Building a Leadership Network Supporting Science Education Reform in Rural East Alabama

Article excerpt

The authors argue that leadership networks when comprised of regional stakeholders including university faculty, school system administrators, and teacher leaders can begin to work together towards common reform goals.

Many of us who are in science teacher education in rural and impoverished areas lament the lack of resources and support available for practicing a higher quality of science instruction in our regional schools (Harmon, Henderson, & Royster, 2003). While National Standards (National Research Council, 1996) call for teaching science through inquiry, most of our regional teachers do not have the hands-on resources or professional support needed to do so. What we teach and model in our science teacher education programs often gets 'washed out' upon entering our regional schools. Without support for inquiry, our science teachers are reliant on methods where content is disseminated through lectures and textbooks, including textbooks that can be more than five years old! To add insult to injury, these traditional approaches to teaching science are most detrimental to diverse populations of students who are steadily increasing in our schools (Lynch, 2000). Teaching through inquiry where students work together to seek scientific understanding through evidence meets the needs of all learners. This problem has not gone unnoticed, as many state and federal funding agencies have targeted underserved populations of students through various grant opportunities. However, over the years, these well-meaning efforts bring limited and temporary relief to the few schools that participate in them. Despite all the talk of what is needed for systemic reform, university faculty often continue to apply for science outreach grants in a ' hit-or-miss ' fashion based on what opportunities are available. If successful, they will later gather together partners to discuss implementation to meet the grantor's requirements, and not the real long-term needs of science education reform (Hall & Hord, 2006). Yet, even with the best of intentions, grant-based reform is elusive as big state and federal dollars for systemic reform in rural areas are limited. How can real change in science education begin to happen in such a harsh environment? How can we capitalize on the human resources and existing infrastructures in our large rural regions to make a real difference?

Initiating Systemic Reform Efforts

Professional development experts in science education agree that meaningful and lasting reform requires three basic elements: (1) collaboration of all stakeholders, (2) ongoing professional development using researchbased strategies that work, and (3) the availability of resources and materials for teaching science through inquiry (Loucks-Horsley, 2003). If reform is to occur in our regional schools and be sustainable, then these elements must be present. Our first step was to develop a network of stakeholder support as the vehicle for implementing a common vision of reform that we could all strongly share (Lasley, Matczynski, & Williams, 1992). Our initial stakeholders included higher education faculty and administrators from education and science, K-12 teachers and administrators (including superintendents, principals, and curriculum coordinators). We needed to initiate meetings with all parties in order to reach consensus on shared expectations for reform. Many collaborative reform efforts fail because of diverse expectations for the collaboration and its work (Spector, Strong, & King, 1996). Networking and meeting to begin and support reform are low cost and vital to any successful long-term effort. Our first big decision was to discern who was best suited to initiate or broker this process.

In rural East Alabama the two major universities, Auburn University and Tuskegee University, were best suited to initiate the building of the stakeholder network needed for systemic reform efforts in science education. …

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