The National Science Foundation and Systemic Reform

By Janice Earle and Julia C. Wan

The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Statewide Systemic Initiatives (SSI) Program represents a new federal strategy for NSF. Previously, NSF funded individual program components but these components did not address issues of systemic reform such as comprehensiveness, scale and sustainability. A primary operating assumption in systemic programs is that a tighter and more coherent alignment of state policies and resources will produce improved instruction in science and mathematics with subsequent improvements in student achievement. In order to create alignment, several of the significant components of the system must be examined and modified. For example, the SSI states have worked with curriculum through creating or revising state curriculum frameworks that are based on national standards, and creating or disseminating new materials. Some states are revising assessment and accountability programs. All SSI states are working on professional development programs for teachers and administrators. Others focus on policy alignment through changes in teacher certification, state graduation requirements, and pre-service education programs.

A primary goal of the SSI is high quality science, mathematics, and technology (SMT) education for ALL students. This means making the education "systems" more equitable in terms of learning opportunities and in terms of who takes (and succeeds in) advanced science and mathematics courses. The under-participation of certain groups of students in advanced science, mathematics, and technology education is well documented. The SSI seeks to effect change in student participation and performance by transforming school curriculum, classroom instruction, and teacher education, and by increasing parental support so that ALL students have opportunities suited to their needs to learn science, mathematics, and technology education. This includes benchmarks for curriculum, assessment, professional development, management and governance, policies, partnerships, articulation, and evaluation which have been developed by the states to guide this effort.

What Strategies are States Using to Implement SSI?

One key SSI strategy is the creation or strengthening of partnerships. Successful systemic reform requires the collaboration of educators at all levels, state and local policymakers, business and industry, parents, and the community at large.

Strong connections and articulation between K-12 and higher education are critical elements in SMT education reform. The crucial roles that higher education can play in K-12 reform fall into three categories: (1) the professional community from the disciplines can provide up-to-date content expertise in the development of curriculum frameworks, instructional materials, and standards implementation; (2) the science and mathematics education researchers can provide knowledge on pedagogy and developmentally appropriate concepts in curriculum and instruction; and (3) science and mathematics educators are key players in teacher pre-service and in-service development. The following examples illustrate how four SSI states are creating partnerships for reform.

Expertise in Curriculum, Instructional Materials, and Standards

Montana's SSI is a partnership of the Montana Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the University of Montana and Montana State, and the Department of Public Instruction. The SSI's primary area of focus has been the development of a 9-12 mathematics curriculum that uses an integrated, interdisciplinary approach. Integrated mathematics means integration across mathematics topics, integration with other disciplines (arts and sciences), and integration with technology. This initiative is led by two mathematics professors, one from each of the two major state universities, working collaboratively with a team of high school mathematics teachers. Teaching modules for grades 9 and 10 have been created, field-tested, revised, and reviewed by national experts. This curriculum has been used in more than a quarter of the state's ninth grade classrooms to date. Tenth-grade materials are now being piloted and revised, and the eleventh- and twelfth-grade materials are being written.

The Montana SSI goal is that this curriculum will change mathematics in a majority of the state's high schools. Eventually, this curriculum will be commercially available nationwide.

Montana is also revising teacher certification standards for mathematics, to align them with the changes in the mathematics curriculum promoted by the SSI.

Mathematics and Science Pedagogy

A cornerstone of Ohio's SSI is a program of intensive, six-week summer institutes for middle school teachers that focus on inquiry teaching. Courses are offered in Physics, Life Science, and Mathematics by Inquiry, supplemented by academic year professional development seminars. The summer institutes are developed and conducted by higher education faculty at Miami University and Ohio State University. To date, almost 700 middle school teachers have participated in the program. Observers in these teachers' classrooms describe less use of texts, and high rates of questioning, use of student journals, active teaching, checking for understanding, and letting students analyze findings rather than having teachers explain everything.

Recent reports show that other universities (11 institutions of higher education in partnership with the Ohio SSI) have mathematics and science faculty attending the inquiry courses with middle school teachers. These universities are now attempting to implement inquiry courses in their own institutions. These courses are aimed at future teachers. Faculty have struggled with implementing these ideas in their institutions, and comment particularly on the dilemma of "breadth versus depth" (hands-on approaches mean you cover less content, but the content is better understood by students). While these courses are now electives, they are undergoing an approval review process, and it is anticipated that the inquiry courses in mathematics, physics and life sciences will be available for all pre-service teachers.

Teacher Pre-service and In-service

Connecticut and Louisiana are examples of SSI states that have strengthened pre-service and in-service delivery as part of the states' systemic reform plan.

Connecticut has increasingly focused on institutions of higher education, beginning modestly in 1991 to foster "dialogues" between those in the K 12 system and in institutions of higher education. Out of these dialogues grew partnerships to establish "co-teaching" in over 20 locations. Co teaching involves having K-12 teachers work in colleges and universities co-teaching methods courses. Mathematics and science professors become actively engaged in elementary and secondary schools.

Following the dialogues, a grants program was instituted. Currently, Southern Connecticut State University, Quinnipiac College, Connecticut College, Western Connecticut State University, St. Joseph College, Central Connecticut State University, and the University of Connecticut have all received funds to work closely with K-12 schools and to modify courses at the undergraduate level. The Institutes of Higher Education (IHEs) that train over 90 percent of the state's teachers have restructured student teaching experiences, provided resources for a mathematics and science resource center, and institutionalized co-teaching. Another program at Wesleyan University provides intensive professional development to middle school mathematics and science teachers. Half of the teachers in this program come from Connecticut's high poverty, high need districts.

Another example of a strong K-12 and higher education partnership in systemic reform is the Louisiana Statewide Systemic Initiative. The Louisiana Board of Regents for Higher Education is the lead institution for the Initiative, which had professional development of grades 4-8 science and mathematics teachers as a major focus.

The professional development model is based on: (1) specifically designed course content with emphasis on reasoning, investigating, and practical understanding of concepts; (2) recruitment of 30 mathematics and/or science teachers in pairs from schools for each workshop or institute; (3) summer and/or academic-year institutes providing 120-180 hours of concentrated, integrated exposure to grade-level relevant content and methods; (4) academic-year follow-up activities including classroom visits and day-long workshops; (5) $300 allotment per teacher for classroom materials; (6) graduate credit for successful participation in the project; and (7) stipends of $60 per day for program participants.

The Louisiana professional development activities described above are jointly planned and implemented by mathematicians/scientists, mathematics/science educators, and teacher leaders as site coordinators. Site coordinators are the bridge connecting summer workshops and classroom instruction. They are chosen from K-12 and higher education for their extensive classroom experience and knowledge of curriculum and assessment.

Louisiana SSI professional development projects are awarded competitively to universities, based on recommendations of out-of-state expert panels. In the past three years seventy-four projects, involving most of the private and public universities in Louisiana, have been implemented and over 2,400 classroom teachers have participated in these intensive, in-depth teacher in-service activities.


Although the SSIs are still in the middle of implementing their initiatives, we take note of the following preliminary observations on the contributions of strong K-12 and higher education partnerships:

1. The partnerships strengthen K-12 programs because they bring the expertise of faculty in mathematics, science and pedagogy to the reform efforts;

2. Teacher preparation and development programs are improved because of the perspective and active involvement of K-12 teachers;

3. Mathematics and science professors have become more reflective of their own teaching practices and are using new pedagogy with their students;

4. The synergy of the partnerships has accelerated each state's progress toward reform, through providing a common vision and agenda for improvement and developing strategies that will make the reform sustainable.

Back to Table of Contents of the Spring 1995 Issue of On Common Ground

© 1997 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

© 2018 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
Terms of Use Contact YNHTI