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 this process by investing time, money, and in the teachers themselves.  For example, successful professional development (e.g.: book study or STEM community cohort) require resources for teachers to use in exploring their own systems of privilege and oppression.  This includes, but is not limited to staff meeting agenda time, books, substitute teacher pay for release days, individual grade level collaboration time, and guest speakers.  By focusing on learning-focused leadership, the staff must identify and address problems of culturally insensitive instructional practice.  To do this, requires STEM-focused teacher leaders to “model ways of thinking and acting [in a culturally-responsive manner]” and “developing and using tools in one-on-one assistance relationships” with marginalized students (Knapp, Copland, Honig, Plecki, & Portin, 2010, p. 14).  Creating differentiated relationships within elementary schools, the principal must create “more responsive supervisor-teacher relationships inside the school” (Knapp, Copland, Honig, Plecki, & Portin, 2010, p. 15).  For example, an instructional rounds model may work well for supporting this type of continuous professional development (Marzano, 2011; City, 2009). This would affect the way teachers are evaluated both formally and informally.  Culturally responsive pedagogy must be a priority for all teacher evaluations.  Finally, our professional development must use current data and evidence “provide continual feedback loops to teachers, teacher-leaders, and the school’s supervisory leaders” (Knapp, Copland, Honig, Plecki, & Portin, 2010, p. 17).  Public schools are data-driven systems when it comes to content-area instruction; they must also be data-driven for anti-racist teaching and learning and STEM-foundational thinking.

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.