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Leadership institutes: guiding science and mathematics systemic reform: Delta Rural Systemic Initiative (Delta RSI) one decade later.


The National Science Foundation (NSF) supported program, Delta Rural Systemic Initiative (Delta RSI), was designed to initiate and stimulate systemic reform in K-12 mathematics and science to children living in the most rural and low SES counties of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. From 1997-2003, Delta RSI helped local districts to build and support a systemic and sustainable framework for grassroots leadership, policy development, improvement of K-12 science, mathematics, and technology learning environments and an enhanced capacity for local community involvement. Advisory councils and district leadership teams were established to work closely with others in Delta RSI to strengthen relationships in the educational system. Delta RSI Leadership Institutes were especially successful in creating the dynamic communities and interrelationships necessary for creating and implementing plans for sustainable growth.

The results of survey data completed by Delta RSI Leadership Institute participants provide valuable insight into what was perceived to be successful and what challenges remain in sustaining systemic reform in science, mathematics, and technology. Recommendations for future collaborations are discussed in light of Boyer's Leadership Models and current issues facing science and mathematics education in the K-12 educational system.


Mission and scope of the Delta Rural Systemic Initiative

According to the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996), an understanding of science and the processes of science are essential to creating a "scientifically literate" citizenry. In comparison with many other countries, students in the United States--and particularly students in rural, poor areas of the Delta--score lower in science mathematics problem solving and reasoning skills despite several decades of education reform in this country and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on programs, kits, consultants, and the like. Sustainability of effective science and mathematics education is vital to the scientific and economic health of the individual and of society.

The Delta Rural Systemic Initiative (Delta RSI) was established in 1997 under a grant from the National Science Foundation. The purpose of the grant was to target the most rural and low SES counties in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi for regional and local systemic efforts. The project was designed to ensure that Delta children and youth acquire, and become proficient at, globally competitive levels in those skills and content related to science, math and technology. The program targeted the key barriers to systemic reform in 64 counties and 106 K-12 schools.

Critical to systemic sustainability, local stakeholders in each community formed the basis for any meaningful improvement and that fundamental reform/change could only occur by mobilizing local groups of individual as change agents. The Delta RSI formed an over-arching umbrella for the participating counties, communities and schools.

Leadership Institutes: A Crucial Component of Delta RSI

One of the most pivotal and vital roles to creating sustainable systemic reform in K-12 science, mathematics, and technology rested with the formation and actions of the district leadership teams. Leadership teams at the school district level were established to address the scope of the grant activities in the K-12 system and, through teambuilding, to address and support high-quality research-based, standards-based science, mathematics, and technology curriculum, instruction, and assessment issues and decisions. Teams consisted of a district administrator (e.g. the curriculum coordinator and or director of federal programs), a science teacher, a mathematics teacher, a university faculty member, and other representatives from the community such as a business leader, parent coordinator, school board member, an influential member of the faith-based community, and the district superintendent who served as the official chairperson of the leadership team.

Once district leadership teams were formed, they were invited to apply to a week-long Delta RSI Leadership Institute modeled after the Arkansas Leadership Academy (ALA), a collaborative venture between the University of Arkansas, state government, and the private sector. The ALA was created in 1991 by the state legislature to provide leadership for systemic reform in Arkansas through team building, awareness of issues, and action. Leadership institutes for school districts focused on vital issues in education such as quality of educational programs, student, teacher and school accountability, funding and equity.

Through the leadership institutes, the ALA brought together teachers, principals, university faculty members, community members, counselors and others in school teams to focus on science and mathematics education. These workshops provided a means to educate, elucidate, and coordinate so that stakeholders could develop effective plans to drastically improve science, mathematics, and technology and to realize higher achievement test scores.

Implementing the Leadership Institutes: The Application Model

During the leadership institutes, teams participated in knowledge and skill-building sessions on research-based, standards-based science, mathematics, and technology curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Standards were modeled through engaging activities and participants were encouraged to better understand and experience standards-based curricula and observe teaching strategies representing "best practices." Each team received a copy of the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) and the NCTM Principles and Standards for School Mathematics as well a copy of a leadership institute manual developed around researchbased, standards-based curricular and instructional state frameworks.

Feedback from Leadership Institute participants

Upon completion of the leadership institutes, teams provided valuable feedback to evaluate the effectiveness of the week-long training. A survey was distributed a year after they attended the Leadership Institute to gather information about the nature of their ongoing efforts.

Independent evaluators--Kurt Minnick and Associates evaluation team--collected, analyzed, and disseminated relevant data. These data provided a basis for stakeholders at local, state, and regional levels to plan and assess daily activities, guide strategic planning, and collect additional data to evaluate ongoing efforts.

Project members directly involved with leadership institutes--principal investigators, project director, and field coordinators--agreed that there was an overwhelmingly positive response to Institute workshops and team-building activities among participants. Members of leadership teams were motivated, dedicated, and driven to work together to facilitate systemic reform on the local level. Their values and commitment to support high quality science and mathematics education was equal to the level in which they communicated, shared, and created short-term and long-term plans for sustained growth.

Leadership Institute Surveys--A Year Later

Leadership participants' enthusiasm and effort is reflected in the survey results that Minnick & Associates collected and tabulated from 1997 - 1999. Minnick & Associates sent out the Delta RSI Leadership Institute Team Survey: One Year Later in April 1999. They sent a cover letter, the survey, and postage-paid return envelopes. The surveys were sent to 166 Year 1 leadership institute participants. They received 34 surveys (21%) in response. Among the respondents, 44% were administrators, 29% were teachers, 9% were board members, 3% were parents, and 15% were other support personnel. This data provided information on participants' beliefs about how their leadership teams were functioning, what the usefulness of the leadership institute proved to be, and about leadership team accomplishments. The tabulated data are found in Figure 1 and Tables 1-5.

Figure 1 Leadership Institute Overall Evaluation 1999

Particpants' Evaluation of Week's Training

extremely 82%
useful 17%
neutral 0%
somewhat not useful 0%
Not useful 1%

Note: Table made from pie chart.

As survey responses indicate, an overwhelming majority of 82% participants rated the overall week's training as extremely useful. More detailed information was revealed through directed questions found in Table 1. As seen in Table 1, approximately two-thirds of participants reported that, as a result of the leadership institute, they felt extremely empowered to implement the mission, vision, and goals of their school district and an additional 34% felt empowered. Greater than 95% percent of participants responded that the institute was practical or extremely practical. Approximately 75% of those believed that the Institutes were extremely practical. As a result of the institute, greater than 95% of participants reported that their awareness level of available resources was extremely heightened. Approximately 98% of participants believed that the institute addressed important areas of organizational and leadership reform that can accomplish effective school improvement.

A year later a survey was sent to Delta RSI Leadership Institute team members for additional feedback. Data were gathered to better understand how the leadership teams were functioning (see Table 2), the usefulness of the leadership institutes (see Table 3), and leadership team accomplishments (see Table 4).
Table 1 Leadership Institute Evaluation, 1999

Item Response % Rating 1-5:
 1 = extremely positive

 1 2 3 4 5

I feel empowered to implement 65.3 34.3 2.2 0 0
the beliefs, mission, vision, and
goals of my school district

The type of leadership addressed 72.0 24.7 2.2 1.1 0
by this institute was practical

As a result of this institute, my 73.8 22.6 3.6 0 0
awareness level of the resources
available to Delta RSI math/science
educators was heightened.

The institute addressed those areas of 69.5 28.4 2.1 0 0
organizational and leadership reform that
can accomplish school improvement
in Delta RSI in a way that
can be described as effective.

Question/Statement Responses

 Has not met since Institute 6 %

 Less than once a month 67 %

1. How often has your leadership Once a month 12 %
 team met this year?

 Twice a month 9 %

 Once a week 6 %

Fewer than 10% of leadership teams did not meet since the Institute. Approximately 2/3 of leadership teams reported they met less than once a month and 12% reported that they met once a month. Only 9% reported meeting twice a month and 6% reported that they did meet once a week.
Table 3 The Usefulness of Leadership Institutes

Please rate how the description applies to you. Less True More True

1. I have a better understanding 0% 85%
 of systemic reform as a
 result of the leadership institute.

2. The leadership institute was relevant 6% 77%
 to my work in education.

3. The leadership institute was a good 3% 88%
 preparation for the work of systemic
 reform of math and science education.

Eighty-five percent of participants felt that that it was mostly true that they had a better understanding of systemic reform as a result of the leadership institute. Seventy-seven percent reported that the leadership institute was relevant to their work in education, and 6% reported that it was less true. The vast majority, 88% of participants reported that the institute was a good preparation for the work of systemic reform in science and math.

Participants were not as overwhelmingly positive about their leadership team accomplishments but the majority did report successful results. (Table 4)
Table 4 Leadership Team Accomplishments

Please rate how the following descriptions apply Less True More True
to you and your leadership institute team.

1. Our leadership team has had a significant 21% 56%
 impact on local math and science education.

2. I have shared knowledge, experiences, and 6% 82%
 reactions from the leadership institute
 with others.

3. I have been successful in involving others in 15% 58%
 systemic reform of math and science education.

4. I have made significant changes in my approach 12% 70%
 to education reform since returning from the
 leadership institute.

Many participants believed that leadership teams had a significant impact on local math and science education. The relatively unremarkable percentage of participants (58%) revealed that they felt less certain about the positive broad local impact of institutes on science and math education. The overwhelming majority of participants reported that they had shared knowledge and experiences with others. Participants felt less certain of their success in involving others in systemic reform in science and math education. Almost three-fourths of participants felt that they had made significant changes in their own approaches to education reform since returning from the leadership institute.

In Their Own Words

Participants' thoughtful analytic comments revealed additional perceptions about the success of the leadership institutes. When asked to provide some insight into the functioning of the leadership teams, a recurrent theme was post leadership institute follow-up. One team wrote that (they) "need follow through." They stated that their team had not convened to discuss successes and remaining "hurdles that remain to be overcome." Another team believed that the institute was valuable in helping them better understand procedures and methods for change. They reported it was unfortunate that they "have not followed up as we should to really affect change." One group felt that a follow-up institute to discuss successes and failures of different leadership teams might help fine tune the process and create greater sustainability. One team wrote that, "The leadership institute was missing an immediate follow-up and periodic communication to monitor implementation efforts." Many participants believed that the leadership institute changed the way they perceived educational reform. They remarked that leadership institutes helped them "to be able to adapt to the ever changing world of math and science."

Survey data provided compelling evidence that participants gained a great deal from institutes including greater understanding of systemic reform and preparation for the work of systemic reform of math and science. Participants' reflections and insights revealed several important features that could help ensure systemic sustainability. Most agreed that teams needed to meet on a regular basis, follow-through with plans made at the institute, and routinely assess successes and areas needing improvement.

Direct observations of team dynamics, activities, and planning indicated principals and/other administrators experienced and realized the value of the nature of high-quality standards-based science and mathematics. As principals or superintendents worked with teachers and community members the atmosphere was informal, collegial, and extremely productive. To support such academic programmatic changes in schools, principals must be well informed to serve as instructional and institutional leaders. Through team interaction, they gained knowledge, experience, and insights to help facilitate effective instructional opportunities, provide necessary materials, and focused professional development. Too many times elementary teachers lament that they are told not to teach science because it is not tested. Young students are naturally curious about the natural world--science class should be a time for them to experience the richness and wonder around them and learn problem-solving skills.

Math class should not be a series of unrelated skills to be forever learned, forgotten, and relearned each year. Math teachers must provide opportunities for young students to flex their critical thinking muscles through engaging and realistic situations that will serve them well for learning higher mathematics and as the future work force. As teams used manipulatives to conceptualize abstract concepts, principals and teachers have exclaimed that, "Oh, now I understand about dividing fractions! I always wondered why 'flip and multiply' worked!"

Math and science is in Mississippi has a renewed emphasis in school curriculum, instruction and assessment. Science is now being tested as part of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Legislation. Even though science instruction is now on the educational front burner, it is important to avoid teaching with the main focus being a fact-driven curriculum. Standards-based science requires that students learn fewer concepts but in greater depth and learn how to think like real scientists. Inquiry-based science serves as a means to meaningfully merge content, process skills, and scientific dispositions. Problem-solving and using critical thinking skills is an important focus of math instruction and our students deserve challenging classroom opportunities that prepare them for Algebra, higher math, and real world situations.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that math and science test scores in Mississippi consistently rank lowest of all the states. The NAEP test, given to 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students, places a greater emphasis on critical thinking scores as compared with the Mississippi Curriculum Test (MCT). Because expectations have been lower for our students, educators in Mississippi have stepped up their efforts to prepare students for more advanced courses in math and science, thus more competitive on the NAEP. The new State Mathematics Curriculum Framework provides a stronger emphasis on critical thinking and higher expectations for students as does the new Mississippi Curriculum Test (MCT 2). Aligning our goals with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the National Science Education Standards (NSES) provides the much needed emphasis toward problem-solving and reasoning skills and ensure that our students have equal access to high quality math and science instruction.

Ms. Joyce McNair, superintendent of Humphreys County School District, was recently interviewed to provide additional information on the short and long term effects of Delta RSI in her school district. An exemplary superintendent, Ms. McNair played a prominent role in initiating and sustaining change in mathematics instruction through the programs and leadership focus of Delta RSI. She shared the positive systemic and sustainable programs and ongoing practices that stemmed from participating in Delta RSI Leadership Institutes. (J. McNair personal communication, September 12, 2007)

McNair reported that one continuing vital focus in the Humphreys County is the emphasis on departmental learning communities that function to keep current with research and standards-based best practices. These learning communities have their roots in the original Delta RSI Leadership Team. Peer-study groups are embedded within the departmental teams to ensure high-quality education for all students through sharing ideas, challenges, and effective classroom strategies. Communication through these peer-study groups helps ensure that all children receive a high-quality education and the additional support necessary to succeed in school and become productive citizens. Continued contact with community stakeholders and with university faculty has not been a strong part of sustained reform in K-12 science and mathematics.


The intent of Delta RSI was to make standards-based science and mathematics education reform systemic and sustainable. It's encouraging to learn about Humphreys County schools' emphasis on research-based, high quality mathematics instruction; however, this is one example and would not be possible without Ms. Joyce McNair's vision and implementation of instructional excellence. Building new leadership teams and facilitating their sustainability is a daunting goal. Can we do this again? To help ensure that K-12 students receive high-quality science and mathematics education in the early grades, leadership teams can provide the means to share the vision of effective science and math curriculum, instruction, and assessment and strengthen the support system crucial for classroom teachers to sustain engaging and meaningful experiences for all children. It is never too late to rekindle or initiate leadership teams that bring together teachers, principals, university faculty members, board members, and other interested stakeholders for science and math instructional excellence.

University-K-12 Partnerships

A vital component of effective, research-based K-12 science and mathematics is sustainable and mutually beneficial interaction between science, mathematics and science/mathematics university faculty and K-12 teachers and administrators. When university faculty members were invited to provide professional development workshops at leadership institutes, many expressed reluctance to devote time and energy to working with K-12 leadership teams. The prevailing thought was that this endeavor wasn't valued as much as research and that promotion and tenure largely depended on publication in peer-reviewed journals. Traditionally, university faculty members are judged for tenure and promotion on teaching, research, and service. Although a well-balanced approach is desirable, it is generally understood that scholarship--synonymous with a rigorous publication record--is most crucial to success at the university level. The old adage "publish or perish" is alive and well.

Boyer (1997) argues that the definition of scholarship can be expanded to include: discovery (conduct 'traditional' research); integration (elucidate interdisciplinary aspect of knowledge); application (address problems to assist society and professional organizations); and teaching (implement curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices to maximize learning). Boyer recommends that the focus of scholarship within his model should be based upon the individual's interests, talents, and desire and that all types of scholarship should be valued and rewarded as a flexible model for administrators in setting policy and gaining tenure and promotion.

Boyer's model can serve as a basis for ongoing collaborative efforts between university math, science, and education faculty members and the K-12 system. This flexible model can allow faculty members to focus on the element through which their greatest contribution might be made. A supportive environment for all types of scholarship encourages and validates faculty involvement in the schools through professional development and collaboration. In this system, everyone contributes toward the rigor and vitality of K-12 science and mathematics programs and both the K-12 and the university systems realize the benefits of such collaboration. Learning-teams that include university faculty encourages sustainability as well as the study and consideration of effective research-based curriculum, instruction, and assessment to elevate American science and mathematics students to the level of competency that is enjoyed by other countries in the world. The application and teaching elements of Boyer's model provide excellent examples of the implementation of his expanded and flexible definition of 'scholarship'.


In Boyer's model, the element of application is an excellent example of scholarship as addressing issues and problems in their professional organizations and society. A faculty member's research is viewed in the context of the broader knowledge base and across disciplines. The National Science Education Standards and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics support this view as a means to integrate content areas and integrate knowledge within the disciplines to understand the "big ideas" of science and mathematics. As a valuable member of a leadership team, university faculty could help clarify the unifying concepts and processes of their discipline to help K-12 educators and administrators strengthen their content knowledge and possibly offer the use of equipment to enhance instruction - especially in the rural, poor areas where schools typically lack materials and resources. Student teachers in science and mathematics are required to use the community and universities as valuable resources to bridge classroom learning with real life application and foster appreciation for possible careers in science and math.


According to Borra (2001), many university professors feel that teaching is not valued as highly as research and publication in peer-reviewed journals and that there is little reward for excellence in teaching. Boyer views teaching as a vital aspect of scholarship and, as such, should be recognized and rewarded with greater weight and consideration for tenure. As part of excellence in teaching, university faculty members can play important roles in K-12 leadership teams by interpreting current research in effective teaching models, providing professional development for school districts, and serving as a partner in developing and testing instructional materials. University education faculty members should spend time in K-12 classrooms and interact with teachers and students to maintain a realistic understanding of the current problems and issues teachers face daily - this "reality check" is vital to productive and progressive partnerships. Faculty may partner with K-12 educators in designing and conducting meaningful action research projects to inform teaching and curriculum planning with a focus on problem-solving and critical thinking applications that connect classroom learning with real-life skills. University faculty, as positive role models, may influence students' career decisions in science and mathematics disciplines and motivate young students to become life-long learners and scientifically literate citizens as adults.

The National Science Foundation program, GK-12, serves as an excellent example for collaboration between university faculty and K-8 science and math classrooms. This program provides funding for graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines to interact and partner with teachers and students in K-8 schools, other graduate fellows, and faculty from STEM disciplines. GK-12 fellows prepare units of study, offer teaching assistance in their field, and provide science and math materials to enhance learning. While graduate students and university faculty positively impact STEM learning and instruction in K-8 classrooms, they also develop greater depth of understanding in their field. In local schools, K-8 teachers have been very enthusiastic and receptive to the many excellent professional development opportunities; opportunities for enriched learning for K-12 students; and strengthened and sustained partnerships in STEM between institutions of higher education and their school district.

Sustainable, systemic reform in science and mathematics means focused involvement of all stakeholders in education. Tomanek (2005) states that, "successful partnerships involve university faculty members asking how involvement with K-12 schools and teachers can enhance the education of their own students". Dynamic partnerships between university faculty and K-12 educators can provide meaningful rewards for everyone involved - young students benefit from high-quality standards-based instruction in science and math; teachers and administrators can update their content knowledge, keep current with research and issues that impact science and mathematics education; and university faculty may enjoy the rewards of collegiality and contact with teachers and their students to gain greater insights into workings of the system that will produce their future students and colleagues.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement No. ESR9700041. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations in these materials are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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Debby Chessin

University of Mississippi

301 Guyton Hall

University, MS 38677

Corresponding Author: Debby Chessin
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Publication:Journal of the Mississippi Academy of Sciences
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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