New AAAS report explores how 10 US school districts improved science and mathematics learning


WASHINGTON, D.C.- Ten U.S. school districts have achieved significant improvement in science and mathematics performance by developing ambitious programs that set high standards, and then closely tracking what works and what doesn't work in helping students learn, according to a new AAAS report.

The 22-page report, "A System of Solutions: Every School, Every Student," identifies 10 U.S. K-12 school districts, serving some of the nation's major inner-city areas, and discusses the systemic practices that helped them improve student performance and close the gap between minority and non-minority students.

U.S. school districts examined as part of the AAAS report are: Atlanta; Boston; Brownsville, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; El Paso, Texas; Houston; Los Angeles; Miami; Portland, Ore.; and San Diego.

"A System of Solutions," commissioned by the GE Foundation, was released today by AAAS. It is available online at

"Producing the capacity to lead, measure and sustain science and mathematics performance for all students across an entire school district is a community responsibility," said Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, who oversaw production of the report.

"The good news is that it is possible to increase student performance in mathematics and science while closing the performance gap that usually characterizes achievement levels of minority and poor students," Malcom added. "But there is no single magic bullet for effecting change overnight. Similarly, 'boiling the ocean,' or attempting to change everything very rapidly and all at once, is never the best solution. Our analysis shows that carefully devised, multi-faceted strategies, sustained over time, are the only sure path to success."

GE Foundation President Bob Corcoran added: "Today, the need for a quality education has never been more urgent, especially for individuals from under-represented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds. This report identifies key actions districts can take to close the achievement gap and increase student performance."

While the report offers optimism about the prospects for success, it also offers a frank assessment of the commitment required.

"This work is hard and will take a long time to get it right," the report says. "It is not cheap. It needs to take place in a climate where failures and mistakes begin to be seen as opportunities to learn and correct."

The first state and local systemic education reform efforts were undertaken in the early 1990s with guidance and funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF's Urban Systemic Initiatives/Urban System Program (USI/USP) eventually came to include 27 U.S. school districts. The goal was to assist cities in implementing wide-ranging reforms through standards-based math and science curricula, professional development for teachers and accountability for achievement through data collection and assessment.

Luther Williams, a pioneer of systemic education reform while with NSF, said past efforts which centered on individual students and teachers proved to be "of little consequence." But Williams, now the William T. Kemper director of education and interpretation at the Missouri Botanical Garden, said the systemic approach is "highly integrative and holistic" and is "unitary, productive and readily documentable, with sustained high learning outcomes."

In the fall of 2004, the GE Foundation asked AAAS what could be done to support school systems in increasing achievement for all of its students.

The AAAS study is based on a new analysis of 10 of the USI/USP school districts, all of which had demonstrated student achievement gains, as well as a narrowing of the performance gap between minority and non-minority students. (For details, see "Academic Excellence for All Urban Students," by Jason J. Kim and colleagues, available at

The AAAS authors reviewed school-reform reports and research studies and conducted in-depth interviews with more than 20 top educators from the districts and other school reform experts. The success of those 10 districts offers clear lessons for how other school districts might proceed, said Daryl Chubin, co-author of "A System of Solutions" and director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity.

First, Chubin emphasized, the improvements in the 10 districts pre-date "No Child Left Behind," the federal education reform effort that thus far has focused on math and reading test scores as benchmarks of successful learning. Although the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002 was generally applauded by the school district leaders who were interviewed by AAAS researchers, many expressed strong concerns about inadequate funding for program initiatives. Others have raised concerns that the current focus on reading and mathematics has squeezed science out of the school day because it is not scheduled for testing until 2007.

"Teaching and learning of mathematics and science must be done classroom by classroom," Chubin said. "But districts play a strong role in shaping policies and practices and distributing resources. NSF recognized this in the early 1990s, and over a decade later 10 urban systems reflect what worked and continues to contribute to reducing the achievement gap and other inequities.

"The lessons are clear: Reform takes time. Data help measure progress and guide educational practices. District offices, not schools alone, can make a difference in educational outcomes."

In all, six factors are identified in "System of Solutions" as essential for improving science and mathematics performance:

Ownership and accountability: Ownership of student achievement must be "community property," the report says. Problems and solutions must be widely shared across stakeholder groups at all levels.

Resources, notably time: Communities underestimate how long it takes to improve learning. They need to build in sufficient design and planning time-approximately a year-and commit for the long-term while monitoring performance.

Data and research-based practice: Research-based approaches and/or curricula are being used by more successful districts. While No Child Left Behind suggests research-based models, guidance on their strengths and weaknesses is not provided.

High expectations and high standards: Tying the work of the USIs to national standards effectively raised the bar for the reforming systems. Providing assistance to teachers to meet these new standards must be accompanied by efforts to build public support and a sense of urgency to undertake such change.

Management and system capacity: School systems are large businesses, but often they are poorly managed. Transformation is not free, and additional support will likely be needed. Corporations may be able to assist by sharing their expertise.

Implementation and technical assistance: Despite all NSF-funded sites beginning with the same design principles, or drivers, the less successful sites in increasing student achievement were failures of implementation, not of design.

A summary version of "A System of Solutions" was released at the AAAS Annual Meeting in February. At the same time, the Urban Institute released a companion piece reporting on curricula and professional development efforts intended to improve science and mathematics performance at the middle- and high school levels. The two reports, both supported by the GE Foundation, are intended to help promote seamless educational change, from kindergarten through the workplace, for improving science and mathematics achievement.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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