We sat down with EdReports science specialist, Shannon Wachowski, to talk about some of the challenges high school science teachers are facing, the importance of access to quality materials and ongoing professional learning, and how EdReports’ upcoming reviews of high school science programs can support educators.

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Jess Barrow  00:08

Hi, I’m Jess and this is the EdVoices Podcast. Today, I’m joined by Shannon Wachowski from the Edreports science team and we’re going to be talking about some of the challenges that high school teachers are facing and the role of instructional materials and professional learning that can help support them in the classroom. So hi, Shannon, do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Shannon Wachowski  00:29

Sure. Hi, Jess. Thanks for having me on. So as just mentioned, I’m Shannon, and I’m a science specialist at EdReports, mainly focused on high school science. Before coming to EdReports, I, in a past life, worked as a chemical engineer, and then worked in some rural schools in Colorado, teaching high school science, and then also did some work with the State Department of Education in Wyoming, supporting teachers with the standards there.

Jess Barrow  00:59

That’s awesome. Yeah, you have so much incredible experience. And I know you’re seeing a lot of this in your role at EdReports as well. Why don’t we just go ahead and dive into some of those challenges that you’re seeing high school teachers face, especially when it comes to instructional materials?

Shannon Wachowski  01:18

I think in talking with reviewers that serve on our review teams, and just others in the field, some big challenges that have come up are number one: that there’s just a lack of availability of high quality, high school science, instructional materials.

Shannon Wachowski  01:34

You know, we just recently are starting the review of high school materials. So we know that from the report side, there aren’t a lot of reports out there. And then in talking with the field, there’s not a lot of things that have been determined to be high quality. And so that’s been one real big challenge.

Shannon Wachowski  01:53

Connected to that, we know that a majority or at least 59% of high school teachers make those adoption decisions on their own. And speaking from my own experience, as a high school physics teacher, that was my experience where my curriculum director said, “Pick a textbook and let me know in two weeks,” and that’s just the reality. And so we know that there’s that lack of just quality materials to choose from, first of all.

Shannon Wachowski  02:20

Connected to that, there’s also a lack of professional learning. We know that it’s not just enough to have a high quality instructional materials, although that’s a great first step. And that professional learning really needs to accompany the materials in order to support teachers to think about how they want to use it, and how they want to best modify it to meet the needs of their students.

Shannon Wachowski  02:43

And I think that brings up the third challenge, specifically in high school is just that, we know that the Framework for K–12 Science Education, and then as a result of that the Next Generation Science Standards have been around for about 10 years, and they call for relatively large shifts in instruction and pedagogy and those changes are challenging.

Shannon Wachowski  03:06

And without high quality instructional materials, and professional learning to accompany those materials, it’s a real challenge for teachers to make those shifts. They need that network and that cohort of others to really support them and it’s got to be a full community effort. So those are really like some of the big challenges that we’re seeing in talking with others.

Jess Barrow  03:29

No, yeah, that makes that makes complete sense. And I I’m wondering, so you really highlighted these lack of supports that teachers have. And when teachers aren’t supported with that high quality curriculum, we know that they’re often turning to supplemental programs, or creating their own curriculum and getting, you know, materials off the internet, that’s what they’re kind of pushed into doing, whether they want to or not. And I’m wondering, when they don’t have those supports, what are some of the consequences of that in the classroom?

Shannon Wachowski  04:06

Yeah, that’s a that’s a great question. So we know that about 63% of high school teachers say that they’re using supplemental programs as their primary materials. And again, that was my experience as a high school teacher as well. We all kind of know that the traditional version of a textbook may not meet the needs of our students and so we’re always looking for ways to add more connections for students in their learning.

Shannon Wachowski  04:34

I think one of the big consequences of that is that because we are all pulling from all of these different sources, a lot of those sources may not be vetted by a third party such as EdReports, and so it’s hard to know if any of those materials are high quality. I think as teachers we have an idea of what we think high quality means for our students, and I think that’s a great place to start. Specifically, considering needs of local context.

Shannon Wachowski  05:02

But that also puts a really big burden on teachers to not only determine if the supplements that they’re choosing are high quality. And also, maybe if the correct supplement doesn’t exist, to then create it on their own. I think that’s another big thing that I experienced as a teacher, and that I hear from a lot of other teachers, high school and otherwise: a lot of educators are writing their own curricula.

Shannon Wachowski  05:29

And so again, while I think that it’s really important that teachers be part of that process, they know their students best, and know how to best meet the needs of their students, it also takes a lot of time and energy to write curricula that is high quality.

Shannon Wachowski  05:47

I think what we would advocate for is to see more high quality materials being produced by research partnerships and other places where teachers have a role in that, but it’s not specifically falling to them. I think that’s one way that we can help teachers have those high quality structured materials and have a say in them, but not have it be their sole responsibility?

Jess Barrow  06:11

Yeah. And what do you think? I mean, one, when teachers don’t have to put all of that time in searching for and creating materials, like, what are some of the things that they can then really concentrate on?

Shannon Wachowski  06:24

Well, so I think, you know, allows teachers to do what they do best, which is meet the needs of their students. I know in my own experience, as an educator, I would go, you know, I would give up some of my personal time to engage in professional learning with colleagues, because I wanted to learn more about how to better meet the needs of my students. And I wanted to form this network of other educators who were also passionate about education and wanted to meet the needs of their students, and we could share and learn together.

Shannon Wachowski  06:58

And unfortunately, a lot of that had to take place outside of my work day, my school day. But it provided enough of a benefit that I found it really valuable. So, I think if we can take the onus of curriculum, writing off of teachers’ plates, then it frees them up to do these other versions of professional learning that are really going to fill their cup, like play to their passions, and allow them to really diversify and meet the needs of their students in their local context.

Jess Barrow  07:31

Yeah, you know, we’ve really highlighted some of the things that might be difficult for high school science teachers, right now. If if a district were to come to you and say, what recommendations do you have for us? We really want to support our teachers. We really want to help them in their practice. What are some of the things we can do to to get that done?

Shannon Wachowski  07:53

Well, I think that just based on the fact that we know that a lot of high school teachers do make those adoption decisions independently, I think one of the biggest things would be to really dig into that adoption process, to support that adoption process. Bring in multiple stakeholders support it with time and energy and finances. So really make sure that those teachers aren’t making those decisions on their own. That’s step number one.

Shannon Wachowski  08:21

I think connected to that would be to really spend some time determining as a group, as a district, as a school: What are the key pieces that really play into the instructional vision for your school? What are those things in your local contexts that your students really need, that need to be at the forefront of any high quality instructional materials?

Shannon Wachowski  08:44

And then once you have those priorities, then you can use things like EdReports or other third party independent reviewers to really dig into the materials that are there and use your local priorities as a guide to determine what might be some materials that you’d want to take a closer look at. So I really think it’s investing in that adoption process and highlighting those local priorities that are going to be really important to have in instructional materials.

Jess Barrow  09:16

It’s great to know how important it is to invest in these comprehensive processes. You know, one thing you had talked about in an earlier question that I wonder if you would mind reflecting a little bit more on is also that importance of ongoing support and professional learning? What are some of the things that districts can and should think about as they’re trying to provide these opportunities for teachers?

Shannon Wachowski  09:43

Yeah, I think besides the adoption process, and all of those kinds of initial pieces, once you’ve decided on a curriculum that you’re going to adopt, then I think that professional learning connected with that instructional material is really important.

Shannon Wachowski  10:01

We know that it also can’t be a one and done type scenario where educators receive professional learning perhaps at the beginning of the school year, and then that’s kind of it. It really needs to be this continuous process, ideally, where teachers are part of a cohort or community, whether that’s within their school or across schools, where they’re really in a safe space, where they can try things with their curricula, test out different ways of learning with their students, and bring those ideas back to that group to really be able to talk about what worked and what didn’t, so that they can continuously be improving and making changes.

Shannon Wachowski  10:44

One of the issues with that is when do you do this professional learning, because it’s oftentimes outside of the school day and so I think that is a challenge to contend with, in terms of supporting teachers and also providing them with these opportunities where they can really increase their own learning and think about how to support their students with their learning.

Jess Barrow  11:06

I think there’s so many sorts of things to pull together to make sure that teachers are getting the support they need, but also they’re they’re having that space to do their job and to support the students as well. You know, you touched on this a little bit, Shannon, but I wonder if you wanted to add a little bit more about, you know EdReports is releasing science reviews and high school science reviews and how do you see these really making a difference for districts and educators?

Shannon Wachowski  11:45

Well, I think that’s a common thread. But we know that we’re releasing a few high school science reports that that is not solving the problem of providing information to stakeholders around materials. That it is going to take us time to build up a larger number of reviews.

Shannon Wachowski  12:03

In the meantime, I really think it comes back to identifying those things that are important in your local context and using what is there on EdReports to really identify what’s important to you, and what’s present in the material.

Shannon Wachowski  12:22

Right now, we’re releasing some high school biology reports and so if you’re a high school physics teacher, that might not really be supportive to you. But what you can use is the rubric. The rubric that we we use to evaluate instructional materials, use that as a guide. You wouldn’t want to use the whole thing, but to use it as a guide to think about what’s important to you in materials. And so it’s that combination between maybe things that we think are important and local priorities.

Jess Barrow  12:55

Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, as we know, there will be more and more reports, as the future comes, and more and more information for high school science teachers and districts. But as you said, even right now, the Review Tool, is a really powerful piece that can help support districts as they’re thinking about how to winnow their choices.

Shannon Wachowski  12:56

Oh, absolutely. So I think, you know, there’s a couple of things connected to that. I think we want to put information out there to the field in order to support them to really advocate for what they want to see in instructional materials. And so I think that’s a really powerful tool in terms of advocacy.

Shannon Wachowski  13:01

I also think engaging in the review process as an educator, what we’ve heard from our reviewers, is that this is some of the best professional learning that they’ve participated in. And while I acknowledged that like it is outside of the school day, so there are some additional challenges associated with that.

Shannon Wachowski  13:01

It’s an intense process, but I think it supports educators to meet a couple of the other requirements that I think really should be out there for professional learning in terms of forming a cohort, building your network of educators that you can rely on and talk with, and then also building up that understanding and knowledge of the Framework, which is really going to help support pedagogical shifts.

Shannon Wachowski  13:01

I think our reports can provide that information to help stakeholders advocate for what they want to see in instructional materials and also becoming a reviewer can help you gain additional information and understanding that it’s really going to support you in the classroom and to help you advocate for what you want to see in materials.

Jess Barrow  13:18

You know, one of the things I know when I’ve been talking with science teachers recently is that they know the materials they have aren’t great, but they aren’t always sure how to get better ones. Do you feel like our reviews could also be a support for them in that way, in terms of like advocacy?

Jess Barrow  13:47

You’ve given me so much to think about and as we’re releasing more reviews  what we should be ensuring that districts and educators are getting from us to really support this process? We’re almost at the end of our time today, but is there anything else that I didn’t really ask you about that you think is really important to express about high school science or what teachers are going through and what we can do to really support them?

Shannon Wachowski  15:31

I think I would just say that we know that teaching is hard. It is hard work. There’s so many factors involved. And I know coming from my own experience, as an educator,  I always felt like there was more that I could do to support my students. And I think that probably a lot of educators feel that way. And so I think one of the reasons I love working at EdReports is because I feel like we can provide some information to the field that at least helps take a little bit off of the plate of teachers.

Shannon Wachowski  16:06

And so, you know, I hope that the information that we provide through our reports, and as you mentioned, we’re going to continuously be reviewing additional programs to really get the information out there. But I hope that can help support educators and other stakeholders in the field of education, that we can really work together to think about what’s important for students.

Shannon Wachowski  16:27

What do we want to see in high quality instruction materials? And how do we advocate for those things? And so I see it as really a partnership. And I mean, one of my favorite things is to be able to work with reviewers on the review team, and they’re such an asset to our work and to students. And so I would just end with we know that’s really hard and thank you, because we wouldn’t be here without all them.

Jess Barrow  16:53

Shannon, it was so great to talk with you. Thanks for giving me some of your time, and I will chat with you soon.

Shannon Wachowski  16:59

All right, thanks, Jess.