadership and planning, they also have learned that "you have to have a pretty firm vision or you lose a lot of time." So, they work across the district to build the vision and work collaboratively to develop and support it. As Bowden explains, "[you] point people in the right direction, give them the materials to work with, and allow the creativity to craft a plan."


Effective leaders must be credible and have a rapport with and the respect of their colleagues.

All leaders, whether with formal decision-making power or informal authority, need credibility (Carter and Powell, 1992). In Baltimore, Andrea Bowden, supervisor of science, mathematics, and health, and Melva Greene, a curriculum specialist, found that it helped to work with people already recognized as leaders, because usually these people were "successful with children, had faith in children, and were respected by their colleagues." The rapport these teachers enjoyed with colleagues is grounded not in any formal title or authority but rather in their personal qualities and their relationships to others in the school. These personal qualities include empathy, ability to collaborate, knowledge, and having a sense of humor.

Also important, particularly for teacher-leaders, is enthusiasm–simply wanting to do the work. Often this desire is tied to a strong personal connection or stake in the reform. But it also is more than a desire to make change. It is reaching what Bowden calls a "maturation in your own professional life," a point where, "you want to take a step beyond impacting just the children in your own classroom." Nevertheless, a teacher may be the best in the school with children, but may not work well with adults. The ability to work with children and adults alike is critical for teacher-leaders.

Effective teacher-leaders continually strive to improve their teaching practice, develop their skills in inquiry-based instruction, and sharpen their understanding of science content. A mark of their success is their willingness to continue to see themselves as learners. In Las Vegas, Linda Gregg looks for people who are open to new ideas, think deeply about how children learn, are flexible in their thinking, and are willing to reflect on their own practice. She wants people who are "continuing learners and willing to change."

Sam Alessi of Buffalo has found that, "you tend to assume that the kinds of changes that you are trying to implement are happening and this isn't always true. In fact, it often isn't true. It's difficult for those of us in leadership roles to accept that we have to question our assumptions." As a result Alessi values people who are willing to participate in evaluation, but he does not exclude himself from the process. Says Alessi, "We are constantly modifying, expanding, and changing what we're doing based on the feedback and input from everybody involved." It is the only way to get to the bottom line, "making a difference for kids."

Exercising leadership means having a clear understanding of and commitment to good science teaching and learning.

It is perhaps impossible to build momentum for an initiative unless decisionmakers believe in the initiative and are committed to its goals. The National Center for the Improvement of Science Education asserts that district and building administrators often don't understand what good science teaching is. Administrators may not need the same level of understanding as classroom teachers, but they must know enough to support and monitor the work (Loucks-Horsley et al., 1989). Effective leaders, "know where they're going, even if they are not quite sure how they are going to get there," writes Philip Schlecty (1992).

Lorraine Blume says she can think of a "million examples" of when her efforts at leadership did not turn out quite as she had planned. But her underlying commitment to inquiry-based science education and to professional development that "maintains a trueness to what we believe," as she puts it, helps her to reflect on her experiences and make them better next time.

Melva Greene in Baltimore offers this advice, "Don't underestimate the importance of believing that the children can do it. I keep thinking about the people who...believed that, regardless of the composition of the classes, the kids could do it."

Leaders are not always who you think they are.

Identifying people who are best able to exert leadership is not a simple task. Sam Alessi cautions against making assumptions about who are supposed to be the leaders. Sometimes people are selected for leadership based on inappropriate or too few criteria. For instance, enthusiasm, although a helpful attribute, will not itself yield effective leadership.

In Las Vegas, Lorraine Blume found that choosing people who had been previously ordained as leaders was sometimes problematic. They understood leadership in the "old paradigm," she says, and often held fixed beliefs about what a leader was. "It's more difficult to change the paradigm for them," she explains. "It's not always the same person you would have picked out of a crowd before [the reform initiative came along]."

Most practitioners confirm that there is no single process for identifying leaders. They argue that it is most effective to provide opportunities for participation and growth to many people, and then watch as leaders naturally emerge. Sam Alessi advocates continuing interactions and discussions with people inside and outside the district, at all levels, while you "keep your eyes and ears open for those who seem to demonstrate natural kinds of leadership ability: empathy, willingness to reflect, to be collaborative, to accept and offer criticism. Then find opportunities to work with those people."

Sometimes, though, there is little time to spare. Susan Sprague, the science program director in Mesa, Arizona, suggests that at the very beginning of a science initiative it is important to start developing and identifying leaders right away. "Try to figure out how many leaders you need," says Sprague, and then double that number."


  1. Exercising leadership requires decision-making power or direct access to decisionmakers.

  2. Those who want to exercise leadership can be aided with clearly defined responsibilities, adequate support, and opportunities to do their work.

  3. Leadership functions best when it is distributed across several people who work as a team.

  4. Effective leaders must be credible and have a rapport with and the respect of their colleagues.

  5. Exercising leadership means having a clear understanding of and commitment to good science teaching and learning.

  6. Leaders are not always who you think they are.



Carter, M., and Powell, D. (1992). Teacher leaders as staff developers. Journal of Staff Development, 13 (1): 8-17.

Kober N. (1993). Systemic reform of mathematics and science education: An urban blueprint. Proceedings of a national symposium on mathematics and science education. Washington, DC: Council of the Great City Schools.

Lieberman, A. (1988). Expanding the leadership team. Educational Leadership, 45 (February): 4-8.

Loucks-Horsley, S., Carolson, M., Brink, L., Horwitz, P., Marsh, D., Pratt, H., Roy, K., and Worth, K. (1989). Developing and supporting teachers for elementary school science education. Washington DC: The National Center for Improving Science Education.

Meunier, G., and Gabor, C. (1995). Where systemic change in education begins: Leadership systems management. In P. Jenlick, Ed., Systemic change: Touchstones for the future school, pp. 275-284. Palatine, IL: IRI/Skylight Training and Publishing, Inc.

Owen, J.M., Loucks-Horsley, S., and Horsley, D. (1991). Three roles of staff development in restructuring schools. Journal of Staff Development, 12 (3): 10.

Schlectly, P. (1992). Trailblazers, pioneers, and settlers: On the frontier of school reform. Louisville, KY: Center for Leadership in School Reform.

U. S. Department of Education. (1996). The role of leadership in sustaining school reform: Voices from the field. July 1996. Available on the World Wide Web:

Wasley, P. (1991). Teachers who lead: The rhetoric of reform and the realities of practice. NY: Teachers College Press.

Suggested Reading

Loucks-Horsley, S., et al. (1990). Elementary school science for the 90s. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.<