Systemic reform is a term central to the improvement of K-12
science education. The National Science Education
"System Standards" clarify what is meant by the term.
An excerpt follows:
"A view of a system requires understanding the whole in
terms of interacting component subsystems, boundaries, inputs and outputs, feedback, and
relationships. In the education system, the school is the central institution for public
education. The school includes many components that interact, for example, teaching,
administration, and finance. The school is a component subsystem of a local district,
which is a subsystem of a state educational system.
States are part of a national education system. Schools are also
components of a local community that can include colleges and universities, nature
centers, parks and museums, businesses, laboratories, community organizations, and various
The primary function of the science education system is to supply
society with scientifically literate citizens. Information and resources (typically
financial) energize the system. The nature of the information, the magnitude of resources,
and the paths along which they flow are directed by policies that are contained in
instruments such as legislation, judicial rulings, and budgets."
Proponents of a systemic approach advocate closer alignment of
reform efforts among the parts of the education system because it will produce more
sustainable changes and better use of limited resources. "Systems thinking" is
borrowed from business economics models (see The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge,
Doubleday Currency 1990) and common sense lessons learned by educators in previous reforms
(see 2. Histories of Reform Efforts below).
What specifically would happen at the system-wide level under the
National Science Education Standards? When the Standards call for systemic reform
and address the need for change at the systemic level, they envision less emphasis on some
types of policies and programs and more emphasis on others. The following excerpt from the
System Standards will give you an idea of what would
change at the federal, state, and local levels.
Less Emphasis on
More Emphasis on
|Support by federal
agencies for professional development activities that affect only a few teachers
||Support for professional
development activities that are aligned with the Standards and promote systemwide changes
|Federal efforts that
are independent of state and local levels
||Coordination of reform efforts at
federal, state, and local levels
||Long-term commitment of resources to improving
Less Emphasis on
More Emphasis on
|Independent initiatives to reform
components of science education
||Partnerships and coordination of reform
|Assessments aligned with the
traditional content of science education
||Assessments aligned with the Standards and the
expanded view of science content
|Teacher certification based on
formal, historically based science requirements
||Teacher certification that is based on
understanding and abilities in science and science teaching
Less Emphasis on
More Emphasis on
|Policies unrelated to
||Policies designed to support changes called
for in the Standards
|Purchase of textbooks based on
||Purchase or adoption of curriculum aligned
with the Standards and on a conceptual approach to science teaching, including support for
hands-on science materials
|Standardized tests and assessments
unrelated to Standards-based program and practices
||Assessments aligned with the Standards
|Administration determining what
will be involved in improving science education
||Teacher leadership in improvement of science
|Authority at upper levels of
||Authority for decisions at level of
|Local union contracts that ignore
changes in curriculum, instruction, and assessment
||Local union contracts that support
improvements indicated by the Standards
Resources for more information about systemic reform
include the following:
1. Consortium for Policy Research in Education
The Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) is an excellent source of
information on issues relevant to systemic reform. The "CPRE Finance and Policy
Briefs" are summaries of highly regarded research and are less than 8-pages each.
CPRE members are the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, Stanford University,
the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
A current CPRE publications
list is available. To obtain copies of CPRE publications, also write CPRE
Publications, 3440 Market Street, Suite 560, Philadelphia, PA 19104-3325 or e-mail
firstname.lastname@example.org. Single copies are free.
Recommended CPRE briefs include:
Building Capacity for Education Reform, by Jennifer O'Day, Margaret E. Goertz,
and Robert E. Floden (No. RB-18-December 1995)
This brief argues that discussions of capacity should be broadened to include factors such
as the relationships between capacity and the abilities of schools and districts to
accomplish standards-based, or systemic reform. It suggests ways that systemic reform
strategies could help increase capacity and it also describes how two such strategies --
professional development and state assessment -- were used to enhance educational capacity
in several states.
The Bumpy Road to Education Reform by Jennifer O'Day, Margaret E. Goertz, and
Robert E. Floden (No. RB-20-June 1996)
This brief identifies five challenges that confront educators and policymakers as they
develop higher standards and other policies and structures to support improved student and
teacher learning. It also describes strategies used by a few states and localities to
address some of these challenges.
Challenges in Systemic Education Reform by Susan H. Fuhrman (No. RB-14-September
Reform is generating a great deal of excitement and energy and is associated with many
positive classroom changes. But policymakers and educators also face a number of
challenges in designing and implementing the new policies. This issue of CPRE "Policy
Briefs" examines these challenges as well as strategies that states are using to
address them. It draws from CPRE's studies of reform in 19 states and from discussions
with staff of policymaker associations involved in providing assistance to states.
Including School Finance in Systemic Reform Strategies: A Commentary by Allan
Odden (No. FB-04-May 1994)
This issue of CPRE "Finance Briefs" takes a look at the school finance issue
and proposes that education funding be tied more closely to systemic reform initiatives.
It first describes past trends in school finance and current challenges to traditional
education funding sources. Policy implications of these changes are presented, followed by
a discussion of possible components of a finance system based on systemic reform.
Politics and Systemic Education Reform, by Susan H. Fuhrman (No. RB-12-April
Many obstacles to systemic reform do exist, but some promising efforts indicate that
policymakers can enact ambitious goals and support them with coherent, coordinated
policies. This brief describes political challenges to systemic reform and explores the
conditions under which coherent policymaking might occur.
Putting the Pieces Together: Systemic School Reform (No. RB-06-April 1991)
This brief summarizes "Systemic School Reform," by M. S. Smith and J. O'Day,
which appears in full text in the CPRE brief entitled "The Politics of Curriculum and
Testing," edited by S. Fuhrman and B. Malen. Discussed are policymaking and
school-level success, current barriers to school improvement, and a strategy to improve
the quality of instruction and learning.
Reforming Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education: NSF's State Systemic
Initiatives (No. RB-15-May 1995)
To assess the results of the Statewide Systemic Initiatives (SSI) Program, the National
Science Foundation contracted with SRI International and its partners to conduct a
national evaluation. This brief presents some of SRI's observations about the SSIs based
on the first two years of the evaluation study and discusses some of the issues faced by
state and local leaders as they attempt to transform science, mathematics, and technology
2. Histories of Reform Efforts
Histories of reform efforts in science education provide perspective, context, and the
welcome opportunity to profit from past experiences. Rodger Bybee, Executive Director of
the National Research Council's Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering
Education, reflects on the past 40 years of reform in "Science
Curriculum Reform in the United States," a chapter from the book entitled Redesigning
the Science Curriculum. Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, 1995. Edited by Bybee
and Joseph D. McInerney.
3. The National Science Foundation
The National Science Foundation has funded systemic initiative efforts in many
communities over the past several years. The agency's experiences are outlined on www.The National Science Foundation Website.
Of particular interest are the six "Drivers" in NSF's model for systemic reform.
These are elements of accountability common to all 59 systemic initiative sites.
4. The U.S. Department of Education's Website
The U.S. Department of Education's Website contains
reports on state and local "Goals 2000" initiatives, annual reports on systemic
progress across the nation, background information, and on-line brochures.