Sustainability: Out-Live Out-Last Out-Reach  Discussants Reflect

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Jeanne Century's Reflections

Jeanne Century



I'd like to begin my remarks with the comment that this virtual conference has provided an exceptionally valuable opportunity for us to better understand the notion of sustainability and ask ourselves important questions about what is sustained, how a program is sustained, and why it is sustained. The wisdom of the presenters and their perspectives on the practical and theoretical meanings of sustainability, grounded in years of doing "nuts and bolts" work to change mathematics and science programs, have put us on a path toward tackling the elusive sustainability goal. I expect that all participants have valued this experience as much as I have and will look to other virtual opportunities such as this to support this remarkably rich developing community of sharing.

As I read the posters and their accompanying comments, the panels' remarks, and the keynote with its discussion, I noted that participants raised several topics repeatedly. Below, I reiterate some of these common themes, reflect on why they seem to be part of our shared agenda, and discuss some of their implications. Toward the end of my remarks, I pose some new questions and reflect on the future for this community of colleagues.

Several of the themes built from what we already know is important to sustain a program - e.g. strong leadership, professional development, sound curriculum - and articulated some of the challenges related to these program elements. For example, many presenters commented on the importance of planning for teacher turnover, including the constant influx of new teachers and the switching of teachers from grade to grade. For some, turnover seemed to be the foremost stumbling block in the way of a sustained program; one presenter suggested that sustainability may never be achieved until this challenge to developing shared understanding of the program and accomplished implementation was addressed.

Any amount of turnover is a challenge, and a 25%, 50%, 75% or even higher percentage of teacher turnover over the life of a project certainly offers a gloomy forecast for sustainability. The introductory professional development and/or training that projects provide to introduce teachers to curricula, and other opportunities to deepen and enrich use of that curricula might seem "wasted" on teachers who switch grades or worse, leave the district completely. In addition to the obvious challenge of designing a range of professional development and obtaining the political and financial support to keep it going, at least two other implications occur to me.

First, the frequency with which this issue appeared in the posters suggests that in fact, the presenters are right - given the realities of turnover, we can never achieve sustainability. That is, if sustainability is narrowly defined as the continuation of a specific project with particular professional development experiences; a specified curriculum; a leadership structure. As I stated earlier, a key to making peace with this issue is of course, planning for the turnover as much as possible, but also understanding the time horizon in which we are operating. When we are trying to train as many teachers as possible in a short time period, say, three to five years, turnover can be a frustrating obstacle. When we shift our time horizon to be longer term, however, we may be more likely to accept the turnover as a constant condition of the community - as opposed to just an obstacle to change. So, we might think differently about the content of our professional development experiences and the expectations for teachers actions between those experiences to extend the learning and ensure that some of the "residue" from that professional development is left other places besides in the teachers heads. This might be in the form of communications with others, in physical representations in the classroom and school, or in instructional strategies promoted in other subject areas. It is difficult to articulate specifics meaningful to all in these generic comments. Suffice to say that since we know the obstacle entering the sustainability "game," perhaps before we begin we should change the rules in our favor.

Another theme that emerged from many of the presenters was the importance of involving administrators - both school and central office - from the outset of a program. As far as the school is concerned, we all understand that the principal sets the tone for what is and isn't priority in a school. While we don't necessarily expect all principals to be enthusiastic supporters, one presenter pointed out the potential damage a program can feel in the face of apparent indifference. A principal who is apathetic or even passively willing to participate can cause a program to suffer through his/her implied lack of priority.

Involving principals is easier said than done, of course; we all understand that they have many responsibilities and other priorities competing for attention. And, since the turnover issue discussed above is not confined to teachers, one might ask how resources devoted to educating and engaging principals might best be spent given their potential to leave. Some of the presenting projects described how they successfully engaged principals, while others wished they had done a better job, or at least attended to the principals earlier in the life of the project.

Perhaps the question to ask is not whether to engage principals, but rather, how to engage them. One might typically invite principals to participate in professional development sessions along with their teachers. Or, program leaders could design professional development specifically for the principals, but such events always face challenges caused by time limits and voluntary participation. Perhaps we also could begin to get creative about the ways that principals could play a role in the program - I'm sure some of the LSCs have done just this already. Might there be ways to engage well-known and respected principals as part of a planning team; or perhaps to work with them as consultants to the project. Another approach might be to draw from the resources of the larger LSC network to identify successful, insightful principals from one community to provide advice to other projects seeking to interact with their principals more regularly and meaningfully.

As for engaging other administrators, many already have stated that the context and culture of the district(s) is key. As articulated in the keynote discussion, it is difficult to know how to balance specific and generic comments, particularly when it comes to the operations of a district central office. Certainly, every community is unique and each program must be negotiated taking into careful account the local personalities, issues, and priorities. I found it particularly interesting that one presenter who worked with a consortium of districts commented that having a number of superintendents involved could provide great benefits. He noted that when leadership in one of the collaborating communities changed, the other superintendents provided the necessary support and/or pressure to bring the incoming superintendent on board. Additionally, for those in single community programs and those not, it seemed that in those places where a central administrator was a significant and important supporter of the program, there was a shared belief in the program goals and a personal connection between the administrator and the program leaders. I think we all understand that we can work to plan and plan, but sometimes, support comes down to meshing personalities.

Another theme that emerged from the presentations dovetailed with Larry Cuban's comments on "Why sustain change?" He suggested that one reason why we might want to sustain change is because it works, and then raised some questions about the standards and evidence we use to judge that success. Many presenters expressed the importance of gathering evidence of success of the program, and most of them stated that they wished they had started collecting this evidence at the outset of the project and then continued data collection throughout. The evidence that projects might want to collect ranges from figures about extent and fidelity of materials usage, to attendance at professional development, to student scores on curriculum-specific or standardized tests.

The need for the evidence coincides with another theme, the importance of publicity. For, what is one going to publicize if not mostly the successes of the program? I discuss this more below. But, first, a more critical issue related to evidence is one for the project leaders themselves: How do we know what we are sustaining? Leading a reform project requires making informed decisions based on data about success or change. But, such evidence is not easy to come by. A few projects described their targeted efforts to collect data on teacher use and one offered the suggestion to "use the evaluator". But, in general, for program leaders to have information beyond student test scores is a rarity. The mechanisms by which leaders can better understand exactly what is happening in classrooms are neither easy to establish nor implement. Understanding of what happens once the classroom doors are closed is elusive and in many places, a program leader is not free to simply walk into a classroom; teacher leaders can go only where invited; and test scores don't necessarily provide any information about program implementation. We need to be cautious about an "emperor's new clothes" syndrome. Even when it seems that all is well with the program, without clear, concrete evidence we can use with confidence, we may one day be surprised to find that, like the emperor, we really have nothing on.

A fourth theme that appeared in many presentations focused on the importance of planning for and understanding the change process. This took several forms, ranging from those who stated the importance of adjusting time lines to others who focused on specifics of the planning process. We often hear about the importance of "planning" in presentations or guides on change, particularly systemic change, but what does that really mean? The wealth of practical knowledge among the presenters can help us all take steps to answering this question. One presenter raised the importance of expecting the unexpected; another, of building alliances to stand up against things that might happen; and yet another suggested that the entire first year of the project should be a "pre-implementation" year. Taken out of context, these (and other) suggestions don't have a lot of meaning, but we can each transplant them to our own situations and I think, still find a great deal of value and meaning in our interpretations of each under our own conditions.

Finally, one of my biggest surprises in the poster presentations was the frequency with which presenters talked about importance of publicizing and/or communicating about the science and/or mathematics program. One could argue that most science and/or mathematics education leaders aren't particularly good at publicizing their work; they are too busy running their programs. Furthermore, many education leaders seem to have a modesty that runs contrary to motivations for self-praise. But, the point here, so clearly illustrated by the presenters, is that if we are to sustain our programs, we must step outside of our usual roles and take on this task that may have in the past, fallen low on the priority list, if making the list at all.

But again we face the question - how should we talk about success and whose standards should we use? Reform leaders are bombarded with questions about standardized test scores that are fueled by the news media. The scores have such a high profile; it is difficult to break from that mold to articulate program successes of other kinds. The notion of engaging publicists, media relations personnel, and other professionals in the communications field may seem like misdirected energy and resources, particularly at the beginning of a project. But how else to reach toward what Cuban described as the popularity standard? I wonder what kinds of discussions of sustainability we would be hearing, had all of the projects done this from the outset. Would the stories be different? I'd be curious to hear others' thoughts on this.

All of the themes mentioned so far are concrete, bound to specific elements of a program or a program strategy. Stepping beyond these practical boundaries, many of the presenters' comments raised some philosophical and theoretical questions about sustainability. For example, several presenters suggested that we need to examine our assumptions about reform, what we can expect from the reform process, and which parts of it we hope will endure. While each suggested a very different assumption to examine, together the presenters suggest that in general, we should articulate and question our preconceptions going in and then periodically throughout the process. We should ask ourselves these questions more than once, for the answers may change somewhere along the way.

Moving away from the common themes, I wanted to note one more topic that was raised in the presentations, before finishing up my reflections: equity. First, I'll acknowledge that equity holds different meanings for different people and circumstances; I'll just lay out a simple way to understand it here - providing high quality science and mathematics education for all students in a community. Among the programs that presented, a few were quite explicit about their goals for equity. The rest addressed equity implicitly - for if we're not changing the system for the purpose of reaching all children, who are we doing it for? Equity can provide a foundational argument for why one might continue a reform (assuming it is successful) and yet it doesn't seem to be an issue at the forefront of our communication with teachers, administrators and other stakeholders. Is this because it is always implied and understood? Or, perhaps, it's not an appropriate strategic way to make an argument for supporting a program. It would be interesting to hear presenters' perspectives on the role that equity has played in their programs and how it would or would not be an effective way to build an argument for supporting and enduring program.

I'll finish by reflecting on two ideas that emerged from the presentations for the purpose of raising further points for discussion. First is the suggestion that in order to have truly sustained programs, we need to support and engage teachers to build a serious professional culture of commitment to improvement. So many of the professional development efforts of these programs were voluntary in nature and as a result attracted primarily those who felt a personal commitment to educational improvement and/or interest in the subject area. As much as we might hope all educators make this commitment, evidently, they haven't either because they are unwilling, or perhaps more likely, they are unable due to surrounding circumstances. One project called for mandated professional development; but would this help the ultimate sustainability of the program? Many teachers, principals and administrators make the programs successful; and seed the ground so that it is fertile when new opportunities arise. In an ideal world, all individuals in an educational community would do the same. They don't now - would mandatory involvement move them in that direction? I think that is unlikely. But then, we must ask what are the steps to take to move in this direction?

And finally, some of our colleague presenters encouraged us to use what we have learned already. We all know that time for reflection is scarce. And time to reflect in the company of colleagues is even more rare. Conferences like this one afford us the opportunity not only to mine the experiences of others, but, even more valuable, to engage them in a conversation about those experiences. Even when initial project visions were not realized, much was accomplished. And while sustainability of that original project may seem elusive, there is likely a great deal accomplished that will support the project goals on a long-term horizon. To borrow from Linda Gregg and the MASE program, we must "consider the yardstick" we use to measure success; appreciate how far we have come as a community and recognize the ways that individually and together we can sustain our collective efforts across the country.