E2E Grant Project Report
Evaluate EE Programs for Systemic Change in Your Community
How to improve the effectiveness of teacher professional development in environmental education
By Cathy Rezabeck, Marilyn Sigman and Beverly Parsons
illingham, Alaska is a rural community in western Alaska with about 2,400 residents, including a substantial population of Yup’ik Eskimos. It has its own school district with an elementary, middle and secondary school. The only way to get there is by plane or boat – there is no road from anywhere! Anchorage is a one-hour jet ride away. You might think it unlikely that you can compare this scenario to your own, but stay tuned. Key to our success in determining the impact of our environmental education project was our use of a Framework for Systems-Oriented Evaluation.
The Alaska Natural Resource and Outdoor Education Association (ANROE) is Alaska’s NAAEE affiliate (www.anroe.net). In 2014 the Environmental Education Office of the EPA awarded a grant “Collective Impact: Advancing Environmental Literacy through Shared Value Creation, Innovation and Collaboration” to four Pacific Northwest states (Alaska, Idaho, Washington and Oregon – EPA’s Region 10). The goal of this Educator to Educator Initiative (E2E) was to develop, disseminate, and evaluate a replicable model for implementing state environmental literacy plans in the Pacific Northwest.
The project team for each state chose a “problem of practice” to focus their grant activities. The Alaska team, with Cathy Rezabeck as ANROE’s Project Coordinator, chose to address how to improve the long-term impact and outcomes of professional development in K-12 environmental education. Our intention was to gain insight into how to improve the effectiveness of professional development in environmental education and the methods by which effectiveness was evaluated. The typical professional development formats consisted of a brief session during a teacher in-service, a two-day, one credit workshop, or a 4-5 day two-credit course. All three were essentially “one shot” learning opportunities for teachers with some limited follow-up requirements to report on how they applied what they had learned in their classroom in a brief reflection on change in practice.
We chose to pilot a new model developed by Alaska Sea Grant (ASG) with the goals of accomplishing and documenting sustained changes in teaching practice schoolwide with emphasis on thematic environmental education instruction focused on local environments and outdoor learning on field trips. Our “problem of practice” was relevant to two goals of the Alaska Natural Resource and Environmental Literacy Plan : Goal 4: “Enhance professional development for educators, administrators, and community members in natural resource and environmental literacy,” and Goal 5: “Support the development of Alaska school facilities, grounds and local natural areas that provide accessible learning opportunities and serve as community models for healthy living and sustainability.”
ASG wanted to re-invigorate their Sea Week program (re-named as Alaska Seas and Watersheds) in the Dillingham School District and in other Alaska communities where it had been an annual tradition from 1980s into the early 2000s. They developed a new model for professional development designed to increase the use of Alaska Seas and Watersheds (ASW) curriculum materials (alaskaseagrant.org/teachers) and, thus, STEM teaching and environmental literacy about local marine and aquatic environments. The model involved an on-site, professional development workshop provided by Marilyn Sigman, ASG’s Marine Education Specialist, followed by the opportunity for an extended for-credit practicum that could be fulfilled by providing leadership in schoolwide instructional or curriculum change and a field trip program. ASG also provided the Dillingham School District with a $10,000, three-year grant to jump-start their environmental education program.
As part of the grant funds provided by EPA, Marilyn Sigman and Cathy Rezabeck were able to work with Beverly Parsons as an outside evaluator to identify our metrics and methods of evaluating systemic, i.e., sustainable, change.
We identified seven elements which we felt were key to our success, but all were “driven” by the Framework for Systems – Oriented Evaluation developed by Beverly Parsons. ANROE articulated the system of interest and the framework for evaluating change. In our application of the systems framework to our project, we began by identifying the specific levels within the system where change would have significant impacts on the entire system. We selected the following levels which can be viewed on the vertical axis of Figure 1: the individual teacher level (K-8 teachers, specifically, because the ASW curriculum is elementary and middle school-focused), two school administrator levels –the principals of the elementary and middle schools and the District superintendent, and the community level (specifically, local community partners). For each level, we then articulated (on the horizontal axis in Figure 1) the current status of the component of the system we desired to change, the interventions we intended to implement, the tangible or quantifiable “tipping points” we could identify that would indicate significant change, and the desired long-term end-state for the component. We designed and administered pre and post surveys to the teachers involved and used that data to inform this chart. Figure 1 summarizes how this framework was applied to our project and also shows our assessment of whether the intervention (Evaluation column) met the identified tipping points. For a more detailed discussion of the components and results of the evaluation along with our recommendations and conclusions, “Case Study: Increasing Environmental Literacy through Professional Development in Alaska” is available for download here.
The case study demonstrates that using the framework illustrated in Figure 1 can provide the means for professional development providers to evaluate their impacts not only on individual teachers, but also at other levels of the K-12 education system, including school districts, and communities, both of which support the sustained use and benefits of professional development. This systems-based evaluation approach could be used to gauge success in the implementation of effective teaching strategies in environmental education, on the use of specific environmental education resources, and on emphasis placed on environmental education in school and school district curriculum frameworks.
On the statewide level, this approach could provide the means to analyze and evaluate statewide progress on the goals and objectives of the Alaska Natural Resources and Environmental Literacy Plan. In addition, we concluded that providing even relatively modest financial support to schools and instructional resources that were locally relevant removed two important barriers to increasing instructional time spent on environmental education.
We acknowledge that the evaluation process described can be time-intensive and requires considerable professional expertise, but it provides a much more insightful and adaptive approach to professional development and the systemic improvement of environmental literacy instruction than the previous model of stand-alone professional development workshops and courses.
This systems-oriented evaluation approach could also provide the means to evaluate the impacts of other types of environmental education interventions to accomplish systemic change in the K-12 system, an area of environmental education that has not been well developed with evidence-based studies. Finally, because this approach is closely aligned with “logic models” required by a number of federal agencies, it is also useful as an evaluation framework for grant proposals and the documentation of societal impacts from federal, state and private investments in environmental education programs.
Give it a try! Make a chart of your own when you plan your next professional development or other environmental education program. We think you will discover a new way to view your efforts –and make systemic change happen.
Cathy Rezabeck is ANROE’s Project Coordinator. She recently retired from her U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service position as statewide Outreach Coordinator after 26 years.
Marilyn Sigman is Alaska Sea Grant’s Marine Education Specialist and an Associate Professor of Marine Education in the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. She is the current Chair of ANROE’s Board of Directors.
Beverly Parsons is President and Executive Director of InSites, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization that provides inquiry-based evaluation, planning, and research to support learning, growth, and change in formal and informal social systems.