• By Kristin Grayson, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2009

Kristin Grayson, M.A.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

United States 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,” Bryan and Atwater(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; contact@idra.org) or visit www.idra.org.


Bryan, L., and M. Atwater. “Teacher Beliefs and Cultural Models: A Challenge for Science Teacher Preparation Programs,” Science Teacher Education (2002) 86 (6), 821- 839.

Capps, R., and M.E. Fix, J. Murray, J. Ost, J.S. Passel, S. Herwantoro. The New Demography of America’s Schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act (Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 2005).

Cummins, J. Understanding Academic Language Learning: Making It Happen in the Classroom (Chapter 5), Negotiating Identities: Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society, second edition (Los Angeles: California Association for Bilingual Education, 2001).

Echevarria, J., and M.E. Vogt, D.J. Short. Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model, second edition (Boston: Pearson, Allyn and Bacon, 2004).

Gray, D.S., and T. Bryce. “Socio-scientific Issues in Science Education: Implications for the Professional Development of Teachers,” Cambridge Journal of Education (2006) 36 (2), 171-192.

Institute of Education Sciences. “Indicator 17: International Mathematics and Science Achievement,” Youth Indicators, 2005 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Educational Statistics, 2005).

Kinsella, K. “Structured ‘Academic Talk’ for English Learners: A Key to Narrowing the Verbal Gap in K-12 Classrooms,” presentation at OELA Fifth Annual Celebrate Our Rising Stars Summit (Washington, D.C.: Office of English Language Acquisition, October 2006).

Klinger, J.K. “The Science of Professional Development,” Journal of Learning Disabilities (2004) 37, (3), 248-255.

Lee, O., and S. Lewis, K. Adamson, J. Maerten-Rivera, W.G. Secada. “Urban Elementary School Teachers’ Knowledge and Practices in Teaching Science to English Language Learners,” Science Teacher Education (2007).

Saam, J., W.J. Boone, V. Chase. “A Snapshot of Upper Elementary and Middle School Science Teachers’ Self-Efficacy and Outcome Expectancy,” ERIC Document 443685 (2000).

Sawada, D., and M. Piburn, E. Judson, J. Turley, K. Falconer, R. Benford, Russell, I. Bloom. “Measuring Reform Practices in Science and Mathematics Classrooms: The Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol,” School Science and Mathematics (October 2002) Vol. 102 Issue 6.

Shulman, L. “Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations for a New Reform,” Harvard Educational Review (1987) 51, 1-22.

Scott, B. “The Role of School Governance Efficacy in Building an Equity Context for School Reform,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 2009).

Sweeney, A.E. “Articulating the Relationships Between Theory and Practice in Science Teaching: A Model for Teacher Professional Development,” Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice (2003) 9(2), 107-132.

Texas Education Agency. Academic Excellence Indicator System 2007-2008 (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, 2009).

Tschannen-Moran, M., and A.W. Hoy, W.K. Hoy. “Teacher Efficacy: Its Meaning and Measure,” Review of Educational Research (1998) 68 (2), 202-248.

U.S. Department of Education. “Secretary Arne Duncan Speaks at the National Science Teachers Association Conference,” speech (Washington, D.C., March 20, 2009).

Uekawa, K., and K. Borman, R. Lee. “Student Engagement in U.S. Urban High School Mathematics and Science Classrooms: Findings on Social Organization, Race and Ethnicity,” The Urban Review (2007) 30 (1).

University of Louisville. “Middle School Science Content Summary Chart,” Diagnostic Science Assessments for Middle School Teachers web site (Louisville, Ken.: University of Louisville, College of Education and Human Development, nd).

Windschitl, M. “What Types of Knowledge do Teachers Use to Engage Learners in “Doing Science”? – Rethinking the Continuum of Preparation and Professional Development for Secondary Science Educators,” paper commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences (2004).

Zohar, A. “The Nature and Development of Teachers’ Metastrategic Knowledge in the Context of Teaching Higher Order Thinking,” The Journal of the Learning Sciences (2006) 15 (3), 331-377.

Zohar, A., and N. Schwartzer. “Assessing Teacher’s Pedagogical Knowledge in the Context of Teaching Higher-Order Thinking,” International Journal of Science Education (2005) 27 (13), 1595-161.

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 feedback@idra.org.

[©2009, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2009 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]