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Inside the current issue:

Science Centers and Social Transformation:
The Challenge in South Africa

Going Glocal:
UNAM's Local Approach to Global Issues

Shared Resources:
Building Capacity in Rural Mexico

Malaysians Can Do It:
Supporting a National Vision

Fostering Deliberative Democracy:
Europe's DeCiDe Project

Paying a Social Debt:
Brazil's Museu de Ciências e Tecnologia

The Abbott Partnership Program:
Addressing Equity in New Jersey's Schools

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Browse Back IssuesASTC Dimensions: September/October 2005
  September/October 2005 Dimensions

September/October 2005
Engaging Citizens: Science Centers
and Social Responsibility

The Abbott Partnership Program: Addressing Equity in New Jersey's Schools

By Ellen Wahl

In 1996, fewer than 4 percent of public school students in Jersey City, one of the poorest school districts in New Jersey, visited Liberty Science Center (LSC), a 3-year-old museum located in their own community. The number of visitors from neighboring urban centers was equally low. Even as LSC attracted overflow crowds from the affluent suburbs, few families came from nearby Newark, and fewer still from Trenton, New Brunswick, Camden, and Paterson.

One year later, all 30,000 Jersey City students had visited the science center. Nine years later, more than 170,000 students, representing the state's 31 poorest school districts, would benefit annually from an array of programs offered by LSC. Their options range from on-site field trips and multi-day museum experiences, to electronic field trips broadcast from the exhibit floor and traveling classroom workshops/assemblies delivered to the schools, to career-development experiences that include internships, mentoring, and interactive videoconferences beamed directly from cardiac, neurosurgery, and kidney-transplant operating rooms.

That's not all. Each year, nearly 25,000 families from the 31 districts attend community evenings and events at LSC and use their free passes to visit the science center on weekends, after school, and on holidays. Some 1,000 teachers a year take advantage of LSC's professional development workshops and institutes.

What brought about this startling change? The answer lies in a pair of landmark educational equity decisions handed down by the New Jersey Supreme Court—and in the science center's readiness to respond.

The Abbott rulings

In 1981, the Education Law Center (ELC), a nonprofit advocacy agency in Newark, New Jersey, filed a class-action suit with the state on behalf of the more than 360,000 children then attending public schools and preschools in 28 poor, urban New Jersey communities. In Raymond Arthur Abbott, et al., v. Fred G. Burke, et al. (Abbott), the plaintiffs contended that the state's existing system for funding education—an underfunded formula approved by lawmakers in 1975 to replace a system based on local property taxes—was "inadequate to assure a thorough and efficient education" for students from these disadvantaged city schools.

Over the next 16 years, the legislature tried various ways to address the funding inequities, but the case kept winding up back in court. In 1997, the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down the first of two decisions in which it ruled definitively for the plaintiffs (Abbott IV) and ordered a new set of education programs and reforms (Abbott V, 1998) aimed at giving every child in the state the opportunity to attain "his or her own place as a contributing member in society, with the ability to compete with other citizens and to succeed in the economy."

Among the provisions of the Abbott "education adequacy" framework are

• rigorous content and standards-based education, with per-pupil funding equal to that in suburban schools.
• high-quality preschool education for all 3- and 4-year olds.
• supplemental ("at-risk") programs to address student and school needs attributed to high poverty.
• new and rehabilitated facilities to adequately house all programs.
• school and district reforms to improve curriculum and instruction and enable students to achieve state standards.
• state accountability for implementation and the assurance of progress in improving student achievement.

  Abbott Partnership Program
Children from one of the Abbott Partnership Program schools visit Liberty Science Center
Photo courtesy Liberty Science Center

Leveraging science resources

At Liberty Science Center, staff recognized the Abbott decisions as an opportunity to make a contribution to science education statewide. Shortly after Abbott IV was handed down, they approached the New Jersey Department of Education with a proposal.

As LSC president Emlyn Koster later described the process to a U.S. congressional subcommittee ("Technology and Education: A Review of Federal, State, and Private Sector Programs," March 8, 2001), "we were not in search of a handout, but stressed our desire to earn public sector support through collaborative involvement with science education reform."

The science center began by showing that all of its field trip, traveling science, and videoconferencing curriculum materials were aligned with the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards. Said Koster, "We demonstrated how our teacher professional development workshops and institutes are attuned to the emerging state certification requirements. We ... suggested the inclusion of a third emphasis on the family, to extend school and science center learning into the home. And we offered to provide families with a free pass to the center, a quarterly newsletter, and monthly community evenings, as part of an inclusive package of science education services."

The contract establishing the Abbott Partnership Program at Liberty Science Center was signed in late 1997; it has been renewed each year since. Annually, the science center develops agreements to provide a comprehensive set of services to the various Abbott districts. School officials are asked to respond to some searching questions: What can LSC offer to support your efforts to raise the quality of science education? Where do you need to fill gaps in expertise, content, or technology? What concept or skill areas are typically problematic for your students to grasp, and where is there a match with LSC's areas of strength? How can our educators and interactive experiences help to capture your students" imaginations and attract them into science?

Increasingly, these agreements focus on how our interventions can serve as levers of larger-scale change. As Abbott continues to evolve (the latest ruling, in February 2004, was Abbott X), districts are looking for impact that is deeper and more sustained than an episodic visit. At the science center, we are expanding our program development efforts to respond to expressed needs in content, skill building, and career development, and to stay ahead of the curve in science, science education, and changing assessments—not just state tests, but also No Child Left Behind and the revision of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) due in 2009.

As the program matures, LSC is undertaking more in-depth evaluation to measure impact. To date, we know that the program has made an enormous difference in increasing equity of access, engaging more students from communities with limited opportunities in science. It has also had impact on equity of treatment, enriching the science experiences students receive in their schools and preparing teachers with up-to-date content and pedagogy.

It remains to be determined how well the partnership is helping to move toward equity of outcome. What contribution does it make to raising the quality of science education in these districts? to helping the state meet its court-ordered obligation to provide a "thorough and efficient education" to every student? to reducing the gaps between demographic groups and preparing students to achieve and persist in science education and careers?

Within New Jersey, there has been some controversy over the Abbott decisions, but the response from the districts that work with LSC has been strongly positive. For the science center, a program launched as an extension of a belief in the social responsibility of museums has turned out to be financially viable as well, with a direct impact on the bottom line. This year, the Abbott contract brought in more than $6 million in state funding. And when LSC closes its doors on Labor Day for a 22-month renovation, the program won't skip a beat. In fact, we plan a doubling of our outreach to the Abbott schools over the next two years.

Results and implications

New Jersey is not the only U.S. state to have experienced conflict over equity in educational funding. The system of funding schools through local property taxes has come under attack in many states for limiting access to high-quality teaching and learning, and for causing or compounding gaps between demographic groups in achievement and participation. Although educators have made some progress in reducing the gaps in the areas of mathematics and science, the effort has not yet produced a scientifically literate public or a technologically prepared workforce.

How science centers and museums relate to formal education remains a subject of continuing debate. Without blaming one part of the system or another, it is essential that all educators recognize the need for collaborative effort that touches not just students but their families and the community as a whole. Clearly, our schools and teachers need help if they are to incorporate new developments in science and technology into the curriculum, to prepare young people for science and technology careers, and to find the time, amid accountability demands, to turn students on to the open-ended and never-done process of scientific investigation. Science centers are well placed to offer that help.

The arguments for diversity and full representation in science are compelling. "Who does science does matter," wrote scientist/educator Cecily Cannan Selby in her 2002 report of that name to the Henry Luce Foundation. Good science depends on the diversity of the questions that are asked, Selby said, and the questions in turn determine the investigations that are pursued. A lack of diversity among researchers therefore hurts science itself. On a parallel track, Patricia Campbell, Eric Jolly, et al., argued in Upping the Numbers (GE Foundation, 2002) that ongoing shortages in the scientific and technical workforce could be remedied if women, minorities, and persons with disabilities were represented in science in the same percentages as they are in the general population.

It is Liberty Science Center's contention that museums have a critical role to play in who learns science and who does science. This is a shared responsibility that requires intentionality to redress historical wrongs, as well as sustainable strategies for the future. We may not be able to eliminate poverty, but we have a responsibility to help counter its effects on science education in schools and communities that have limited financial resources.

At LSC, the Abbott Partnership Program is a centerpiece of our commitment to social responsibility, but it is also a centerpiece of our budget. State-level equity financing decisions (and other initiatives aimed at reducing educational gaps) offer not just a chance to improve educational access, but also an opportunity to decrease dependence on gate and other on-site revenue.

Equity without revenue is likely to stay on the margins. Equity with revenue is a powerful force for change.

Ellen Wahl is senior director for program development, learning, and teaching at Liberty Science Center, Jersey City, New Jersey. She will lead the session "Equity from Top to Bottom (Line)" at the 2005 ASTC Annual Conference.

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