As Science for All Americans neared completion, questions of implementation came into view, and the need for Project 2061 to have a better understanding of the education system became more and more apparent. To that end, the project arbitrarily—but with lots of advice—identified a dozen key parts of the education system and then sought the help of experts in describing those parts and their interactions. The result of all of this was Blueprints for Reform.
Systemic reform in education can, it would seem, be approached as a line of action and a line of thought. Most of what has been happening has been on the action side—bringing the right organizations, institutions, and agencies together in common cause to solve urgent problems. A sensible and necessary step. But the thought side is also important, though it has received less attention. This is perfectly understandable. We know, after all, that reform will elude us unless we work in concert to find and carry out solutions, and we need to get on with it now; understanding seems less urgent.
There is a give-and-take between action and understanding. Through their actions, reformers have increased our understanding of what reform might entail. But to be effective in the long-run, our actions need to be informed by an understanding of education as a system. For that Project 2061 has found Blueprints useful and think it might be similarly useful for our colleagues who are engaged in and thinking about systemic reform in science, mathematics, and technology education.
System is an idea that helps us think about parts and wholes. It draws our attention to the interactions of the parts of something with one another and to the relation of the parts to the whole. The idea also emphasizes effects-what influences the behavior of something and what, in turn, that thing accomplishes. Blueprints for Reform was created on the premise that it is useful to think of education as a system. More particularly, it grew out of Project 2061’s conviction that serious efforts to achieve the science literacy goals in Science for All Americans ought to be based on an understanding of education as a system.
Project 2061’s approach to reform is national and systemic. We define the educational system to include more than students, teachers, and school administrators. The organizational structures where these people work and the laws and policies that affect them must also be included in systemic change. Further, business leaders, textbook and test publishers, academic and industrial scientists, and many others must be involved if change is to take place at the necessary scale and depth to make science literacy a reality.
The Foundation: Equity, Policy, Finance, and Research
There are many reasons why making policy and financial decisions to foster equity in science education is difficult. The skill that diverse constituencies have in influencing federal, state, and local policy makers is one, and the lack of agreement on what constitutes equity is another. In the long run, making good policy decisions about equity is hard because the needed data and research on what works are limited. Despite these difficulties, Project 2061 remains committed to the idea of science literacy for all students and to setting standards and expectations to work toward this goal. Examples of successful programs provide plenty of reason to believe that the goal is possible, given the will and necessary resources.
It sometimes seems as though policy and finance are as inseparable as light and shadow. Policies usually have financial consequences, and financial resources generally influence, if not determine, policy. A school board policy decision, based on sound educational principles, to decrease the student/teacher ratio, lengthen the school year, or increase the number of after-school activities will add substantial costs to the annual budget. The same board, under the threat of a large budget deficit might, for sound financial reasons, increase the student/teacher ratio, shorten the school year, or decrease the number of after-school student activities.
To be sure, in practice the intertwining of policy and finance is not a simple matter. It is not always evident, for example, what the dollar cost of an educational policy decision will turn out to be nor what the educational cost of a budget decision will turn out to be. One thing we can be certain of, however, is that rarely will policy or financial decisions have the same impact on all students. Educational equity may be a great rallying cry in the United States, but it is far from having been achieved. Whether science for all Americans can become a reality any time soon depends on how thoughtfully policy and financial decisions are made in the years ahead-a daunting prospect in the face of the political pluralism and dispersed decision-making that characterizes our education system.
Systematic research in education of the right kind and quality is needed to inform education policies and practices. The case for thinking of research as a foundation for every aspect of education may rest more on optimistic hopes for the future than on incontrovertible evidence from the past. The current picture of research with its successes, failures, impediments and opportunities is notable for the absence of a clearly articulated research agenda built around the idea of science literacy. An important characteristic of such an agenda is that it should be interdisciplinary-not only in content but in research methodology. As a relatively new scholarly area, education research is only beginning to be productive in informing practitioners. The increasing use of qualitative methods may provide improved congruence between research and the classroom. Nevertheless, finding effective ways to bring researchers and teachers into closer and more active relationships remains a challenge for the future.
The School Context: Organization, Curriculum, Materials & Technology, and Assessment
Other than people and facilities, perhaps the most apparent parts of a school system are its organization, curriculum, and instructional materials and technologies. These are obviously interdependent, although decisions regarding them are often made as though they were entirely independent entities. In principle, time, space, and personnel are organized to accommodate students’ learning a given curriculum. In practice, a curriculum is constrained by the availability of time, space, and personnel. Similarly, materials and technologies are acquired to serve a curriculum, yet the materials and technologies on hand often determine what the actual curriculum will be. School organization (how time is configured, space allotted, and staff hired and assigned) and instructional technology (what learning materials and instruments of instruction will be used) also have important interdependencies.
These three interrelated aspects of schooling (organization, curriculum, and instructional materials and technologies) share the purpose of promoting learning. But do they actually do so? The fourth component of the school context, assessment, is designed to monitor progress toward desired learning goals so that students, teachers, and families know how to proceed. External assessments, which may or may not be matched to the local curriculum, are intended to find out how well the system is working. If either one of these two types of assessment shows that student performance does not meet standards, something needs changing-the organization and conduct of instruction, the selection and use of learning materials and teaching technologies, or the content and structure of the curriculum. But that is too neat a picture.
For one thing, that picture implies that assessment, curriculum, and school organization function independently. In fact, each is often designed with the other in mind. For example, assessment content usually reflects the curriculum (“fair testing”) and over time the curriculum content is modified to reflect the assessment ( “teaching to the test”). And there are other interactions: because assessment takes time (a fixed and enormously valuable resource), a balance must be achieved between the time allotted to assessment at the expense of instruction, and vice versa; the sophistication of curriculum and assessment depends greatly on the number and quality of instructional and support staff; testing materials are often indistinguishable from instructional materials; and so forth.
And of course school organization, curriculum, materials and technologies, and assessment are all subject to local, state, and federal education policies which, in turn, are constrained by budget decisions. The reverse is also true to some substantial degree: policies are set and budgets determined to take into account decisions made on school organization, curriculum, materials and technologies, and assessment. Moreover, the school context is precisely where questions of equity come to the fore, because it is there that inequities play out-whether as biased tests, curricula that serve some groups better than others, higher quality learning materials in some schools than in others, or any number of other ways.
By the same token, what schools can do-or are pressed into doing-with regard to school organization, curriculum, materials and technologies, and assessment depends significantly on the support they receive from families, community leaders (including the media), business and industry, and higher education (especially teacher education and admissions policies), and the availability of trustworthy knowledge to inform decision making.
The Support Structure: Teacher Education, Higher Education, Family & Community, and Business & Industry
Schools reflect the society in which they exist. This is true for neighborhood schools and for the entire education system of the United States. Indeed, education can be thought of as a subsystem of a social-political-economic system. In Blueprints we turn that around and look at aspects of the larger system as components of the education system.
While the main role of families, communities, businesses, and universities may be to “support” the K-12 education enterprise, it is certainly not their only one. These entities often play a major part in actually shaping the education enterprise. They do so by pressing the schools to establish policies they favor and discontinue ones they dislike, and by taking a hand in setting financial and other constraints for the schools to observe. What complicates matters is that in the United States the “they” of parents, communities, etc., is extremely diverse and rarely of a single mind. Moreover, control over the policies, finances, and operation of “the education enterprise” they wish to support or shape is widely and confusingly dispersed. Understanding education as a system would seem to require exploring its interactions with the social system in which it is embedded.
As influences on the policies and practices of individual school systems, teacher education and higher education can be as important as family, community, and business. However, while university-school partnerships of one kind or another are not unknown, they are neither numerous nor enduring. More commonly, the influence of higher education on K-12 schools is indirect. For example, the admissions standards of a college apply to the graduates of all high schools, not just to the schools in its immediate vicinity, and a school district can hire any teachers who meet state licensing requirements, no matter where they trained. This indirect influence can be strong (school districts everywhere pay attention to Ivy League admissions standards) as well as dynamic (there is a strong relationship between state universities that produce large numbers of teachers and the school districts around them). Finally, the important role of community colleges and historically Black universities should be carefully studied, not only as models of how to meet the needs of a changing undergraduate population, but as partners in meeting our goal of a more diverse science and mathematics teaching force.