Guidance by Principals Emerging as Crucial in Science Instruction

By Sean Cavanagh — August 28, 2008 8 min read
Bonnie Rosen, the principal of Oak Park Elementary School in Lansdale, Pa., discusses a science experiment with a team of teachers from her school after attending the Academy for Leadership in Science Instruction workshop last month.
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Six elementary school teachers from Pennsylvania arrived at a summer academy here recently, determined to improve their understanding of science and their ability to convey its principles and mysteries to students.

But those educators understood that their success would depend in no small measure on the actions of another person who accompanied them: their principal.

Members of the team from Oak Park Elementary School, in Lansdale, Pa., were attending a program designed to improve science instruction, not only by promoting effective teaching, but also by developing principals who know more about the subject.

The event, the Academy for Leadership in Science Instruction, is just one of many professional-development programs organized on the premise that good science education requires consistent and creative support from principals, the most powerful decisionmakers in almost any school. In recent years, an increasing number of science and education organizations, acknowledging that link, have put principals in their sights.

At Oak Park Elementary, in the 13,000-student North Penn school district, the principal and chief decisionmaker is Bonnie Rosen. Drawing on some of the tips she’d picked up at the academy, she said she planned to carve out more time for teachers to plan science lessons together.

“It could work without her, but not as easily—and only in pockets,” Donna Grabner, an Oak Park teacher who also attended the academy, said of her principal. “It certainly wouldn’t be a whole-school initiative. This is going to be more seamless.”

The weeklong program, held Aug. 4-8 at hotel and conference center in Princeton, brought together teams from 22 elementary, middle, and high schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as separate teams of district supervisors. It was sponsored by the Merck Institute for Science Education, a program launched in 1993 by the Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based pharmaceutical company to improve student engagement and performance in science.

The four- to eight-person teams take part in the academy for three straight summers, as well as training and outreach sessions during the school year. The academy seeks to boost principals’ content knowledge of science. It also aims to train them to recognize good science teaching when they see it, promote it in their schools, and encourage teachers to work together to craft lessons, curricula, and tests in the subject.

Planning, Prodding

Principals play a strong role in setting school priorities for instruction. But their role is especially crucial in science, advocates for that subject contend.

Most teachers in the early grades are generalists who are expected to cover all subjects, including science, despite typically having had relatively little grounding in it. Even science teachers in the upper grades may be more comfortable in one science course, such as biology, than another, like physics. Struggling teachers may need help from colleagues to plan science lessons, and prodding to spend time on the subject. Principals can carve out the time for that planning. They can also do the necessary prodding.

Yet taking on that role requires principals to acknowledge that they need help with science content, and in developing ideas for teaching it to students, Ms. Rosen said.

“It’s important for the principal to make it clear to people that you’re not always right, and you don’t always have all the answers,” she said during a break from one of the academy’s sessions. Her goal, she said, is that she and her teachers “begin sharing, going in the same direction, learning as a group.”

The academy seeks to elevate not only the attendees’ knowledge of science content, but also their understanding of science overall. Science is not simply a collection of discrete facts, a number of speakers, including K-12 teachers and college faculty members, told the attendees. It is a way of studying the natural world, with its own methods and language. The principals and teachers were encouraged to think of science, and present it to students, in “strands,” or skills that combine content knowledge with the ability to reason as a scientist would.

Those lessons were conveyed through presentations, small-group discussions, and laboratory-style experiments.

During one such experiment, academy officials fill a can full of water and elevate it about 20 feet in the air. A hose runs from the bottom of the can to the floor. The educators are asked to predict what will happen when the hose, which is capped at the bottom end, is uncapped. Will the water run down from the can through the hose to the floor?

Oak Park Elementary’s team, and others at nearby tables, go to work. They write down questions. Will the height of the tank affect the water’s movement? Will the air pressure outside the tank force the water down? They make predictions.

The academy speakers uncap the hose. The water flows quickly from the tank and down the hose into a container on the floor. The metallic tank collapses inward, crushed under the weight of the air pressure.

‘Way of Thinking’

Wil van der Veen, the director of the Science Education Institute at the New Jersey Astronomy Center, lays out the science behind the experiment. He goes on to describe how teachers can use scientific “models,” or representations designed to explain scientific phenomena or concepts, in their classes.

Most teachers use models simply to demonstrate science concepts to students in simple terms. But scientists use models to make predictions and build knowledge, he tells the audience. Teachers, he says, can encourage that, too.

Teachers and administrators should help students understand that science is “a way of thinking,” Mr. van der Veen says, which encourages the revision and improvement of hypotheses and predictions—and often involves error. “If you’re afraid to be wrong, you can’t do science,” he explains to the attendees.

Other sessions focused on how principals and teachers can work together in developing science lessons and curricula. Given the demands placed on teachers and administrators, finding the time for that collaboration is not easy, educators here suggested.

Many of the attendees pointed to the federal No Child Left Behind Act as a complicating factor. The law requires that schools test students in reading and mathematics annually in grades 3-8 and once during high school, and it holds them accountable for the results. Many educators have complained that, as a consequence, the time devoted to science has been cut.

Beginning last academic year, the law required that schools test students in science, though it does not mandate that states assign penalties for low scores on those exams. Schools need support from principals to devote enough time to science, some academy participants said.

Against that backdrop, a number of science groups have paid increasing attention to the work of principals and other administrators in recent years.

The National Science Teachers Association, a 55,000-member organization based in Arlington, Va., staged a five-day leadership institute targeting school educators and administrators, including principals, this past summer, an effort supported by the General Electric Foundation. The teachers’ group publishes a monthly newsletter, with a circulation of 5,000, for elementary-level principals. In addition, about 10 percent of the attendees at the NSTA’s national and regional conferences are principals and other school leaders.

Advocates Needed

When the Merck Institute began its work in science education 15 years ago, the role of principals was not well defined, but that has changed, said Carlo Parravano, the institute’s executive director. The Academy for Leadership in Science Instruction is today one of a number of institute efforts to reach out to administrators.

When the institute was planning the academy, Mr. Parravano said, a common worry voiced by principals was that their schools would shift their focus away from reading and math, the subjects emphasized in the NCLB mandates.

“ ‘There isn’t enough time in the day,’ ” Mr. Parravano recalls principals telling him. The principals who are now taking part will become strong advocates for science, he predicted.

In addition to the influence they wield over scheduling, staffing, and curriculum, principals play an equally vital role in explaining a school’s mission and priorities to their communities, said Dick Flanary, a senior director of leadership programs and services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va. Principals can, and should, for instance, convey the importance of science education to students’ future job prospects, and make plain many students’ shortcomings in that subject—a point that is not understood by the public at large, he said, citing recent public opinion surveys.

While parents seem “perfectly satisfied” with the quality of science education, Mr. Flanary said, “I hear principals saying, ‘We need to make substantive changes.’ ”

Ms. Rosen, the Pennsylvania principal, pledged to put the academy’s lessons in place upon returning to Oak Park Elementary. She said she would carve out more time before school for teachers to plan science lessons together, and allow them to use their “prep time,” when students are in art, music, gym, or library lessons, to discuss science. Neither she nor the Oak Park teachers suggested it would be simple, as they acknowledged during one of their academy discussions.

“We have a week together” at the academy, Ms. Rosen told the teachers. “How do we re-create that, when we’re back in our everyday routine, and everything else is on top of us, too? ... We’re going to have to start small, and build [with] the belief that we’ll make it happen.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Guidance by Principals Emerging as Crucial in Science Instruction


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