Friday, May 18, 2007

A Concrete Plan for Making Shift Happen "NSF and School Reform"

An August 2006 post on the Concord Consortium blog, "NSF and School Reform" has so far drawn links from exactly one other blog, EdTechDev, which luckily I started reading yesterday, because this post by Concord Consortium President and CEO Bob Tinker is a gem. He analyzes current NSF spending on K-12 education and lays out a compelling "Existence Proof for Reform:"

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education could be reformed by simply reallocating the current NSF education budget. No huge infusion of new funding is required, just the leadership to change from current policies that are not achieving the desired goal. No huge research effort is needed to find new ways to teach and learn; we already know all that is required to make major improvements. Innovation, not fundamental new knowledge, is needed at each step to integrate ideas from researchers from mathematics, science, and engineering and to incorporate changes in the disciplines and new insights about cognition.

To make this point, I have sketched below a five-year effort to reform secondary STEM education that would require $25M per year for development and, in its later years, $70M per year for professional development. The proposed plan is offered as and existence proof—that is, without claiming that this is the best plan, it provides one feasible plan for a significant part of K12 education. Its importance is less its details than its feasibility; it shows that something very important could be done with available resources.
The proposed plan would develop new curriculum material in math and science for grades 7-12. The materials would have the following characteristics:

  • Courses for each grade. There would be course materials for mathematics and science for all students in each of five grades 6-11, and four advanced courses would be generated for grade 12 science students. Engineering topics would be woven into each course.

  • Research-based. The design would incorporate insights from research and best practice. Learning would be contextualized, inquiry-based, hands-on, and adapted to student capacities and understandings.

  • Integrated. Mathematics and science would be tightly integrated and the math/science/engineering topics would be integrated across grades. Grades 9-11 would feature a physics-chemistry-biology sequence.

  • Focused on core concepts. The treatment would make extensive us of computational models and tools to help students learn concepts and avoid getting lost in details and exceptions. Formalism, proofs, and computation would be minimized.

  • Online, free replacement for texts. All materials, assessments, and teacher support would be available free online using the open source and open access models of electronic distribution. This would free schools to use $600M/yr in textbook money for the requisite technology and break the tyranny of state textbook adoption procedures.

  • Tested, revised, and validated. An extensive formative and summative research effort would support revisions and measure student learning gains.

The primary development effort could be done for $1M for each of 14 courses, $5M for technology, $3M for research and assessment, and $3M for coordination. Except for the technology, which would be front-loaded, these levels would be maintained for five years while three versions of the materials are developed and tested in increasing numbers of schools.

Starting in year two of the materials development effort, a linked teacher professional development (TPD) effort needs to be launched that can eventually reach all 400K math and science teachers. This effort would also be research-based and, following one of the consistent findings in this area, would be tightly focused on the new materials and classroom practice with these materials.

It is not feasible to provide TPD for every secondary math and science teacher. Instead, a leadership model can be used in which 20K teacher-leaders are provided with extensive training and resources so they can each support, on average, 20 additional teachers. A rich combination of resources in the form of workshops, online courses, guides, and meetings can be provided for these leaders for $3K each per year, or a total that would reach $60M per year. Development, technology, online courses, and evaluation would cost another $10M per year.

Reform in grades K-6 has similar costs, but needs to use a different PDF model because of the larger number of elementary teachers, their turnover, and their multiple disciplinary responsibilities.

This sketch shows that a major STEM reform effort can be undertaken starting at $25M and building up to less than $100M per year. There can be disagreements about the desirability of, for instance, starting at the secondary level, making free materials available, relying on computers, and using a teacher-leader model. These important issues would be interesting to debate, but the point is ANY reform effort that developed exciting, innovative materials and provided opportunities for every teacher to have some professional development, would require about five years of funding that started in the $25M level and built up toward $100M. This level of funding is huge compared to current efforts, but still small compared to the current NSF education budget.

This is ultimately the kind of advocacy for investment in open source software and open content we need, as it puts licensing and cost considerations in the proper context. It also seems to acknowledge something I've long believed about open content in K-12: that it will take big-time government and/or foundation support to jump-start the process for real, but if you run the numbers, the amounts aren't out of line with similar investments made at this level. If you think about it, a national low-cost laptop program could virtually ride on the coattails of this project.

This is a plan I could get behind, and certainly one deserving of more attention in the ed blogosphere.


Sylvia said...

Brilliant - thanks for finding this.

JuneA said...

Tom, in my ed-tech experience I am increasingly convinced that a plan like this is one of the fundamental ways that we could leverage computer technology to better our ed-reform process.

I would add to open content/curriculum - linked measures of assessment and accountability. For example, an online curriculum system could be monitored, and we could assess things like opportunity-to-learn. That is, we could see if children have been at least exposed to the curriculum, and how they did on subsequent assessments... rather than relying merely on standardized tests. This is just one example, but there are different possibilities.

Great find!