Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What Does It Take to Sustain a Productive Partnership in Education?: Since 2004, Eight of New York City's Leading Cultural Institutions-Including Museums, Zoos, and Botanical Gardens-Have Worked with the New York City Department of Education to Support Effective Science Instruction in the City's Middle Schools

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What Does It Take to Sustain a Productive Partnership in Education?: Since 2004, Eight of New York City's Leading Cultural Institutions-Including Museums, Zoos, and Botanical Gardens-Have Worked with the New York City Department of Education to Support Effective Science Instruction in the City's Middle Schools

Article excerpt

In 2002, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) approached the New York City Department of Education to offer its assistance in responding to a new policy mandate. Out of concern that too few middle graders were getting a solid foundation in the sciences, city officials had declared that in order to graduate from 8th grade and enroll in high school, every student must complete at least one extensive, multipart scientific investigation. At the time, however, the schools were facing a severe shortage of science teachers overall, much less ones who were prepared to guide students in conducting complex, independent projects. How would the school system make up for this lack of expertise? Perhaps AMNH could help fill the gap.

The museum's education staff had vast experience creating hands-on activities for children of all ages, with input from more than 200 resident scientists doing research in fields ranging from astrophysics and anthropology to biology, paleontology, and zoology. Further, across the city's five boroughs were several other scientific institutions that had valuable resources and expertise to contribute, including the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York Botanical Garden, Queens Botanical Garden, New York Hall of Science, Staten Island Zoo, Bronx Zoo, and the New York Aquarium. Working together, they could address a broad range of content and serve thousands of students.

In 2004, the school system agreed to pursue a partnership with AMNH and the seven other cultural institutions. Thus was born Urban Advantage, a citywide collaborative that provides rich opportunities for middle graders to engage in authentic scientific investigations while also helping teachers strengthen their scientific content knowledge and pedagogy.

Over the past 13 years, the program has grown dramatically: It began by working with 31 schools. By 2017, it served 289 schools (or nearly half of the middle schools in New York City), reaching more than 80,000 students, who are more or less representative of the school system's student population as a whole: 75% of participants are black and/or Hispanic, and 12% are English language learners.

The name Urban Advantage is meant to highlight the many ways students and families can benefit from New York City's diverse environment and cultural institutions. In fact, participating in the program does appear to be beneficial: Attending an Urban Advantage school increases a student's likelihood of being proficient in science by about two percentage points in the school's first year in the program, with larger effects of five to seven percentage points in subsequent years. For Hispanic students and male students, participation is associated with even larger gains (Weinstein & Whitesell, 2015).

Additionally, teachers give strong marks to Urban Advantage's approach to professional development. During the 2016-17 school year, 835 middle school science teachers opted to participate, and, on average, teachers choose to return to the program for at least four years (with some returning for 10 years or more). As one longtime participant noted, her experience in UA has improved student writing as well as their research: "We really see this in our student's argument writing. Students are bringing in a lot more content to support their claims--and with a deeper understanding."

Still going strong: Four keys

How has this long-standing partnership--across multiple cultural institutions and a large school district--sustained itself? Urban Advantage offers some important lessons not just for those who seek to improve science teaching but for all educators who want to create strong partnerships among school districts, museums, and other cultural institutions. In particular, the program provides concrete examples of principles that researchers identify as critical to the long-term success of educational partnerships (Coburn & Stein, 2010; Coburn, Penuel, & Geil, 2013): agreement about the value of distributed expertise; the creation of a clear, shared vision of student learning and teacher learning; and the ability to respond and adapt to shifts in district and national contexts. …

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