Scalability: How to Take Local Successes in Education to a State and National Level

The following is an event summary from a program held by the  Program on America and the Global Economy at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

As education reform emerges as a key issue for the 112th Congress, the problem of scalability has grown in importance.  On February 2nd Kent Hughes, Director of the Program on America and the Global Economy (PAGE), moderated a discussion with a panel of Einstein Fellows who addressed scalability and argued that there are several methods to replicate educational success from a local level to a national level.  Einstein Fellows, experts in the education field themselves, are outstanding middle school and high school math and science teachers selected to spend a year serving in various positions in the executive branch and the Congress.  The panelists urged teachers and parents to keep students engaged in school by spreading enthusiasm, strengthening personal relationships, and focusing on creative “project based,” or hands-on, teaching approaches.  Some of the difficulties in achieving this include; curriculum standards set from above, an inability to procure funding, and the lack of a method for publicizing award-winning teaching techniques.

The panelists argued that while some teachers have effectively taught STEM subjects within their own classrooms, teaching innovations should be made known to all educators for use around the country.  In order to further these ends, the fellows urged the creation of a national database that compiles the most effective, award-winning teaching curricula, competitions, and after school activities that complement classroom work.  Furthermore, the panelists argued that remarkable teaching innovations should be the subject of more media coverage in order to disseminate best practices and reward outstanding teachers.

Terrie Rust, a middle school technology teacher in Arizona, added a note of caution.  She noted that specific programs and curricula that work in one region, may not work with the exact same degree of success in every state or district that has a distinct student body.  She said that the goal of scalability must be adapted to specific areas taking into account differences in culture, geography, and funding.  An approach that works for one school may not work for all.

Hughes noted that a national database could indicate in which type of school a particular innovation was successful to provide interested teachers a guide to what may work in their own school or district.

Panelists also agreed that each school should take a “bottom up” approach to planning curricula based on particular classroom needs.  This method is often difficult to establish, however, as Lindsay Knippenberg, a high school biology and environmental science teacher in Michigan argued, because of academic standards set by the federal, state, and local administrators, and college admission requirements of a specific courses.

Mike Town, a high school environmental science teacher in Washington State, noted that using national academic standards as a baseline to form a curriculum can complicate a teacher’s role in generating interest through hands-on projects and activities.  Town suggested that schools need to have the flexibility to be inventive and adapt curricula to the needs of their own students.

Steve Schreiner, a middle school integrated science and technology teacher in Washington State, emphasized the importance of getting “buy-in” from teachers.  He added that “teachers don’t want to feel like they are part of a machine.”  Schreiner argued that teachers would like to be able to collaborate more with other teachers and contribute more not only to enhancing the classroom experience but to forming curricula as well.

Funding, not surprisingly, due to budget constraints in every sector, is a key issue preventing further investment in STEM programs.  The panelists argued that opening new dedicated revenue streams could be extremely helpful.  The panel suggested more broadly that teachers, parents, communities, and businesses must work together to help fund and spur enthusiasm in STEM fields.

In addition to funding, generating and maintaining student interest in STEM fields is a constant challenge for educators across the country.  There are some widely avaialbe opportunities for increasing interest in STEM fields through after-school robotics teams or similar enrichment programs.

While the panelists acknowledged the difficulties schools face, they discussed several strategies for keeping students engaged in STEM subjects.  Summer research opportunities – in national or private sector labs – help teachers highlight the worlds’ that STEM studies can offer.  They again stressed the benefits of strong relationships between teachers and students as well as the benefits demonstrating practical applications of mathematics and science through project based or hands-on learning.

In conclusion, the Einstein fellows agreed that a successful education program in one place does not guarantee success in all places.  Yet, the development of a national database providing the individual teacher with a menu of proving success could potentially help shape the future of STEM education in positive ways for years to come.

Posted by: Jason Schall

Photo Credit: David Hawxhurst/Woodrow Wilson Center


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