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Reforming Secondary Science Through Teacher Enhancement Annual Report Overview

published: 12/07/2000
posted to site: 12/07/2000
Annual Report

Annual Report

November 15, 2000

Spokane Local Systemic Change Initiative

"Reforming Secondary Science Through Teacher Enhancement"

ESI- 9731552

Submitted by Project Directors:

Robert E. Gibbs

Professor of Physics

Eastern Washington University

and Scott S. Stowell

Coordinator for Science and Health Education

Spokane Public Schools

Activities and Findings:

2.1 Project Activities

Annual Overview

The Spokane Local Systemic Change project "Reforming Secondary Science through Teacher Enhancement" (ESI 9731552) was funded by the National Science Foundation effective July 15, 1998. A cooperative effort of Spokane Public Schools (SD 81) and Eastern Washington University, it is directed by Scott S. Stowell, Coordinator of Science and Health Education in the district and Robert E. Gibbs, Professor of Physics at EWU. The goal of the project is to create a 7th - 12th grade science education system in which all students have the opportunity to learn challenging, worthwhile and academically rigorous science subject matter, to develop the ability to conduct scientific inquiry and solve scientific problems, and to successfully communicate their understanding. In planning this effort, the project directors have been primarily guided by the National Science Education Standards and the Essential Academic Learning Requirements for science adopted by Washington State. Project objectives are divided into Instructional Objectives and Organizational Objectives. The former include creating a new curriculum from exemplary materials, providing professional development for teachers to improve instructional strategies, and the development of a classroom-based assessment system. The latter include the organizational changes needed to support and institutionalize the instructional reforms. The project serves 102 teachers in six middle schools and six high schools in Spokane, Washington. Evaluation is being carried out by RMC Research Corporation of Portland, Oregon.

To carry out the project, teams comprised of teachers and EWU faculty have been formed. There are four Disciplinary Teams representing Life Science, Chemistry, Earth/Space Science and Physics. Each team is composed of three teachers and an EWU faculty member, with at least one middle school and one high school teacher on each team. These teams have primary responsibility for creating the curriculum from the new resources purchased by the school district. They also play a leadership role in cooperating with the project directors to plan and deliver the workshops for other teachers.

Each school has a Building Team which is composed of two or three teachers. In those schools that have Disciplinary Team members, those members are also on the Building Team. These teams coordinate the project in their schools, provide direct support for the building teachers when possible, and marshal the resources and expertise of the project in support of the teachers. They report to the directors on the state of the project in their buildings, documenting successes, problem areas and needs. They form the nucleus of a community of science teachers created in each school that will work cooperatively to implement the goals of the project. The Building Teams also inform the Disciplinary Teams and directors concerning needed revisions in the curriculum.

Since November 15, 1999, the following activities have been carried out.

1. Two follow-up meetings. 1. December 2, 1999, 26 attended. 2. February 3, 2000, 25 attended. We scheduled 5 meetings during the 1999-2000 academic year. We were dissatisfied with the turnout of these meetings, and held only three. We changed the format to building based meetings. See item 6 below.

2. Three Science Content Courses: Cosmology (10th Grade), Forces and Motion (10th Grade) and Weather (9th Grade). These are 10 contact hour courses meeting in four after school sessions. They deal with subject matter knowledge. These were not part of the original planning for the NSF project, but they have proven necessary and have been supported by Eisenhower funds available to the Spokane School District.

3. Four Planning Meetings. 1. November, 23, 1999. An all day meeting with the Disciplinary Teams and EWU faculty to plan follow-up meetings and identify project progress and needs. 2. January 20, 2000. An after school meeting to discuss Science Content Short Courses. 3. An after school meeting with the Disciplinary Teams to discuss the building based meetings as a replacement for follow-up meetings. 4. May 25, 2000. An all day meeting with Disciplinary Teams and EWU faculty to plan for the summer 2000 workshops.

4. One District Advisory Committee Meeting. January 11, 2000. A three hour morning meeting with the advisory committee. We presented the project goals, discussed progress to date, and asked for feedback. We got a very positive response from the Advisory Committee.

5. Two Sharing Meetings. February 22, 2000, a four hour meeting for high school teachers to share the exemplary activities and demonstrations they have found useful in implementing the curriculum. May 15, 2000, a two hour meeting for middle school teachers to share exemplary activities and demonstrations.

6. A series of 11 full day (6 contact hour), building based meetings. Project Director Scott Stowell and selected EWU faculty and Disciplinary Team members met with teachers from each middle school and high school in the project. Teachers from a specific grade level were released from their classrooms for a day to participate in professional development activities, discuss the progress of the project in their building and to plan for the implementation of units to be taught in the future. As a result, virtually every teacher in the project attended.

7. A one week summer workshop for Disciplinary Team members with consultant Audrey Champagne to revise classroom based assessment instruments for the curricular units in grades 7-10. Eleven of the 13 teacher members and 5 EWU faculty participated. During this week the participants examined student responses to the classroom based assessment instruments collected during the previous year. This provided valuable information on the quality of student understanding and provided clear directions that were used to improve assessment tasks, scoring guides and program delivery.

8. A one week summer workshop for grade 7-12 teachers. Special emphasis was placed on "Teaching for Understanding." To that end, consultant James Minstrell made a one day presentation that opened the workshop. We also presented parallel sessions on science content in which university faculty and Disciplinary Team members led discussions of essential science concepts underlying the units of instruction. Teachers were able to select those sessions they considered most appropriate. Concurrent sessions were also presented to give teachers practice using the equipment and computer resources for the instructional units. Of particular interest was the equipment used in the physics curriculum. At the end of the week, teachers rated this workshop very highly.

9. A one day summer workshop for Building Teams to revise their building plans for the coming year. The school teams shared their experiences, and discussed the implementation of the curriculum for the year. Of particular interest was the district decision to set the order of instruction in grades 7-9. Schools had been given the option of setting their own order for the units, but this was causing difficulty for students who transferred from one school to another. So the district asked that the teachers agree on a set schedule that would be implemented by all the schools. This workshop was not part of the original proposal to NSF, but was clearly needed, so it was added to the schedule.

10. A two day meeting of the External Advisory Committee. The Project Directors invited selected businesses and agencies in Washington State to send representatives to attend this meeting. The representatives were primarily scientists and engineers with strong technological backgrounds, and they came from organizations such as Avista, Boeing, Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Hewlett-Packard, Agilent Technologies, the US Geological Survey, Northwest Mining Association, and Immunex Corporation. We spent half a day describing and discussing our project to prepare these individuals to go into the schools and observe the project in action. They spent half a day doing this, meeting with students and principals, and observing classrooms and teacher meetings. Then they returned to share their observations and make recommendations for the project. This was an extremely successful and useful process. The representatives were very supportive of the goals of the project, and were keen observers in the schools. They were quick to spot any differences between what was envisioned and what was actually happening. They encouraged the project to continue with its direction, but made useful recommendations as to how improvements could be made in the implementation. One important observation concerns a discontinuity in the transition from the elementary school program to the middle school. It is clear that we need to improve this transition, and that 6th and 7th grade teachers need to be much more aware of each others' programs. The External Advisory Committee meeting will be an annual event for the rest of the project.

This has been a very active period for the project. We had reached the point where a number of schools were on board and functioning effectively to implement the goals of the project. Other schools were not working cooperatively within their buildings, and while they were attempting to meet the goals, their effectiveness was limited by not working collectively. We also concluded that the follow-up meetings were not addressing the concerns at the building level, so we abandoned those meetings in favor of the building based meetings. We found this to be a very wise and effective change. It was an enormous effort, especially on the part of Project Director Scott Stowell, but he feels that it was absolutely necessary and extremely successful. We were able to make contact with teachers who had not gotten involved in the project in significant ways before, and to help them structure effective methods for planning and implementing the project in their buildings. Such meetings are continuing for the coming year. They are a little more expensive to operate, since they require subbing out the teachers for each meeting, so we can afford fewer meetings. The total amount of professional development time involved in these meetings is equal to the previous amount, but the meetings are more productive and reach all science staff.

We have continued to develop our curricular materials. This includes revised and improved course outlines, revised assessments, development of useful formative and diagnostic assessment instruments, and creation of a concept map for each of the 16 units in the grade 7-10 curriculum. Most of this material is available on the Spokane School District home page for the secondary science project. The biggest change we have had to make in the curriculum is to reduce the number of concepts and activities in some of the units. There was too much material to be covered in the specified time frame if student understanding was the goal. The improvements to the units provide a lot more support, clarity, and structure for the teachers.

A goal of the project is to create communities of teachers working together, especially at the building level. The Building Teams are the primary mechanism to accomplish this goal. In those buildings where teachers are meeting regularly on project issues, the implementation is proceeding effectively. What is more, many of those teachers have recognized the value of cooperation and are committed to it. In those schools where cooperative efforts have not developed to the same degree, the changes envisioned in the project are proving harder to accomplish. This is working better in the high schools than in the middle schools. Only one high school is struggling, and that one is in temporary quarters while the school is being remodeled and expanded. Several middle schools have not developed an effective team approach, and while individual teachers are working hard to deliver the curriculum as intended, they are not adequately supported by a community of colleagues. So there are serious issues to be resolved that include the leadership and the learning/teaching cultural within these middle schools.

The Spokane School District adopted a "coordinated science" curriculum in grades 7-10 to replace the previous year long courses. This means that students will experience units of instruction in all four of the science subject matter areas in each of these grades. Average length of the units was originally 9 weeks, but the units at the middle school level have been reduced to a total of 30 weeks of instruction. This allows for the inevitable interruptions of instruction that occur in every school. At this point the units are aligned "vertically" in each of the four discipline strands, and there is some linking of similar concepts "horizontally" across the units of a grade level. In the 9th grade, energy was selected as a unifying theme for all four units. Teachers are finding areas of overlap as they teach the units, so we expect some integration will occur as the teachers become more familiar with the curriculum. In addition, a spiraling approach is built into the framework, so that concepts introduced in grades 7 and 8 are revisited and extended in grades 9 and 10.

The process of assembling the curricular units is not curriculum development per se, because very few new materials are being created. It is more a process of matching available materials to the learning targets to construct coherent units of study. It is, however, time consuming and exacting work, so it is not surprising that revisions have been necessary. In addition, the State of Washington Essential Academic Learning Requirements in science changed between the first and second years of the project, necessitating additional changes in the units. At this point, a number of the units are near final form, while others still need work. Overall, this part of the project is taking more time and energy than anticipated.

Another important part of the project is preparing the 7-10th grade teachers to teach in all four discipline areas, since previously they taught year long courses in a single subject. The consequences are that the teachers need additional content knowledge in up to three science subject areas, and the instructional units need to be very teacher friendly, with clear directions, unit outlines, and background support.

2.2. Project Findings

To implement the science reform agenda at the secondary level requires a number of significant changes in the way that science is taught and learned. For many teachers, this amounts to a cultural change that requires them to give up practices previously considered appropriate in favor of practices that have been demonstrated to improve student learning. Here are some lessons we have learned in this project.

1. It is fairly easy to get teachers to buy into the vision of "teaching for understanding" and the attainment of higher performance standards, but it is much more difficult for them to make that vision operational in their teaching practices.

2. It is a time consuming task to match available curricular materials to the State of Washington Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALRs) in science so that the units are coherent and provide students the opportunity to learn what is in the content standards. Very little commercially available instructional material can be used without modification.

3. Teachers who begin to work cooperatively in their schools quickly discover the value and power in this approach.

4. Choosing to use a coordinated science approach in grades 7-10 introduces some significant challenges for the project. Most important is the need for teachers to learn new subject matter. However, the project directors believe that this choice increases the likelihood of meaningful improvements in students' understanding of science.

5. Teachers have a hard time writing assessment tasks that measure understanding. They tend to fall back on the traditional information retrieval questions unless they are given careful guidance and feedback.

2.3. Project Training/Development

a. Deepening teachers' content knowledge.This is addressed by several mechanisms. First, we discovered that our teachers are not as prepared academically for their jobs as we would like, especially since the grade 7-10 teachers are teaching in new subject matter areas. We have, therefore, offered a series of science content courses in the subject matter disciplines. Presented by EWU faculty specialists assisted by a Discipline Team teacher, these courses are of 10 hours duration, and emphasize the essential concepts to be taught. These courses were funded by Eisenhower funds. We are finding that the need for these courses is decreasing with time as the teacher become more comfortable with the subject matter. However, improving subject matter expertise will be a continuing part of the project.

b. Deepening teacher understanding of effective pedagogy and assessment that promotes student learning. Summer workshops operate as much as possible in the learning style that is the goal of the project. Teachers are introduced to the "pre quiz" for each unit, and shown how to use it to generate student conceptions of natural phenomena. Then teachers go through sample activities that are designed to move students toward more scientifically accurate conceptions. Having teachers take assessments, critique them and create them are effective activities. If we feel that teachers are uncomfortable about their state of knowledge when taking an assessment, we ask them to respond as they think their students might. That takes away the onus of a "wrong answer." The district science web page has hot links to Internet sites that provide information about unit concepts. In summer, 2000, teachers experienced the approach developed by James Minstrell for developing concepts in physics through what Jim calls "elicitation questions." This was a valuable experience for many of our teachers, and successfully focused their attention on important instructional issues.

c. Helping teachers become conversant with the instructional materials designated for classroom use. This is primarily done in the summer workshops. Our experience is that teachers place such a high priority on this issue that they will accomplish very little else until they feel comfortable with this one. Our revised units provide a great deal of help to teachers in how to use the materials effectively. The learning targets are made very clear, and common student misconceptions are described. In addition, post instruction sharing among teachers at project meetings is of enormous benefit. The building based meetings are providing ideal opportunities to focus on these issues.

d. Supporting teachers as they implement the materials in their classroom. The mechanism designed to address this issue is the Building Team, which provides direct support when possible, but also acts as a referral service for teachers to get linked up with those in the project that can help them. A second mechanism is the district's science web page, with links to EWU faculty and Discipline Team teachers and a bulletin board.

See the attached list of professional development hours completed by each teacher. Again, the building based meetings are proving very helpful.

Beginning September, 2000, we have begun to use a new mechanism for assisting teachers in their classrooms. James Slavicek retired from full time teaching, and is now under contract part time to provide professional support in the project. Jim was an exemplary physics teacher, and a member of the physics disciplinary team. He has worked closely with Jim Minstrell for years, and thoroughly understands his methods. Jim is available to go out to schools and help individual teachers and groups of teachers, especially with the physics curriculum, computer-based technology, and equipment issues. Jim is able to teach demonstration lessons, provide coaching, and assist teachers plan their own instruction.

2.4. Outreach activities

Since the November 15, 1999, Annual Report, Projector Director Scott Stowell has made presentations about the project at the following meetings: 1. In January, 2000, at the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction "Annual Reform Conference." 2. In March, 2000, for the Washington Education Research Association. 3. In April, 2000, in Orlando, Florida, for the National Research Council. 4. In October, 2000, at the Washington Science Teachers' Association annual conference in Vancouver, Washington.

Professional Development hours for each teacher through August 20, 2000.