Current research needs to address two issues simultaneously: (a) How can one improve the performance of an elementary school (as an organization) through the use of sustained culturally relevant pedagogy to ensure that marginalized students receive a quality education, and that teachers develop a social consciousness that allows them to critique the basis of power and privilege in education? and (b) What are the components of elementary STEM opportunities to learn that foster interest, participation, and academic success in STEM foundational thinking and instructional activities, especially for marginalized students of color? Where our current research intended to focus on the latter, I believe that a more dynamic, longer-ranging study is necessary to understand the intersectionality of race, STEM foundational thinking, and systemic inequity. This could take the form of an inter-disciplinary study that uses mixed methods to study STEM foundational thinking. Doing so would give teachers and anti-racist school leaders tools that are backed by research in order to dismantle the current educational system both within their building and within their school district. I believe that future research should be grounded in the frameworks of Critical Race Theory, Culturally Responsive Education, adult learning, and STEM foundational thinking professional development design so that teachers can improve their pedagogy, thereby improving the quality of education for their students of color.
Although there has been much scholarship around the best practices surrounding the design and delivery of professional development (PD), adult and professional learning, evidence-based practices related to PD, thought leadership, online tools intended for more access and support, and equity and education (including Critical Race Theory), little has been done to combine these into a single, unifying professional learning approach in order to remove the academic disparities between racial groups within an elementary school setting (via STEM-foundational thinking). Most relevant to me is how discussing race among colleagues can have detrimental effects on a staff’s cohesiveness. These racial consciousness conversations about skin color, socio-economic status (SES), gender, and academic achievement need to come before any educational reform efforts. However, at times conversations around a students’ identity background and their perceptions of their own educational opportunities lead to unintended implications of racism on the part of individual teachers. Litowitz (1997) mentions “critics also worry that CRT’s emphasis on racism promotes ‘balkanization’ and racial divisiveness.” I have been witness to this in my own career as a teacher, educational leader, and instructional coach. I feel that the major reason a STEM inequity gap persists is because of a lack of open and frank communication between administrators, teachers, parents, and students about how different students learn, and the academic potential of traditionally underperforming students of color. We seem to recognize the need to differentiate instruction for our individual students’ needs; however, once the topic of race is added, people shy away from recognizing that students of different colors may learn differently (Cokley, 2003, p. 529) or are inhibited from learning based on systemic assumptions about their ability to achieve academic success.
Evidence-Based Leadership Strategies for Achieving Integrated STEM Foundational Thinking
Improving student achievement begins with evidence-based leadership strategies for improving the quality of instruction. Successful leadership (a) reinvents leadership practices to use a distributed leadership style, (b) organizes school supports for school improvement, and (c) turns schools into equitable centers of high-quality education. In the following sections, I will describe leadership
strategies that reflect current research on best practices for teachers and administrators. I will end with explaining how these interventions will produce significant gains in marginalized student achievement.
Improved student learning through distributed leadership. Leadership projects, such as the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, have investigated links to improve student learning through leadership that focuses on “shared and contingent responsibility” and “on leadership exercised by those most directly responsible for student learning—principals and teachers” (Seashore-Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstom, & Anderson, 2010, p. 17). This distributed leadership philosophy has positive effects on teachers, students, and principals. For example, by creating an effective professional community, the staff creates a school climate that “encourages levels of student effort above and beyond the levels encouraged in individual classrooms” (Seashore-Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstom, & Anderson, 2010, p. 37). This is especially important for marginalized students because systemic levels of STEM privilege and oppression have caused these students to underperform in all content areas as compared to their White peers. By using professional development focused on STEM equity and racial consciousness, teachers will become STEM-foundational thinking facilitators and anti-racist leaders who instill the levels of trust necessary for increased student achievement in STEM content areas. Research indicates that “when the professional community focuses on the quality of student learning, teachers adopt instructional practices that enhance students’ learning” (Seashore-Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstom, & Anderson, 2010, p. 42).
School improvement. STEM-foundational thinking and learning-focused leadership (a) means a “persistent, public focus at all levels of the system to improve the quality of instruction”, (b) invests in people and positions to enhance instructional leadership, (c) “reinvents leadership practice within schools”, (d) creates “differentiated, responsive relationships within schools”, and (e) uses evidence from many kinds of leadership work as constant reference points (Knapp, Copland, Honig, Plecki, & Portin, 2010). In order for professional development on race and STEM student achievement to be sustainable, closing the opportunity gap must be a priority at all schools, but especially within elementary schools where students’ learning experiences are more naturally integrated. This will require persistent focus from the classroom to the hallways, to the staff lounge, to the principal’s office; all levels of the system must be held accountable for closing this gap. Schools must invest in
Engaging others in the STEM-reform Effort
Engaging every staff member is essential for implementing this STEM reform effort to provide equal access and opportunities for STEM foundational thinking. Below I will define current research on collaborative research, and discuss the benefits and obstacles with these strategies.
Collaborative leadership. Collaborative leadership “distributes power, authority, and responsibility across [a] group” (Anderson-Butcher, Lawson, Bean, Boone, Kwiatkowski, et al., 2004, p. 4). True collaboration require an interdependence “characterized by trust, norms of give-and-take, shared responsibilities, consensus-building and conflict resolution mechanisms, shared power and authority and shared information and decision-making systems” (Anderson-Butcher, Lawson, Bean, Boone, Kwiatkowski, et al., 2004, p. 2). Design principles and strategies for collaboration and collaborative leadership are numerous; however, here I will focus on three: (a) environment, (b) structure, and (c) purpose. Creating an environment of trust is the first priority for schools engaging in Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) professional development with a STEM-foundational thinking focus. Teachers must be willing to acknowledge their privileges and authority within the school system. Teachers must be willing to see systems of privilege and oppression clearly before they can analyze how the system works. The ability to compromise will be difficult for some, especially when denial of oppression is strong. Finally, in order to obtain our goal of closing these STEM opportunity gaps, teachers must be unified in that single purpose. Collaborative teachers must agree to this purpose before they can proceed. Research indicates that the use the professional development to illustrate how “commitment to the overall purpose will support their own interests” (Anderson-Butcher, Lawson, Bean, Boone, Kwiatkowski, et al., 2004, p. 9) is vital to sustainability. Collaborative leadership is definitely a team approach to solving school-wide inequity problems. There will be conflict, yet these conflicts must be handled tactfully so that teachers can get to the business of increasing the integration of STEM-foundational thinking in all content areas.