Providing robust science and engineering learning opportunities to all preschool through fifth grade children across gender and racial identities and socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds requires considerable shifts in classroom instruction and leadership practices. Previous
chapters outlined evidence-based instructional practices that center children, investigation, and design in preschool through elementary, but teachers’ enactment of these practices can only happen if leaders create supportive conditions outside the classroom. These conditions are influenced by policies and practices at local, state, and national levels of the education system. Chapter 2 highlighted how some national and state policies have constrained time and resources for preschool through elementary science and engineering, while others have offered renewed consideration of the teaching and learning of science and engineering (i.e., as outlined in A Framework for K–12 Science Education; National Research Council [NRC], 2012).
This chapter focuses on how leaders at the local level, specifically in public districts and schools, have navigated this broader policy environment in efforts to transform preschool through elementary science and engineering education. There is not a significant research base on local leadership practices that support meaningful and equitable science and engineering instruction; thus, there is not sufficient causal evidence related to the effectiveness of particular practices. The committee thus considered descriptive evidence from diverse sources, including peer-reviewed journal articles, evaluation reports and other grey literature, and presentations made to the committee by experts and practitioners. Moreover, there is limited literature on the role of leadership in preschool and a dearth of literature on science and engineering. The literature that does exist examines professional development for leaders and the impact more generally on teachers, school climate, and outcomes; given that this research examines the early childhood education space there is some overlap with early elementary grades. Anecdotal accounts yield similar findings as described throughout this chapter—there is greater teacher participation when leaders are involved.
The chapter is organized around a framework for district and school leadership that considers three interrelated areas around which transformative change efforts align: (1) organizational culture, (2) policy and management, and (3) educator capability (Blumenfeld et al., 2000). Throughout, this chapter emphasizes transformation—specifically, the potential for leadership to create new organizational approaches to preschool through elementary science and engineering rather than adapting what already exists. However, few research and evaluation efforts focus specifically on transformative leadership practices that support science and engineering teaching that works toward justice, or on how leaders design systems around the assets and strengths of children with various racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds. Thus, this is an area for future research.
Scholars studying systemic instructional reform efforts in science education have identified three dimensions that interact to influence how these
efforts unfold in U.S. school districts: (1) organizational culture, (2) policy and management, and (3) educator capability (Blumenfeld et al., 2000). This framework was originally applied to work bringing a middle school inquiry and technology science innovation to scale in a large urban school district; here, the committee uses it to organize the available evidence on local leadership practices that enable meaningful and equitable preschool through elementary science and engineering instruction. Figure 9-1 illustrates the framework, showing that the three dimensions are distinct yet related, with each affecting the other. The committee describes each dimension briefly in this section, then expands on each dimension in subsequent sections, including relevant examples based on the literature or committee member experience and expertise.
As described in prior National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine publications focused on STEM education (see Science and Engineering for Grades 6–12 [NASEM, 2019b] and English Learners in STEM Subjects [NASEM, 2018a]), the available research suggests that attention to all three dimensions is necessary to support transformative change in districts and schools. Although the vast majority of literature examining systemic change focuses on the K–12 education system, the framework also aligns with calls for a unified foundation in early childhood education that (1) is based on a sound vision and theory of child development and early learning; (2) attends to leadership, systems, policies, and resource allocation; and (3) provides support for high-quality professional practice (Institute of Medicine [IOM] and National Research Council [NRC], 2015). Given the emphasis on the K–12 system in the literature, the focus here is on transformative leadership across grades K–5; however, the committee
recognizes the need for alignment and coherence from preschool through elementary school, and addresses this as an area for future research in Chapter 10.
Organizational culture encompasses norms, values, and expectations that shape educators’ collective work. These norms, values, and expectations can operate to background or foreground the teaching of science and engineering in preschool through elementary schools. For instance, in elementary schools serving children of color from low socioeconomic backgrounds, science may be undervalued by educators because of a shared, implicit assumption that children need to develop basic skills in language arts and mathematics (Spillane et al., 2001). In other schools in high-poverty neighborhoods where science instruction is evident, principals have been found to foster school cultures that support teacher collaboration and distributed leadership, and that set clear goals and expectations making science a priority (Alarcón, 2012). Box 9-1 discusses how a new elementary school principal supported her school’s organizational culture by focusing teachers’ attention on science instruction during collaborative routines.
Enacting clear goals and expectations requires attention to policy and management, which includes funding, resources, and staffing. Instructional time policies and school scheduling are also important considerations. In districts and schools where there is an expectation that science and engineering will be taught in preschool through elementary grades, leaders can support this goal by allocating fiscal and human resources to purchase instructional materials, secure classroom space, and hire science coordinators or science support teachers (Alarcón, 2012; Casey et al., 2016; Miller, 2010; Spillane et al., 2001) or teachers’ aides to raise staff-to-child ratios and allow instructional focus on STEM (IOM and NRC, 2015). This is also discussed in Box 9-1, which shows how the featured principal allocated specific time for science instruction across grade levels and encouraged teachers to take on instructional leadership roles focused on science. She also accessed resources for science instruction for her school through connections to external organizations (such as local universities) and grants (such as her district’s Systemic Initiative).
Ensuring that these fiscal and human resources are used to teach science and engineering equitably and justly necessitates a focus on educator capability, or the beliefs, skills, and expertise that influence leadership and teaching practices. Although much literature indicates that many preschool and elementary teachers have limited preparation in teaching science and engineering (see Chapter 8), school principals also often lack the necessary knowledge and skills to make sense of and support instructional change in science (Halverson, Feinstein, and Meshoulam, 2011; Spillane, 2005). Overall, building on teachers’ and leaders’ strengths to develop educator capability specific to preschool through elementary science and engineer-
ing instruction can support positive organizational cultures that express value for science and engineering for all children, as well as the creation of appropriate policies and the allocation of sufficient resources that ensure instruction is grounded in children’s ideas and competencies. Box 9-1 also shows this aspect of the featured principal’s work, highlighting how she leveraged the connections to universities to provide professional learning opportunities and experiences for the teachers at her school. The sections below expand on each dimension of the framework.
Schein (1985) describes organizational culture as “the deeper level of basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organization, that operate unconsciously” (p. 6); Deal and Peterson (1999) define school culture as “an underground river of feelings, folkways, norms, and values that influence how people go about their daily work” (p. 9). Although the evidence base is small, findings from the extant literature focused on elementary science instruction point to the importance of a positive school culture that places a value on science teaching and learning for ensuring that science is taught in grades K–5. Some research examines implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and therefore presumably encompasses science and engineering, but no studies of which the committee is aware focus exclusively on how school culture supports elementary engineering. In general, a positive school culture emphasizes a value for elementary science (Sikma and Osborne, 2015) and is characterized by strong principal leadership (Peters-Burton et al., 2019).
Value for Science
Qualitative studies of science teaching in elementary schools have found that when science is viewed as secondary to teaching language arts and mathematics, science is either not taught or is taught poorly, for example by providing decontextualized hands-on experiences (Meier, 2012; Spillane et al., 2001). Science may be undervalued due to a school’s emphasis on high-stakes testing in other subject areas, or because of concerns that the school’s student population needs more support in basic core subjects (i.e., language arts and mathematics). Overall, school values may influence teachers’ expectations, with the beliefs system held by leaders concerning the importance of a curriculum area shaping the ethos for that area (Lewthwaite, 2006).
In an interview study examining leadership for science education in 25 K–8 schools in Massachusetts, researchers found that science was minimized due to the influences of state-level testing and teacher evaluation
policies, conflicting district-level priorities, and limited time for teaching science in early, untested grade levels (Lowenhaupt and McNeill, 2019). As one principal in the study noted, “If they don’t test it, it gets neglected,” because “if we bomb science and do well in ELA and math, we are a high-performing school. That is the reality of where we are in education” (p. 473). These realities shaped the value placed on science education and thus the extent to which it was taught.
The extent to which the school culture supports a vision and value for science also shapes the resources and learning opportunities available for science teaching and learning (Spillane et al., 2001). As illustrated in Box 9-1, Spillane and colleagues (2001) describe how a new principal in a Chicago elementary school worked to concentrate attention on science by articulating a vision that included science inquiry for the primary grades, and identifying and procuring resources to build a science laboratory and hire a specialist teacher. Indeed, having both a vision and resources appears to be important for motivating the teaching of science (Alarcón, 2012). In a Canadian school district where there was a shared vision for science education and strategies and resources were in place to accomplish this vision (e.g., instructional materials, professional learning opportunities, coaches), teachers reported high rates of adequacy, knowledge, and motivation to teach science (Lewthwaite, 2006). Context and resources have been shown to make a large difference in the quality of preschool science education as well (James, Stears, and Moolman, 2012).
In the broader educational reform literature, principal leadership has been positively associated with student achievement (Hallinger and Heck, 2011; Wahlstrom and Louis, 2008), and has been found to have an indirect effect on elementary student outcomes through actions that shape school culture (Hallinger, Bickman, and Davis, 1996). Some of these actions are often referred to as instructional leadership (Leithwood and Mascall, 2008; Leithwood et al., 2009; Spillane and Hunt, 2010), which includes transforming school structures around new organizational routines that foster teacher learning and collaboration (Spillane, Parise, and Sherer, 2011) and implementing systems of instructional supervision (Camburn, Rowan, and Taylor, 2003; Donaldson, 2009; Hallinger, 2005). Principals can also play an important role as agents of science education policy implementation, buffering their schools and teachers from competing external demands and adjusting school structures to accommodate science instruction (Wenner and Settlage, 2015).
In a small survey study, Casey and colleagues (2016) describe how elementary principals in high-performing North Texas schools worked
as effective instructional leaders by giving teachers time to write science curriculum, emphasizing the importance of alignment, and ensuring that science was taught at each grade level. They took a flexible approach to staffing when it came to science instruction and opted to departmentalize or use self-contained approaches based on teachers’ and children’s needs. Further, the principals reported focusing communication to teachers on science instruction, collaborating with them, observing instruction, and providing coaching.
The school principal appears to play an important role in creating an organizational culture that supports elementary science and engineering. However, research suggests that some elementary principals, and their administrative staff more broadly, lack expertise in science and thus the confidence to supervise teachers’ science instruction (Lowenhaupt and McNeill, 2019). When asked about providing formative teaching observations and feedback as part of their instructional leadership, few principals described conducting observations focused on science, and noted that few teachers set instructional goals focused on science. When science teaching was observed, principals indicated taking a content-neutral approach that emphasized general aspects of teaching and learning. Thus, teachers had few opportunities for feedback specific to science teaching practices.
Given that principals tend to be prominent sources of advice and information for teachers in the area of science education, especially compared to other subject areas where specialists often serve as formal instructional leaders (Spillane and Hopkins, 2013), more research is needed to understand principals’ roles in facilitating or hindering science (and particularly engineering) instruction in their schools and to identify effective leadership capacity building efforts (see Educator Capability section below). The next section discusses how district and school administrators have attended to policy and management in efforts to transform elementary science and engineering education.
Policy and Management
Policies and management structures that address instructional time, resources, and staffing are foundational to fostering an organizational culture that prioritizes preschool through elementary science and engineering instruction for all children.
Time and Resources
Aligned with the evidence reviewed in Chapter 2, a recent study of grade 3–5 teachers’ uses of the practices articulated in the NGSS noted that teachers felt there was insufficient time to teach science and that they
were not given adequate instructional resources to engage children with the practices (Smith and Nadelson, 2017). The NGSS Early Implementers Initiative attempted to address these barriers to elementary science instruction through a 6-year project in which the K–12 Alliance at WestEd provided eight California school districts and two charter management organizations support with NGSS implementation in grades K–8.
Findings from the project evaluation indicated that one of the most effective ways that district administrators communicated to all teachers that science was an instructional priority was by mandating a minimum number of weekly minutes of science instruction for each grade (Tyler et al., 2020). The majority of districts established new policies mandating 60 to 90 minutes of science per week in grades K–5, although one district mandated a full 2 hours of science in grades K–2 and 2.5 hours in grades 3–5. Some districts also officially sanctioned the integration of science during the allotted instructional time for English language arts and/or English language development. Results from evaluation surveys showed increases over time in the extent to which teachers were encouraged to teach science and felt that science was a priority at their schools (Iveland et al., 2017). These increases in time allocation for science were accompanied with substantial amounts of professional learning for administrators and teacher leaders to support NGSS-aligned instruction. Almost all participating teachers and administrators reported a positive change in the general quality of children’s science learning and engagement as a result of their participation in the initiative, and children reported positive views about science beginning in grades K–2 (Tyler and DiRanna, 2018).
Systematically increasing instructional time has also been identified as an effective strategy for advancing science learning for children identified as English learners (Feldman and Malagon, 2017). This Education Trust-West study identified six California districts where more than the state average of English learners and children qualified for free and/or reduced-price meals and whose English learners scored higher than the state average for English learners on the 2015 standardized assessment in science. Findings from interviews and observations described how leaders in some districts made explicit commitments to increasing instructional time for science and to supporting English language development (ELD) through science learning. In one elementary school, teachers reported an increase from 1.5 days per week teaching science to 3 days per week, noting the affordances of integrating science and ELD instruction for children’s learning (Feldman and Malagon, 2017).
Beyond designated instructional time, another important factor in supporting science and engineering instruction is administrators’ provision of funding and the allocation of resources. In the NGSS Early Implementers Initiative, district and school administrators described advocating for the
earmarking of district funds to support NGSS implementation and ensuring that school funds were channeled to provide resources specific to the standards being taught (Iveland et al., 2017). Principals also described allocating resources to create dedicated science spaces at their schools (often unused classroom spaces), buying new supplies and equipment for the space, and providing release time for teachers to arrange the room and add supplies.
These findings align with the leadership practices described in Spillane and colleagues’ (2001) study examining schoolwide efforts to transform science instruction in 13 K–8 public schools in Chicago. They described how principals identified and procured resources to build elementary science rooms or laboratories. Securing a science classroom was also found to be an important part of the critical resourcing school principals engaged in to support science education across three high-poverty bilingual elementary schools, in addition to purchasing bilingual materials for science (Alarcón, 2012). These descriptive studies also noted that some school leaders allocated resources to supporting science coordinator specialists or science support teachers. Such formal positions are an important aspect of staffing, the focus of the next section.
A small body of literature examines the role of science specialists in the management of elementary science instruction. There are three general models around which specialists are incorporated into a school’s science instructional approach. The first has been variously labeled departmentalization (Schwartz and Gess-Newsom, 2008), team teaching (Brobst et al., 2017), and a collaborative specialist model (Nelson and Landel, 2007). It does not require hiring additional staff, as teachers at a grade level (or sometimes multiple grades) divide up responsibility for specific subject areas, with one or more assigned as the science teacher(s). Then, children rotate through teachers’ classrooms during the day. Although this model helps to ensure there is time allocated for science (and engineering) instruction, it does not necessarily support integration across content areas or foster shared responsibility for the teaching of science and/or engineering.
In the second model, often referred to as a pull-out or special area model, one teacher provides science instruction to children across grade levels. These teachers can be based in a single school (Brobst et al., 2017; Marco-Bujosa and Levy, 2016; Schwartz and Gess-Newsom, 2008) or assigned to multiple schools in a district (Schwartz, Lederman, and Abd-El-Khalick, 2000). This model requires additional staffing and resources, as specialists often have a dedicated laboratory or classroom space. This model also ensures that
instructional time is dedicated to science and engineering, at least for some grade levels, and that it is taught by a teacher with subject-matter expertise. As in the departmentalized approach described above, this model does not necessarily support integration across content areas or foster teachers’ capacity in the areas of science and engineering. This separation can be mitigated, however, if teachers are required to teach an integrated science unit in their classrooms, as supported by the specialist (Marco-Bujosa and Levy, 2016).
The third model utilizes school-based coaching (Berg and Mensah, 2014) or a district science coordinator (Whitworth et al., 2017a, b). There are fewer studies examining science coaching than the above described models, especially when considering the burgeoning literature on literacy and math coaching (e.g., Coburn and Woulfin, 2012; Hopkins, Ozimek, and Sweet, 2017; Mangin and Dunsmore, 2015; Mayer, Woulfin, and Warhol, 2015; Sun et al., 2014). Coaches provide mentoring and professional development to teachers, which may include co-planning and co-teaching in addition to resource provision (Schwartz and Gess-Newsom, 2008). The specialist can be a full-time instructional coach, or a part-time teacher leader who has content expertise and provides coaching to teachers in their school (Klein et al., 2018; Wenner, 2017) or district (Whitworth et al., 2017a, b).
The committee found a small body of literature examining the effectiveness of these science specialist models, and no literature on elementary engineering specialists. One study conducted in seven districts in the Pacific Northwest compared the knowledge, preparedness, and instructional quality of elementary science specialists (n = 19) and self-contained classroom teachers (n = 16) in grades K–5 (Brobst et al., 2017). The specialists in the study, who taught either in a team-teaching or pull-out model, were more likely to have subject-matter expertise in science than self-contained teachers and to indicate higher ratings on content knowledge, feelings of preparedness to teach science, and familiarity with science standards. Based on observations of their teaching, specialists also scored higher on some measures of instructional quality than self-contained teachers. These measures were associated with the time participants were given to plan for and teach science, suggesting that the time afforded to specialists to engage with science curricula enabled higher-quality teaching.
In another study of 30 schools in one large northeastern urban district, researchers examined whether the quality, quantity, and/or cost of science instruction differed when that instruction was provided by a science specialist or by a self-contained classroom teacher, using children’s scores on statewide science achievement tests and children’s engagement in science lessons as outcome measures (Levy et al., 2016). Focused on fourth and fifth grade student outcomes, the results showed greater differences at the school level than across classrooms. Although funding mattered (i.e., schools where science was poorly funded typically produced poor student outcomes but the
reverse was not always true), the best outcomes were associated with the value placed on science and principal support (e.g., instructional leadership, materials, support for ancillary activities), regardless of whether the science instruction was being provided by a science specialist.
Based on a follow-up study of five schools from the larger sample where specialist models were in place, Marco-Bujosa and Levy (2016) noted that, although the science specialist model ensures that science will be taught, a lack of support from self-contained classroom teachers and especially the principal could marginalize science as a subject area. Thus, although the specialist model provided time and space for science instruction, strong principal leadership was necessary to provide appropriate resources, foster shared responsibility for science instruction, and prioritize external pressures in ways that made sure that science was taught.
In another study examining pull-out specialist models, Schwartz and colleagues (2000) compared instructional planning between science specialists and self-contained classroom teachers, as well as student achievement between a specialist-led district and a nonspecialist district. In the specialist-led district, children in fourth through sixth grades had two 45–55-minute science lessons each week, taught by a specialist in a fully equipped science room. Collaboration between the specialist (who had completed a greater number of science credits than teachers) and classroom teachers was expected, with co-facilitation of lessons and follow-up provided to children who missed science lessons. In this district, the instructional planning of science specialists was better aligned with reform-based practices when compared to classroom teachers, and children taught by the specialists were more engaged in inquiry-oriented activities and demonstrated critical thinking abilities. However, when comparing children’s outcomes between the specialist-led and nonspecialist district, findings revealed no significant differences in outcomes on state science tests for children.
Finally, Miller (2010) described how a high-achieving school district utilized a combined coordinator and coaching model. The district had a K–12 science department that included a coordinator at each of the district’s five school buildings as well as teachers from each grade K–5 from both elementary schools who were the “go-to” science people for teachers on their grade level teams. Building coordinators received extra compensation and oversaw efforts to teach science in their schools, which included ordering textbooks and kits. This K–12 departmental structure “resulted in a network of teacher leaders throughout the district that ensured that science had an advocate in every grade and linked every grade with the expertise of the high school science teachers” (Miller, 2010, p. 25). This cascading specialist structure contrasted with a similarly sized yet lower achieving district, where leadership for elementary science was left up to
principals and a district curriculum director. Although the director reorganized the science curriculum around kits and provided professional learning opportunities for teachers, the lack of school-based specialists limited teachers’ implementation of the new curriculum.
Taken together, the evidence base focused on policy and management for elementary science and engineering education signal the importance of district- and school-level supports in the form of funding, resources, and staffing. Although studies on elementary science specialists indicate that these positions have the potential to ensure the allocation of instructional time for science and engineering and to positively shape science instruction, they are not a panacea. The literature suggests that, to transform teaching and learning, when specialist positions are employed, they must be accompanied by strong leadership that expresses value for science and engineering, affords sufficient resources, and fosters shared responsibility. The literature also suggests that these values are important when classroom teachers are responsible for science instruction (i.e., in the absence of specialist). The next section examines how attending to educator capability may engender these positive changes in the teaching and learning of science and engineering.
Like other educational change efforts, transforming science and engineering instruction necessitates deep teacher learning and shifts in teachers’ knowledge and beliefs (Cohen, 1990; Spillane, 2004). Support for these shifts often comes from embedded, ongoing professional learning opportunities supported by strong instructional leadership (Hallinger, 2005; Lowenhaupt, 2014). Yet, as noted above, school principals and other leaders may lack the necessary knowledge, resources, and skills to make sense of such reforms, particularly in science (Halverson, Feinstein, and Meshoulam, 2011; Spillane, 2005). Chapter 8 focused on the development of educator capacity through the support of teachers’ professional learning. This section reviews the available literature on professional learning for leaders in elementary science and engineering, as well as the role of partnerships in supporting educator capability.
Professional Learning for Leaders
When leaders lack sufficient knowledge, they are not able to support teachers in transforming their instruction. Supporting a cascading leadership model may be important for developing educator capability, where both administrators and teacher leaders are supported in advancing instructional change in science and engineering. Shymansky et al. (2013) described a
professional development model focused on developing local leadership and gradually transferring responsibilities from experts external to districts to teacher and administrator leadership teams within each district. The first year of professional development focused exclusively on working with these leadership teams. After the first year, the teacher members worked in cross-district professional learning communities to build portfolios of adapted lesson plans on selected science topics, which they then supported fellow teachers in their home schools to implement with principal support. Science achievement scores of grade 3 and grade 6 student cohorts on the two forms of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study administered at the beginning, middle, and end of the professional development effort revealed a V-shaped pattern of scores, suggesting that teachers struggled with the newly adapted science inquiries at first but then became more effective in their use.
Teacher leadership was also an important component of the NGSS Early Implementers Initiative (Tyler et al., 2019). In each district involved in the Initiative, a Core Leadership Team of nine teachers and three administrators was established to work with the district’s Project Director in planning and leading NGSS implementation. The teachers on these teams were called the “Core Teacher Leaders.” At the end of the first year, each district recruited between 30 and 60 Teacher Leaders, depending on the size of the district, with the understanding that they would be responsible for sharing their expertise with other teachers of science in their districts. Teacher Leaders were provided extensive professional development in the NGSS practices, with the Core Teacher Leaders also receiving leadership training. Core Teacher Leaders facilitated learning communities for Teacher Leaders; in addition, all Teacher Leaders led professional learning activities at their school sites and collaborated with colleagues at their schools to co-plan and co-teach lessons. These findings suggest that, in general, building capacity for teacher leadership among teachers and providing formal structures for them to engage with colleagues can be helpful in fostering teacher collaboration and learning more broadly.
Beyond teacher leadership, the literature suggests that attending to the capability of administrators is also important. Based on findings from a study of instructional supervision in science involving 25 K–8 principals, McNeill, Lowenhaupt, and Katsch-Singer (2018) found that principals were more likely to attend to science practices focused on investigation as opposed to science practices that supported sensemaking or critique. To principals, investigating meant engaging in any hands-on science activity or general exploration. When asked to discuss their observations of classroom videos, principals focused on general pedagogy and children’s engagement rather than specific science practices, and their evaluations of the videos did not align with science practices (e.g., some rated a video using direct instruction as aligned with the science practices).
The NGSS Early Implementers Initiative supported principal professional learning in several ways (Iveland et al., 2017). Initially, all administrators attended an annual Summer Institute for Teacher Leaders as well as biannual leader trainings, yet project directors found that some site leaders still lacked an understanding about NGSS. As such, project staff planned a 2-day Academy that provided principals opportunities to learn and talk with their peers about the pedagogical shifts required by the NGSS and how to support NGSS implementation in their schools. To assist principals in communicating with teachers about science and engineering instruction, the Initiative also developed an “Evidence of Learning” protocol for use when observing Teacher Leaders’ lessons.
Similarly examining leadership engagement in professional development for elementary science instruction, Whitworth and Chiu (2015) share preliminary results from VISTA, a project aimed to build an infrastructure to support sustained, intensive science teacher professional development to increase learners’ performance. VISTA included an Elementary Science Institute that specifically included school principals and district science coordinators in professional development activities, during which they engaged with teams of teachers who were focused on understanding problem-based learning, inquiry, and nature of science. Following the professional development, principals reported an increased understanding of how to support science teachers, and teachers rated their principals higher at being effective in supporting science instruction following the professional development.
Overall, these studies suggest that attention to district and school leadership structures is important for fostering educators’ capability to transform elementary science and engineering instruction. They describe how professional learning aligns across district, school, and teacher leaders, and thus shapes principal supervision and supports teacher learning. The next section discusses nascent research on how partnerships can also support this work.
Partnerships with science and engineering institutions and organizations, as well as institutes of higher education, may help to support district- and state-level efforts to advance educator capability. For instance, informal learning organizations such as science centers, nature centers, and botanical gardens have been an important source for coaching and capacity building for elementary science teachers (Bevan et al., 2010; Chiu, Price, and Ovrahim, 2015). Collaborations between these kinds of institutions and both pre- and in-service teachers can include sustained interactions that have the potential to have significant impact on teachers’ capacities and practices, although most evidence of effectiveness to date is found in
evaluations of specific programs. Feldman and Malagon (2017) describe how science centers, such as the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley and the Exploratorium in San Francisco, worked with school districts and university partners in the BaySci program to provide in-person and virtual professional learning opportunities for teachers, teacher leaders, and district leaders. An evaluation of the program (Remold et al., 2014) drew on interviews and surveys with participants to report that the program had been largely successful in producing meaningful shifts in teachers’ instructional practices in the nine participating districts, shifting district leadership and culture regarding science teaching, and building district capacity to engage in reform of current district policies regarding science teaching and learning.
Another example of how districts can partner with organizations to build educators’ capacities is found in the collaborative model that has been used by ExpandEDSchools to leverage the expertise of teacher educators from the informal sector. Their Design2Learn and STEM Educators Academy programs (Murchison and Banay, 2019) both bring classroom teachers and community educators to learn from museum educators and to work together to develop aligned approaches to engineering education across childrens’ formal and informal science learning experiences. Evaluations of ExpandEd’s STEM Educators Academy Program have demonstrated growth in classroom teachers’ sense of self-efficacy, and participating teachers perceived greater enthusiasm and understanding of the target science concepts among their children (Banay, 2021).
The evidence base regarding effective methods for partnering universities with K–12 school districts to support elementary science teaching is broad but diffuse. Much of the work in this domain was done in the context of Math–Science Partnerships (MSPs), a federally targeted program funded by the National Science Foundation through formula grants that supported the development and study of a wide range of university–school partnerships, all seeking to improve science teaching in some or all of the K–12 grades. Much of the literature on MSPs is evaluative—many program models have been piloted and some have been shown to have positive effects on student achievement in mathematics and science (e.g., Dimitrov, 2009)—but there is little evidence that identifies specific, scalable approaches to organizing, implementing, and sustaining these kinds of partnerships (Yin, 2008). With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the MSP program was eliminated and combined with several other formula grant programs. The loss of MSP funds significantly impacted state-level implementation efforts; thus, these programs are now under the purview of local districts to continue implementing with their own resources.
In discussing university-based partnership initiatives involving several school districts, Avendano and colleagues (2019) points to the example of
the work of the Center for Innovation in STEM Education (CISE) at California State University of Dominguez Hills. CISE provides programs for elementary and secondary children that foster a pipeline for undergraduate STEM majors. These undergraduates are supported to become teachers and offered continued support through Teacher Leader Programs that are also available to other teachers at their schools. CISE also offers STEM Lab Schools within high-poverty schools that serve as a training ground for teachers and invite parents and community members to workshops and training. This example illustrates the potential of a university partnership for creating multiple opportunities that attend to educator capability.
Several initiatives have sought to create broad, multistakeholder approaches to building what Fuller (2020) calls “innovation clusters,” in which schools or districts partner with multiple actors in their local communities to build coherent networks of STEM learning opportunities for young people. Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning initiative, for example, has worked at a regional level to bring children, teachers, administrators, and families into contact with a broad range of STEM learning experience outside of the school building and school day, but systematic investigations of the impact of these efforts, or the mechanisms of their influence, are not available. The Noyce Foundation-funded STEM Ecosystem Network, a different model that also seeks to support diverse partnerships with schools, has primarily focused on youth outcomes, rather than on building school or educator capacity and has generally focused on middle- and high-school age youth (Allen et al., 2020). Models such as these, which include “the influence of families and peers; out-of-school-time offerings such as afterschool programs; and community resources such as science centers, libraries and media” (Krishnamurthi et al., 2014), could be explored as potential strategies to support and expand more focused collaborations with elementary science teachers.
Leaders of the NGSS Early Implementers Initiative also recognized the importance of engaging the community in their capacity-building efforts (Iveland et al., 2017). One-third of district and school administrators in the project reported doing some kind of community outreach as a way to support NGSS implementation. One elementary school principal from the project was quoted in Rammer and colleagues (2017), noting “Administrators can help establish the bridges that connect teachers to resources throughout the community. They can devote time to making the phone calls and weaving through the possibilities for community connections that will partner with the teachers to make their work relevant to students and the community.”1 Additionally, Project Directors reported reaching out to
science-oriented companies, museums, and other organizations, with one Director bringing together several local organizations to discuss how the organizations might support teachers with NGSS implementation. Further, some Early Implementer districts indicated that they were working on family science nights to help introduce the community to the NGSS and coordinating with local businesses to support the NGSS by providing resources or information about local science topics.
Although these examples suggest the importance of creating an ecosystem for preschool through elementary science and engineering education for fostering educator capability across districts and schools, more research is needed that examines how, and under what conditions, community partnerships can contribute most powerfully to leadership and instructional transformation. Moreover, given that the committee found no studies explicitly examining how family partnerships play a role in supporting educator capability, this is also a much-needed area of research.
Leaders can support children’s increased opportunities and access to high-quality science and engineering (Approach #1). As emphasized throughout this report, children have the right to engage with science and engineering. Principals and other leaders play an important role in setting up the conditions that allow that to happen. Principals who foster school cultures that support teacher collaboration and distributed leadership and who make it clear that science is a priority—for example by setting expectations around instructional time—can support the teaching of science even in settings where science would typically be rare (Alarcón, 2012; Iveland et al., 2017; Spillane et al., 2001; Tyler et al., 2020).
Although the committee did not find any research that explicitly focused on the connections between leadership and increase achievement, representation, and identification with science and engineering in preschool and elementary settings (Approach #2), it is clear that focusing on educator capability (such as through providing professional learning experiences or through using science specialists) has the potential to support teachers as they endeavor to engage children in higher-quality learning opportunities, which would in turn support children’s achievement.
Because organizational culture encompasses the norms, values, and expectations that shape educators’ work, taking an expansive perspective on what constitutes science and engineering should in turn shape the organizational culture (Approach #3). Thus, principals have a role to play in expanding what counts as science and engineering (even though the committee found no work directly related to this issue in terms of the marginalization of certain children). The committee did find literature related to
expanding a perspective on what constitutes science and engineering in a more general sense (McNeill et al., 2018)—suggesting that principals need support in expanding their own perspectives on what constitutes science and engineering.
The committee did not find evidence related to how leaders could support schools in recognizing science and engineering as part of justice movements (Approach #4). Logically, though, principals’ leadership could extend to this issue, and they could promote this as a school value; this is an area for further research.
The evidence presented in this chapter illustrates the importance of district and school leadership in developing contexts that support science and engineering education in preschool through elementary. Ensuring that district and school leaders have instructional expertise in science and engineering is helpful but insufficient. The literature suggests that successful reform efforts include formal structures (e.g., time), resources, and routines (e.g., learning communities) that prioritize and demonstrate value for science and engineering instruction across grade levels. These efforts can be supplemented by science (and engineering) specialists and via external partnerships, but simply adding specialist positions or partnering with outside institutions is not likely to result in the transformative change that is necessary for all children to have access to robust learning opportunities. Each dimension of transformative leadership explored in this chapter—organizational culture, policy and management, and educator capacity—must be considered, as well as how these dimensions connect to and interact with one another.
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