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Merck: Strategy and Scope of Merck Partnerships

The Merck Institute was launched in 1993, to coordinate the company's efforts in K-8 education reform. The initiative focused largely on professional development of elementary and middle school teachers and promoted systemic reform by building partnerships:

  • With elementary teachers, to promote investigative inquiry-centered science education and make it accessible to all students
    With school districts, to promote the teaching of science and its integration with other content areas
  • With parents, to make them partners in meeting this challenge
  • With Merck employees, to serve as mentors to teachers and as classroom volunteers
  • With institutions of higher education, to give tomorrow's teachers a stronger grounding in science content and teaching methods.

In the early years, the Institute in Rahway, New Jersey, is focusing on four school districts where Merck has a corporate presence: Linden, Rahway, and Readington Township in New Jersey; and North Penn in Pennsylvania. All four districts have a history of Merck involvement that predates the establishment of The Merck Institute.

Altogether, the four districts include 34 elementary and middle schools with roughly 1,100 classroom teachers and 17,500 students, but there is considerable variation among them. For grades K-8, the districts range in size from 1,700 students to 10,000 students; they have several different grade ranges, e.g., K-4, K-6, preK-5; the socio-economic and ethnic makeup of the districts is quite different. Given these wide variations, it is no surprise that their histories and policies with regard to K-8 science education were all different.

While it may not be unusual for a company to support science education in school districts surrounding one of its sites, the Merck effort is unique in its long-term commitment, its clear focus, and its emphasis on assessment of results. To measure the effects of the Instituteís partnership initiatives on science education, the Consortium for Policy research in Education (CPRE) at the University of Pennsylvania is conducting a multi-year evaluation on the Institute's work.

Although, the challenges posed are considerable, so also are the opportunities for success, as the Merck Institute found when it encouraged communication and cooperation across the districts. According to the most recent CPRE annual report, what began as separate partnerships between The Merck Institute and each of the four districts has now emerged as a genuine, developing collaborative among the five parties.

The strategy has been to recognize the independence of the four school districts and, at the same time, to promote and support all the basic elements of systemic reform in each district:

  • A curriculum and associated hands-on, inquiry-centered instructional materials as described in various national standards and state frameworks
  • A system for supporting the use of these materials
  • The professional development of teachers to enable them to gain a deeper understanding of both science and inquiry-centered learning and to use the instructional materials selected by their school district
  • Assessment of students that is aligned with the hands-on inquiry-centered instruction
  • Building support for this program in the school and district administrations within the community.

Launching Systemic Reform. The first steps of the Merck Institute were to encourage the partner districts to examine and adopt state-of-the-art, standards-based instructional materials and practices. To further this goal, the Institute arranged for teams of teachers and administrators from each of the four school districts to attend an NSF-supported summer National Elementary Science Leadership Institute (NESLI) of the National Science Resources Center (NSRC) held in Washington, DC. Each team also included a Merck scientist.

At the NSRC institutes the teams discussed the five basic elements of reform listed above and began to develop strategic plans for systemic reform in their own school districts. Upon their return, teachers, curriculum supervisors, and principals began reviewing inquiry-centered instructional modules, planning systems for managing the materials, and designing training in the use of the modules.

  • In 1996, the Partnership was awarded a 5-year, $2.4 million National Science Foundation grant. This grant, under NSF's Local Systemic Change program, has had several effects:
  • The science focus of the Partnership has been expanded to include mathematics and technology, and to reach a wider audience of teachers.
  • Professional development programs have been expanded to include seminars for principals.
  • A pre-service program has been established to incorporate into the Leader Teacher Institute undergraduates preparing to be teachers, and to place these Merck Fellows, as they are called, in the classroom with experienced Leader Teachers during the school year.
  • Assessment Investigation Teams, established in each district in 1995, have intensified their study and development of assessment instruments more appropriate to inquiry-centered instruction.

When the Merck Institute begins to realize some of its goals with Partnership school districts, it plans to expand the scope of its reform efforts beyond New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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