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Case Study: E = MC2

author: Gita Z. Wilder
submitter: E=MC2
published: 03/19/1998
posted to site: 03/19/1998

Documentation of School Change:
Local Systemic Change Initiative in
Ewing, Lawrence, and West Windsor-Plainsboro (NJ)
School Districts

Report prepared by Gita Z. Wilder
Division of Education Policy Research
Educational Testing Service
Princeton, NJ

February 1998


Three New Jersey school districts participate in the e=mc2 project: Ewing, Lawrence, and West Windsor-Plainsboro. While the project is a cross-district effort to enhance the quality of science instruction in the elementary schools in all three districts, the districts represent a range in terms of populations served and programs offered. The kits that are the focus of science reform for the project are offered to all three districts, and the project-initiated series of professional development offerings for teachers and administrators are available to staff in the three districts. At the same time, there have been differences in the ways in which districts have participated in these activities and in the rates at which change has taken hold. These differences are in part a function of differences in district policies, but it also the case that there are wide variations across schools within each district.

Ideally, it would have been valuable to have selected a school in each of the districts in which to document the process of change at the level of the school. As it is, staff and budget constraints have made it possible to study only two schools. Therefore, the two schools chosen for participation in the school documentation activity represent two of the districts: Ewing and West Windsor-Plainsboro.

All three districts that are part of the e=mc2 project might properly be considered suburbs of Trenton, but their characteristics change with their distance from that city. Thus, the Ewing schools, closest to Trenton, represent a range from quite urban to suburban. The West Windsor-Plainsboro schools are exclusively suburban and include some of the highest-achieving public schools in the state. The two districts serve sizable proportions of minority (non-White) students, although the specific minority representation varies with the district. In Ewing, the predominant minority population is African-American; in West Windsor-Plainsboro, the largest minority group is Asian-American.

The two districts were at somewhat different places with respect to science instruction at the start of the e=mc2 project. What has also been true for both of them is considerable variation from building to building -- and, in some buildings, from classroom to classroom -- in the emphasis on science. Among the elementary school classrooms, it appeared that science instruction was almost an individual option for teachers. There were classrooms in which virtually no science was taught (except incidentally, as part of a reading or social studies unit), and there were classrooms in which rich and exciting science activities were taking place. What was NOT clear at the time was the composite picture within and across districts.

Structure and Goals of the LSC Project

The major focus of the e=mc2 project is improving the quality and consistency of science instruction in the elementary schools of the three participating districts. The main vehicles of this improvement are science kits that have been and will continue to be adopted for use in elementary school classrooms, and professional development that will help teachers use the kits as the basis of hands-on, inquiry-centered instruction in science. To this end, the professional development has included workshops on the kits themselves, background in the content of the kits, pedagogy (the nature of inquiry, and techniques for implementing inquiry-based instruction), technology, and assessment.

Through the mechanism of kits, all elementary grades in every school in all of the districts have begun to incorporate science instruction into their curriculum. By the end of the first full year of the project, considerable progress had been made in the adoption and implementation of specific kits at particular grades. Through an alliance with the Invention Factory in Trenton, NJ, specifically its Science-to-Go initiative, schools are provided with kits that they -- the schools -- pilot test and select for themselves. The project coordinator, who is situated at the Invention Factory, oversees the distribution of kits according to schedules worked out by the schools the replenishment of consumable items after each round of kit use. A former 4th grade teacher from one of the project districts, the coordinator keeps track of kit use, organizes professional development around the kits, and manages countless project activities.

Other alliances formed by the project include connections with local universities, professional (science) associations, and science-related businesses located in the three districts. Individuals from these organizations have offered technical assistance, resources, and the use of their facilities to enhance the project initiatives. The alliances also serve to acquaint and involve individuals from the communities that surround the schools with the e=mc2 project.

The Documentation of School Change in Two Project Schools

Planning the school documentation effort

The effort to document school change in two project schools started in Spring 1997 with the award of a small grant for this purpose. The lead evaluator for the project met with the three co-PIs to select two schools to participate in the case study. The two schools were chosen to represent schools that might demonstrate contrasting rates and processes of change, although the administrators of both schools were also believed by the PIs to be supportive of the change efforts. (It had been decided that, given the focus of the project on change, it would not be wise to press school administrators to participate in the documentation effort if such participation might be considered an additional burden by the administrators involved.) Much of the Spring 1997 activity, which started late in the school year, was devoted to devising a process for documenting school change and to soliciting and gaining the cooperation of the schools.

The main methods of data collection were to include initial and then twice-yearly interviews with the principals of the schools; interviews with key project personnel within each of the schools (including building coordinators, mentor teachers, and a sample of classroom teachers), attendance at selected building activities, and classroom observations. Wherever possible, we intended to piggy-back on data collection for the national evaluation of the project, using -- and, in several cases, expanding -- the instruments developed for that project to collect data in the schools. In addition, we planned annual interviews with the project coordinator, who works with schools in the districts, to try to "locate" the target schools in the general trends across schools and districts.

The plan called for the data to be collected by the three-member evaluation team, all three of whom have been trained to conduct classroom observations for the national evaluation, and all three of whom have conducted interviews of teachers and classroom evaluations for that project. In addition, all three have attended and observed at professional development activities sponsored by the project, and are familiar with the LSC goals and activities.

Each school is data collection team is headed by one of the researchers who is NOT the lead evaluator. The team leader is the person who serves as the liaison between the evaluation team and the school. She schedules interviews and observations, and keeps track of dates and activities that may be important for the goals of the school change documentation. While other members of the tam may conduct interviews and/or observations and attend activities in either of the team leaders' schools, the team leader arranges all such activities.

Activities to date .

To date, interviews have been conducted with the building administrator and the project's building coordinator in each school. Each school has been visited by at least two members of the school documentation team. While the current emphasis is on gathering information for the national evaluation (both of the study schools include teachers who have been selected via a sampling process for interviews or observations for the national evaluation), the data collection teams have arranged to conduct additional interviews and observations -- beyond those required by the national evaluation -- in each school. In addition, data collectors have attended several special events in the schools, one a breakfast meeting for teachers around science, and a PTO meeting at each of the schools at which some of the agenda was given over to the topic of science in the school.

Early interviews with the building administrators and coordinators were focused on creating a picture of science in the school before the advent of the LSC project. Given that the school documentation effort started well into the initial year of the LSC project in these districts and schools, it was important to us to reconstruct the status of the school science curriculum prior to the changes wrought by the LSC effort. Fortunately, both principals and both building coordinators pre-date the LSC. In one school, a teacher who had been active in encouraging science reform in the school but who had been transferred to another school, was also available to be interviewed.

The research team has met to discuss the findings of each of the data collection teams, and to plan the interviews and observations for the remainder of school year 1997-98. The team plans two additional meetings to integrate the data that will have been collected in the coming months, and to identify the questions that will be pursued in the school documentation effort in 1998-99.

Preliminary findings

The school documentation effort has so far been most successful in creating a backdrop for the study of the changes brought about by the LSC and the processes by which these changes are occurring. In both schools, prior to the start of the LSC, there was considerable variation across classrooms in the extent to which science was taught (from not at all to a fair extent), and in the content and focus of such science as was taught. One of the schools, by virtue of its district policies, had offered science instruction that was quite traditional. In classrooms in which science was part of the classroom curriculum prior to the LSC, instruction was based on textbooks. Demonstrations were rare, and hands-on science was, except for scattered lessons offered by two teachers who had attended summer immersion programs in science, hands-on science was virtually unknown. This school has been slower to adopt kits than the other documented school, at least in part because the district has been slower than the other districts to adopt kits. (There is a systematic process of pilot-testing and selecting kits in the district, but it is proceeding more slowly than the adoption process in the other two districts.)

Prior to the LSC, the second school had been more actively involved in innovation than the first, in part because of district policies that encouraged teachers to innovate in the language arts and in subjects including science. Like the first school, there were inconsistencies across classrooms in the amount and focus of science that had been offered. Some teachers taught no science at all; but several of these teachers teamed with teachers who taught science to their students, although they themselves did not. And there were teachers who were enthusiastic proponents of science. a number of the teachers who had been teaching science prior to the advent of kits had attended summer programs and had introduced some form of hands-on science into their classrooms. In this school, the kits functioned to encourage teachers who had not previously taught science to do so, and to increase the consistency within grade levels of the material taught. The process of grade-level adoption of kits, that occurred in both schools, therefore, had both similar and different outcomes. In both schools, it increased the amount of science and the amount of hands-on science that was taught in the school. In both schools, it helped to create a common curriculum that was shared by grade levels. And in both schools, a trend to be followed up in future data collection, it increased the frequency of teacher conversations and shared activities around science instruction.

Differences were the following: In the first school, the existence and adoption of kits appears to have moved many of the teachers away from text-based instruction to instruction that includes more hands-on activities for students. In the second school, the kits have enabled more teachers to teach science and to add science to their classroom curriculum. In many instances in the second school, teachers have used the kits as the basis for integration of science into their language arts and mathematics instruction.

Next steps

The observations above, based as they are on a limited set of interviews and events, are tentative. They will be verified and expanded through interviews and observations in each of the schools over the next several months, and an end-of-school interview with each of the principals and building coordinators.

Outlines of the initial interviews that were conducted with the two school principals and the building coordinators are attached to this brief report.