Reflections by George Hein

George Hein

To begin, I want to thank Joni and Brian for providing me the opportunity to be part of this conference. I've participated in and watched public school science activities (I don't want to use the term "reform") for a long time and it's both sobering and impressive to look at current practice from a perspective that covers several decades. It's a delight to read posters from colleagues with whom I've worked over the years, as well as from districts and consortia that are clearly building on work that goes back well before the beginning of the LSC's. There's evidence of long term commitment, growth (or at the minimum perseverance) over a significant time period. My own faith in public schools and the potential for sound educational opportunities for all children is strengthened and reaffirmed when I read of the hard work, commitment and the dedication that you all display in your descriptions.

A. The LSC Program.
What comes through most clearly is that the LSC Program is working; that it is. It's doing what it was intended to do: to increase the amount of materials-based, "inquiry" science in classrooms, mainly through the infusion of funds to provide extensive professional development and the use of the newer (mostly) non-textbook curriculum materials. I think it's no small accomplishment to provide professional development for hundreds of teachers in an organized way; to develop systems for acquiring, distributing and refurbishing science materials and to get busy teachers, under enormous pressure to improve literacy, to devote precious time to actually have science happen in their classrooms. You've all managed this, and it's a tremendous achievement. Not every NSF sponsored program can make this claim.

The first rule for carrying out any evaluation is to determine what it is that you're evaluating. Before you can look at outcomes, impact or even unintended results, you need to know whether the program you're evaluating has actually taken place. Your posters describe putting in place LSC activities as they were envisioned in the program. Congratulations!

B. Some Major Themes
In reading the posters there were a number of major themes that emerged for me that may be useful to consider. I want to discuss a few of these.

B. 1. The Unending Need for Professional Development Whether because of system growth, turnover or reassignment, a number of projects mentioned the need for continually going back to "square one" and providing PD for teachers. A few give startling, but common, statistics of high teacher turnover so that only 501f the original project teachers are left after any 3-year period. But even in the most stable situations, teachers ask for renewal and refresher courses, or they want to achieve a next level of comfort with the material and/or they want and need the support and stimulation of the PD activities.

The required continuing PD activities are even more evident when we start to consider administrators. Several of you mentioned the relatively short tenure of superintendents; others stressed the need to provide experiences for principals and other administrators. What all staff need is the opportunity to see teachers in action doing inquiry, materials-based science. That's another reason for the unending need of PD.

B.2. The need to balance competing priorities and/or money Another recurring theme is the concern for balancing competing interests. After a few years of focus on science "reform," the new superintendent wants a different focus, the literacy program needs special attention, or the money has disappeared for any continuing initiatives. It's tough to keep the district focused on what you're doing in the last year of a grant when it's no longer new and exciting, something else (either a new opportunity or a new crisis) is in the limelight and all those special dollars are going to disappear soon, anyway. So the need to begin science programs is unending!

B.3 Underestimating the difficulties and the time it takes In general, many of you stated in your posters that you had underestimated the difficulty and time required for some of the tasks. One example of many was the phrase, "It is impossible to underestimate the differences in the dynamics between working with volunteers and working with everyone." The strength of LSC is its focus on systemic efforts that include all the teachers in a district; the difficulty in implementing LSC is that it includes all the teachers in a district!

C. What can we conclude from all this?
Perhaps the best conclusion from these themes of the difficulties you have despite your enormous efforts is that the scope, the time frame and the perspective - the reasons for supporting materials-based, inquiry science are frequently conceptualized in too limited terms. Let me address each of these separately.

C. 1. Scope. Recognizing the systemic nature of the scope of school change was a major advance and has lead to the LSC (and other systemic) approach. But what we can conclude from your descriptions of the program is that the system chosen simply isn't broad enough. What is needed to support the kind of science I believe in is to look at the system of the whole society. I realize that statement can be viewed as trivial or romantic (or both) since it represents such a broad perspective and moves so far beyond the level that can be dealt with by science education staff. But, several major obstacles to achieving your goals that are repeatedly mentioned in the posters are at levels that are beyond the control of the personnel at a local school district. There's recurring reference to the difficulties for LSC efforts from NCLB; current public agency budget problems; the general downturn in the economy; and the stresses resulting on the apparent failures of schools to help children achieve literacy. (The last of these is a common perception about schools that is totally at odds with the results of international testing comparisons.)

What I conclude from reading the posters as well as my previous experiences with LSCs and with other science education efforts in schools is that school districts, in the whole can do a pretty decent job of mobilizing their forces, introducing new curriculum and materials, and finding resources to support teachers, but that the efforts repeatedly fail to bring about much change because the politics of the larger society thwart them in some way or other.

C. 2. Time: Not surprisingly, many of the posters mention time as an issue. Teachers don't have enough time to do all that's expected of them, staff are similarly stressed and, above all, five years isn't very long to bring about change, and certainly not long enough to demonstrate changes in student performance, based on a professional development model. The time frame in which you are expected to do your transformation and show very specific evidence of "success" (the relationship between the evidence that's accepted-- by whom? -- and the work is another controversial issue.) If we are, indeed, talking about societal change, isn't it obvious that a generation is needed to demonstrate this?

C. 3. Perspective: What I want to argue (briefly), is that we have to take a very broad view in order to maintain our commitment to materials-based, inquiry science in the face of all these obstacles. Why bother to do this difficult work? I suspect that many of you clearly see the value for your students and for yourself, but these reasons are not front and center on our daily work. It is evident to teachers that children benefit from this science, that teachers can come to appreciate its value both for the students and themselves and that developing rich, active classrooms has practical benefits for all involved.

But the overriding reason for helping our children to expand their ability to think (inquiry) and to recognize the complexity of the natural world and the interconnection between theory and practice (materials based) is because it's the best approach to education for a democratic society. The argument for this is both simple and complex (It takes Dewey the whole of Democracy and Education to elaborate it.) But simply put, we need to help children recognize that they can think for themselves, that they live in a social environment and that conclusions about the world around them always can and should be conditional, subject to continuing questioning. We need to do this in order to preserve our democratic society. That is the only level at which we can successfully argue for the continuation of the science education you are implementing.

D. Other comments:

D. 1. Equity: I longed for more discussion of equity issues. One of the most serious problems of our schools and our society, and one of the most dangerous challenges to promoting a democratic society is the dramatic gap, social and economic, between various segments of society. The economists tell us that the gap between the richest and the poorest is widening. We know from our schools that the achievement gap is not narrowing and we're struggling with inequalities in schooling. But I read very little about what the LSC's are doing about equity issues. Is this no longer an NSF emphasis? Note: One poster reported: "Encouraging evidence has been obtained that the achievement gap at Grade 4 between white and black students has been significantly reduced in many schools." Bravo.

D. 2 Science: The way your posters were set up, what you were asked to write about, prevented me from reading what I'm most interested in, namely the amount of science that actually takes place in the classrooms. For me, the unique quality of science that distinguishes it form other forms of inquiry, is that it always has to refer back to the actual behavior of the natural world, and that behavior is quite erratic and complex. We struggle to find general laws but the individual experiences of anyone experimenting are much more varied. Plants die, balls don't bounce as expected and test tubes break. That's the way of the natural world (just as cars don't start, a recipe doesn't come out as intended and the videorecorder setting records the wrong program.) I would have loved to read about how you manage the continuing struggle between the realities of inquiry science in the classroom and the desire to find regularities in nature.

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