A More Synergistic Whole
In July 1999, Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and a long-time veteran of the curriculum reform effort, stood before a crowd of teachers gathered to learn about the latest NSF-sponsored K-12 curricula.
"We've been saying the same thing since Sputnik," he exclaimed. "We need inquiry-based curricula, we need to make thinking citizens of our children. But we also need to do more than just produce good material." He pounded the lectern once or twice for emphasis, as if to mark time with the teachers' nodding heads. "What good is the best textbook if teachers aren't given the time, material, and support they need to prepare themselves to use it?"
One of the things NSF learned from its curriculum reform efforts in the 1960s and 1970s was that more needed to be done to prepare teachers to use new materials. Today that means setting up training opportunities that meet not just for a couple of weeks in the summer but also in the evenings or on the weekends, or even over the Internetwhatever best accommodates the teachers' own schedules and far-flung locations. Teachers learn not just about the content of the new curriculum, but also the practical aspects of implementing it.
This includes everything from new ways to assess students' progress (for example, through students' daily journals) to suggestions for gaining support from parents, colleagues, and school boards. NSF programs also encourage school districts to free up senior teachers already trained in the new curricula to coach others.
Stronger professional development for teachers and improved materials are crucial, but by themselves won't be enough to make a major difference in the way students learn. What's needed is a larger vision that addresses all the factors affecting the success of a student's educational experience. At NSF, a key part of that vision can be summed up in two words: systemic reform.
The idea is simple even if the execution is notin order for a better set of practices to take hold in a school, everything influencing the school system must be reevaluated, from parental involvement right on up to statewide laws and policies concerning education. NSF launched the Statewide Systemic Initiatives (SSI) program in 1991. In the program's first three years, NSF provided funds to 25 states and Puerto Rico to help them start on systemic reform. Today, seven states and Puerto Rico are participating in a second phase of the SSI program. In addition, modified systemic approaches form the basis of the Rural Systemic Initiatives (RSI) and Urban Systemic Initiatives (USI), and the Local Systemic Change (LSC) component of NSF's teacher enhancement programs.
Through these programs, NSF grants funds to local school systems with well-thought-out plans for how to reform K-12 science and mathematics education at the state, city, or regional level. So far, NSF has spent more than $700 million on such efforts.
How well can systemic reform work? During the 1994-95 school year, the first year that NSF funded the urban systemic program, Chicago's school system saw significantly more of its students score above the national norm in mathematics on a commonly used assessment called the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. What's more, Chicago students' performance in mathematics has increased in 61 out of 62 high schools, suggesting that improvement is occurring across the board. Similar results have been achieved in Detroit, where students from a diverse range of public schools performed significantly better on a state standards test after the Detroit Urban Systemic Program implemented sections of the Connected Mathematics curriculum. And in Dallas, the number of students passing science and mathematics Advanced Placement tests has tripled since the start of NSF systemic reform funding.
On the state level, Puerto Rico has raised its students' achievement in science and mathematics with an innovative pyramid system that brings systemic reform to one school at a time. The NSF-supported effort, which began in 1992, has so far brought standards-based curricula into more than one-quarter of the island's schools.
"Everybody said it was a clumsy idea because it takes so long," Manuel Gomez, head of the Puerto Rico SSI, told a reporter in 1998. "But I said, 'Be patient. It will work if we give it time.'"
Given the complexities, time is a critical factor to the success of any systemic reform initiativetime, and local school systems willing to commit energy and resources long after NSF's initial support has kick-started reform.
"The underlying belief of systemic reform is that piecemeal attempts, limited by finite projects and inadequate funding, will not change the system, its culture, and its capacity to share what happens in the classroom," says Daryl Chubin, a senior policy officer with the National Science Board, the governing body of NSF. "Change requires conviction and staying power. Nothing happens quickly."