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Science "Ambassadors" in Maryland Elementary Schools

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An interesting attempt to bring more specialization, and presumably more expertise, to science teaching is occurring in suburban Washington. The schools in Montgomery County, Md., with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, are seeking to put a "highly trained" science teacher in each of the system's 130 elementary schools. The idea is to place a "go-to" person in each elementary school as an "ambassador" to other teachers on science. In most elementary schools today, teachers are generalists, covering all subjects, and they may have scant knowledge of science.

I'm not sure if all students in a school would be routed through these ambassadors for their science lessons, or if these specialists would simply help their elementary school peers teach science on their own. I've written about schools' interest in creating elementary math specialists, or content experts in that subject, who can give students a solid foundation in math. The Montgomery County program, called the Elementary Science Leadership Program, seems to have a similar intent.

This effort is an outgrowth of a Hughes-supported effort in the 1980s to strengthen the science curriculum in Montgomery County's elementary schools, which placed a greater emphasis on hands-on experiments and the scientific process. Participating teachers in the new effort are given training and money to pay for class equipment, according to the institute.

One barrier to using subject-matter specialists in elementary schools, at least as it's been explained to me, is cost. If a school is forced to keep its current stable of generalists, and then add a specialist, that's an extra financial burden for the district, especially when you're talking about paying for those specialists across an entire system. If you're in a school district that has experimented with specialists in math or science, perhaps you're a part of an alternative approach that keeps costs low. If so, I'd love to hear about it.

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Another negative of hiring the "expert on the spot" if they are to work with staff on a coaching level of any sort... is that the relationship is never equal in that area.

I am nowhere near saying that we have it nailed down, but our district took a really different approach to K-12 professional development. Not only do we have content-expert "curriculum coordinators" for each area... we employ generalist "instructional coaches" in each building K through 12.

The idea here is that the coach is allowed to focus on core pedagogy within the classroom. In secondary schools... these coaches can help content teachers isolate instructional goals aside from content. Hiring one coach per building in a secondary school doesn't work if the coach is to be a content-focused coach. Content is so rich and diverse at this level that virtually no one has that level of training. (Bring back Aristotle?)

A generalist coach coming from a communication arts background might be a really super pair of eyes in an Algebra class because they will likely see the learning environment (and especially the content) more closely to the way students see it.

There are difficulties with our approach as well. We still face the negatives associated with being a targeted "expert" in some area in schools... in this case: instruction. Overall, these are examples of schools bringing in rich resources for teachers in an increasingly busy and changing world. While the approaches are completely different, they both seek to provide job-embedded professional development.

I wish I would have had a coach during my first five years as a teacher. As a teacher of 18 years, I still love the interaction with someone who can consult with your in the classroom.

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