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what is systemic reform?
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What is Systemic Reform?
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 media.

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.

Federal System

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
Short-term projects Long-term commitment of resources to improving science education

State System

 Less Emphasis on

 More Emphasis on

Independent initiatives to reform components of science education Partnerships and coordination of reform efforts
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

District System

Less Emphasis on

More Emphasis on

Policies unrelated to Standards-based reform Policies designed to support changes called for in the Standards
Purchase of textbooks based on traditional topics  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 education 
Authority at upper levels of education  Authority for decisions at level of mplementation 
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 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 1994)

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 1994)

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 education.

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.

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