Aligning School-Based Factors for Student Success
Using Contextual Data to Inform Science Professional Development
by Kristin Grayson, M.Ed.
The success of a professional development program for science teachers depends on the interplay of many school factors. Such factors include leadership advocacy and support for the academic success of all students, curriculum quality and accessibility, partnership with parents and community, demographics and history of achievement, a culture of high expectations for teachers and students, and quality of teaching personnel as defined by certification, teaching in fields, knowledge, beliefs, and experience. Consequently, before embarking with professional development in any school district or campus, IDRA conducts a contextual analysis mini-study to inform planning with school administrators.
A contextual analysis is especially important in the area of science because effective science teaching is a critical concern of many public schools today. This concern stems in part from statistical studies that show the
is behind other countries in student achievement in science. Compounding the issue is the increasing diversity of student demographics in public schools, meaning more and more teachers are called upon to teach diverse student groups in their classrooms (Capps, et al., 2005). Diverse student groups (Hispanic, African American, English language learner) have not achieved at the same levels as White students (IES, 2009). Recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan said to the National Science Teacher Association, “Science education is central to our broader effort to restore American leadership in education worldwide” (U.S. Department of Education, 2009).
This article discusses ways a contextual analysis of school-based factors can be used to inform the success of a professional development program by citing current research, disclosing experiences, and sharing activities that IDRA has used in conducting a contextual analysis mini-study.
Literature Review about Contextual Analysis
In a literature review of general professional development research, J.K. Klinger (2004) states that all of the factors concerning teachers and their diverse environments must be considered in order to effectively plan and conduct professional development. Klinger concludes that implementation of new practices into the classroom learned in professional development is heightened when the practices learned are flexible enough to fit with the needs of teachers and students and when the support for implementation in the classroom is adapted to the level needed by each teacher. Hence, awareness of the needs of teachers and students is an essential outcome of the IDRA contextual analysis before professional development is initiated.
Research about teacher knowledge, beliefs and practice has been conducted in other studies to inform the course of science professional development interventions. Lee, Lewis, Adamson, Maerten-Rivera and Secada (2007) conducted a five-year study and recapped it in an article titled “Urban Elementary School Teachers’ Knowledge and Practices in Teaching Science to English Language Learners.” Zohar (2006) stated in another article that by assessing teacher preexisting knowledge and beliefs about teaching, learners, learning and the subject matter, one can begin to understand the context that teachers bring to professional development. Sweeney (2003) supported a methodological approach to analyzing teachers’ behaviors and rationales in particular as a basis for mentoring within professional development.
Yet despite research such as this, reform efforts often have failed to acknowledge teachers’ existing knowledge, beliefs and attitudes, according to Gray and Bryce (2006). IDRA, however, does follow the research and supports using a contextual analysis as an important initial step in professional development.
In determining what teachers need to know, Shulman (1987) describes four areas as essential: general pedagogical knowledge (how to teach), content knowledge (science), pedagogical content knowledge (how to teach science), and disciplinary knowledge (inquiry and scientific processes). In a paper commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences, Mark Windschitl defines in more detail what the specific knowledge is in these four areas. Knowing what knowledge teachers possess in these areas, according to Zohar and Schwartzer (2005), affects what teachers will learn during professional development and what they might use in the classroom as a result of the professional development.
Teacher efficacy is an important part of teacher beliefs. Tshannen-Moran, Woolfok, Hoy and Hoy (1998) define teacher efficacy as “the teacher’s belief in his or her capability to organize and execute courses of action required to successfully accomplish a specific teaching task in a particular context.” Higher levels of teacher self-efficacy are well correlated to higher levels of student achievement in education research. This is noted in recent research for mathematics and science (Uekawa, Borman and Lee, 2007).
In an article titled, “Teacher Beliefs and Cultural Models: A Challenge for Science Teacher Preparation Programs,”
(2002) emphasize that teacher beliefs affect the learning that occurs in the classroom. It is important to be aware of teacher beliefs about student characteristics (race, culture, ethnicity, language, social class), beliefs about external factors that influence student learning, and beliefs about appropriate responses to diversity. It also is important to be aware of how different cultural models might impact a teacher’s instruction and interaction with students of diversity.
Similarly, Saam, Boone and Chase (2000) found an interesting result while comparing the self-efficacy of “local” (mostly White) science teachers with the demographic variables of their students. Teachers’ self-efficacies were not dependent on the students’ level, geography or ethnicity. However, researchers did find a significant difference between the self-efficacies reported by teachers who mostly had students of middle- and upper-income backgrounds and those who mostly had students of a poverty or low-income background.
IDRA Contextual Analysis for Science Teaching Quality
In conducting a contextual analysis prior to initiating science professional development, IDRA collects data from several sources: assessment of curriculum quality and school culture (high expectations, vision, experience with success, school safety); teacher demographic and certification data; self-assessment survey for proficiency in science content knowledge and pedagogy of diverse student learners, including English language learners; success in partnering with parents and community; survey for science self-efficacy for diverse students; and onsite observations.
In order to assess teacher knowledge and beliefs, IDRA uses and/or modifies a combination of surveys obtained from current research. Using these surveys helps inform the professional development so that specific teacher content knowledge that aligns with state standards, such as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, is targeted and strengthened.
Teacher beliefs and attitudes toward their ability to effectively teach science, especially to diverse students also can guide the professional development process. Numerous studies document the positive correlation of teacher self-efficacy to student achievement. Therefore, during the contextual analysis, IDRA assesses teachers’ science self-efficacy for diverse students using the equity lens to ensure that all teachers are prepared in attitudes, knowledge and practice so that “no learner is denied the fair and equitable benefit of a quality, sound educational experience afforded to all other students regardless of race, gender, national origin, economic level and handicap” (Scott, 2009).
When observing science classroom instruction, IDRA uses the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol. This is a science and mathematics classroom observation instrument (Pilburn and Judson, 2002) developed by the Arizona Collaborative for Excellence in the Preparation of Teachers. It details observable features of quality science teaching within categories of lesson design and implementation, content knowledge, and pedagogical and pedagogical content knowledge. Pedagogical content knowledge is further divided into propositional knowledge and procedural knowledge. These types of knowledge have to do with teachers not only knowing their content but also being able to promote students’ deep conceptual understanding and connections to other subject areas by making predictions, stating hypotheses and reflecting on their own learning. Additionally, student-centered instruction, standards-based, and inquiry focus are key components of quality science teaching within this framework. This framework supports the goals of the four strands of scientific proficiency detailed by the National Academic of Sciences that all learners need to acquire.
The observation protocol has additional indicators included to assess the teachers’ use of strategies that engage English language learners, something stressed by language acquisition expert Dr. Jim Cummins. Cummins (2001) emphasizes the importance of teachers engaging English language learners by using a variety of instructional strategies that connect the learning to the students’ own experiences or past learning and that develop academic language.
Echevarria, Vogt and Short’s research into sheltered instruction emphasizes that teachers must make the academic content comprehensible while using systematic methods to build and practice English language proficiency within the academic language of science. Kinsella (2006) further defines English language learner active engagement and the structuring of academic language. Indicators that reflect these English language learner strategies are included in the observation protocol used by IDRA.
The resulting information about teaching quality along with data collected about other important school-based factors is used by IDRA in conjunction with school districts to inform the plan for transformational change. This contextual analysis provides information about the condition or level of functioning of the various key school-based factors that influence the impact that professional development can have on teacher practices and student achievement. In other words, it provides administrators with information on maintaining or improving the condition of these school-based factors and aligning them to support the teacher and a professional development effort in increasing teaching effectiveness and student success.
For more information about IDRA professional development models that incorporate a contextual analysis component contact IDRA (210-444-1710;
) or visit www.idra.org.
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Kristin Grayson, M.Ed., is an education associate in IDRA’s Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at email@example.com.
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