Jeff's Corner

What have we learned?

Jeffrey M. Priest, Ph.D.

Associate Director, South Carolina Statewide Systemic Initiative

It's hard to believe that another summer has come and gone already! I hope everyone has had a peaceful, restful, yet productive summer. I thought I was going to have a chance to catch up on things that I let slide the rest of the year, however, I think I fell further behind instead!

I did get a chance to visit my parents in Florida for a couple of days. I normally bring lots of work with me (and never get around to doing it), but this time I only brought my computer with the idea of spending some time capturing my thoughts on what we have learned about science and mathematics education reform since the Center was established in June of 1987 (January 1988 for me). What follows are my thoughts.

Science and mathematics education (and the education system in general) has changed tremendously since I came to South Carolina in January of 1988, or has it? Back then I was immersed into the world of BSAP. It was during this time that the state (and nation) began to acknowledge that students weren't doing as well as expected. The Nation at Risk had been out a few years informing us that students were lagging behind other countries. Soon to follow was the First International Mathematics and Science Study (followed by the Second and Third Studies) that compared science and mathematics knowledge of our students to students from the other industrialised nations.

With this "revelation" came a "revolution". The report indicated that we were both asking too much of our students, while not asking enough of them. By this I mean, we were trying to throw too much information at them, while at the same time not requiring them to understand what we were giving them (the mile wide and inch deep syndrome). Armed with this information, the leading educators and education organizations began to develop standards, not only for what students should know, but for how we should teach them. The results were the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards in mathematics and the National Science Education Standards in Science.

In South Carolina, we paralleled the development of the national standards. First we published the Frameworks and just this past year, published the Curriculum Achievement Standards.

With the development of these various documents, it was recognized that professional development would play a key role in the success of the reform efforts. Educators would need to participate in professional development activities over an extended period of time if these efforts were indeed to be successful in improving student achievement. As a result, the National Science Foundation awarded South Carolina a statewide systemic initiative grant to help develop an infrastructure that would help make reform a reality in South Carolina. The end result would be improved student achievement. Parallel to this, the State Legislature mandated that the standards be the basis of our education system and that schools be held accountable for student success.

Well, where are we now? Are we seeing greater student achievement? Has the reform effort been successful? I wish these were easy questions to answer. But when you deal with systemic reform, no answer is ever simple. Let me answer the last two questions first before I answer where we are now.

Are we seeing increased student achievement? Well, yes and no. BSAP test scores and MAT7 test scores were steadily rising. However, when we changed over to the more challenging PACT assessment, it seems that the increased student achievement witnessed in BSAP did not hold for PACT. However, comparing BSAP to PACT is like comparing apples to oranges. We need to withhold judgment for another 2 years before we can really determine the success of reform by using PACT.

Has the reform effort been successful? Again, this is not a simple question to answer. If you base your answer on one set of PACT scores, the answer would have to be no. However, when you look a little deeper, the answer becomes a definite maybe! This may sound like a wishy-washy answer, however, we are talking about systemic reform, which is chaotic in itself and sometimes wishy-washy at the best. I believe that it is still too early to determine the success or failure of the reform movement. However, some schools have done really well by adopting the tenets of the reform movement, and other schools have not done as well. The real failure would be if we don't learn from both the successes and failures.

This leads to the answer to my final question. Where are we now? Right now we are learning from both our successes and failures. What we have learned to date in South Carolina parallels what the research literature is telling us is happening in the nation.

First and foremost is that systemic reform is both top down and bottom up. Without the efforts and support of both administrators (superintendents, district personnel and principals) and teachers, education reform does not occur. Policy by itself does not ensure success, and rarely does a school become successful through the grassroots efforts of a few teachers without having a policy in place that supports these efforts (Fullan 1999, and Fullan, 2000).

A key indicator of school success is "school professionalism". This is difficult to measure. However, those schools that have an increased school professionalism seem to have key characteristics in common. First, the principal is truly the instructional leader at the school. The principal recognizes the importance of the use of data to make informed decisions about school processes, and requires teachers to use data to make informed decisions about instruction. Teachers at these schools participate in professional organizations. Teachers take control of their own professional development activities, including facilitating their own professional development activities. Teachers at these successful schools tend to work as teams and units. They are provided time to work together to discuss curriculum and student work. Teachers use data to guide their instruction.

This is supported by a report of the National Partnership for Excellence and Accountability in Teaching published recently in the Journal of Staff Development (Summer 2000). In this report it advocates learner centered professional development. Successful learner centered professional development a) creates a collaborative culture, b) develops leadership skills, c) enhances teacher and administrator capacity for data analysis and d) builds communities of learning that transcend the school.

In Will Teacher Learning Advance School Goals? (King and Newman, 2000, April), King and Newman outline four key concepts for professional development and teacher learning:

1. Teacher learning is most likely to occur when teachers can concentrate on instruction and student outcomes in specific contexts in which they teach.

2. Teacher learning is most likely to occur when teachers have sustained opportunities to study, to experiment with, and to receive helpful feedback on specific innovations.

3. Teacher learning is most likely to occur when teachers collaborate with professional peers, both within and outside of their schools, and when they gain further expertise through access to external researchers and program developers.

4. Teacher learning is most likely to occur when teachers have influence over the substance and process of professional development.

As we look at successful schools in South Carolina, we find that many of these schools have incorporated much of the above as part of their school culture. However, as Fullan states in Change Forces the Sequel (1999), there are no magic bullets; all reform must occur from within the context of the educational setting (the school).

I believe that South Carolina is heading in the right direction. I also believe that the programs offered through the Statewide Systemic Initiative are on target and certainly supported by the research. But like any systemic change peocess, it takes time.

I'll leave you with a final thought from Fullan's book. It is one of his eight complex change lessons (eight common elements for systemic change) and my favorite (the one that tells me we are on the right track). In order for systemic reform to occur, you must "understand the meaning of operating on the edge of chaos" (Fullan, 1999).

I might not truly understand its meaning, but I certainly know about operating on the edge of chaos. I bet you do, too!

Have a great school year!


Literature Cited

Fullan, M. (1999). Change Forces The Sequel. Philadelphia: Falmer Press, Taylor & Francis Inc.

NPEAT (2000). Revisioning Professional Development. A report of the National Partnership for Excellence and Accountability in Teaching. Journal of Staff Development, 21 (3), 300-305.

King, B., & Newman, F.(2000, April). Will Teacher Learning Advance School Goals? Phi Delta Kappan, pp. 576-580.

Fullan, M. (2000, April). The Three Stories of Education Reform. Phi Delta Kappan, pp. 581-584.

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 The Ruth Patrick Science Education Center Newsletter is a publication of the RPSEC for educators. The Center encompasses the CSRA HUB, CEET, Dupont Planetarium, and NRSMEEP. If you have any information that would be beneficical to the audience of this newsletter, or would like to be added to the mailing list, please contact Cindy Sparling, Editor, at (803) 641-3594. Deadline for submission in the next newsletter is Nov. 5, 2000

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