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The K-12 Alliance: A Story Well Told

(Speech at Annual Leadership Training by Kathy DiRanna, 2007)

"If you build it, they will come."
     From the movie, "A Field of Dreams"

Twenty-one years ago, a group of people representing elementary school education came together to do something unheard of at the time: They wanted to learn how to build leadership within the science education community. These folks - a statewide director, secretary, and 25 newly appointed staff developers - created the California Science Implementation Network (CSIN), the basis for the K-12 Alliance. That first training session had 50 teachers and lasted one week. The ripples of that initial gathering are still felt today.

With the success of CSIN, middle and high school programs (SPAN and SS&C) were soon created to equally address reform issues on those levels. In time, all three organizations joined together to formally create the K-12 Alliance, a WestEd program that today boasts participation from hundreds of K-12 teachers-leaders in science and mathematics throughout California.

Indeed, numbers alone are impressive. To date, this professional development program has impacted more than 5,000 elementary schools, 600 middle schools, and 325 high schools. Thousands of teachers and millions of students have been exposed to the "Big Idea." Currently, nine full-time regional directors and an office manager keep the program running smoothly.

But the K-12 Alliance is more than mere numbers. Through the years, the K-12 Alliance has influenced science education from:

  • Serving on the 1990 and 1998 Framework and the development of the California Science Content Standards to Making Connections, the CSTA publication that addresses translating science standards into classroom practice;

  • Developing early CLAS science assessments to designing and implementing the National Science Foundation- -funded center at WestEd (CAESL) that helps districts design and implement multiple assessment measures;

  • Serving on the instructional materials panels to the conceptualization and authorship of the Guide to Selecting and Purchasing Instructional Materials, which has been streamlined as the Analyzing Instructional Materials (AIM) Process;

  • Spearheading Science and Literacy Trainings to editing the CISC document, Strategic Science Teaching, which integrates science, literature, and teaching strategies;

  • Developing Project Storyline units and implementing A Child's Place in the Environment for elementary grades to developing the Earth's Resources project for secondary students;

  • Leading statewide professional development programs to co-designing prototype trainings for science professional development if authorized by the state.

In addition, the K-12 Alliance has been working in mathematics education since the mid 1990s. With the advent of the California Math and Science Partnership grants, our increasing involvement with mathematics has resulted in expanded programs, particularly for grades 4-8.


The K-12 Alliance provides professional development programs, which focus on three areas: increase teacher content knowledge, enhance pedagogical skills, and build teacher leadership. These are our core goals, the foundation of who we are and what we do.

For 21 years, the K-12 Alliance has assisted teachers' growth in content knowledge by building teacher competence and confidence.

Long before it was fashionable to include university faculty in professional development, the K-12 Alliance formed the Cadre to deliver content. A seamless group composed of a university professor, high school teacher, and middle or elementary teacher, the Cadre brings rigorous content to K-12 teachers. The Cadre recognizes that science and mathematics are both a body of knowledge and a way of knowing.

The K-12 Alliance has emphasized quality teaching to improve teacher practice so that all students can reach their potential. Current research from the book, "How People Learn" (Bransford et al., 1999), support the fundamental assumptions of the K-12 Alliance: Students come with prior knowledge and preconceptions; students need fundamental facts and conceptual frameworks; students need to "metacognate" on their thinking.

K-12 Alliance teachers recognize the possibilities-not the limitations of teaching and learning. While standards may standardize the content that students should know and be able to do, they do not standardize instruction. There is an art to teaching. As educator Leonard O. Pellicer says, "Its better to know some of the questions than all of the answers."

"Real leaders are ordinary people with extraordinary determinations."
-John Seaman Garns
(President of the International New Thought Alliance during the early years of the 20th century)

Over the past 21 years, the K-12 Alliance has developed talented and knowledgeable teacher leaders. We want teachers who are willing to risk for something they believe in and open doors to help them achieve their goals. Hundreds of teachers have taken roles they didn't think they could. These teachers have provided countless hours of professional development in their districts and at local and statewide conferences.

K-12 Alliance teachers have served on district committees, where they have selected instructional materials, designed benchmark assessments, and provided articulation K-12. They've used their leadership skills at school to conduct grade-level meetings, to encourage a colleague, to build community. And they have brought leadership in their classrooms as professional teachers, making professional decisions.

Many teacher-leaders have taken leadership positions beyond their immediate surroundings. You'll find K-12 Alliance-trained teacher leaders serving as district science or math specialists; as county science or math coordinators; as principals of elementary, middle and high schools; as university science or math education professors-and even staff from the California Department of Education.

K-12 Alliance teacher-leaders come in all ages-teachers who have taught for years have been revitalized, while new teachers have found a place to actualize their dreams. After all, "Leadership is taking responsibility for something you care about," as educator Julian Weisglass says.

"None of us is as smart as all of us."
-- Author unknown

The K-12 Alliance collaborates with other like-minded organizations and people. We have had partnerships with a variety of organizations and institutions such as the California Department of Education science and environmental units; public and private institutes of higher education science programs from the Mathematics, Science, & Technology Program at WestEd (e.g., Eisenhower Consortium, National Academy for Science and Mathematics Education Leadership); the California Science Teachers Association; The National Science Teachers Association; the California Science Project; national programs such as the BSCS SCI Center, and TERC's Using Data Project ; programs with industry (e.g., American Petroleum, Disney): governmental agencies (e.g., California Integrated Waste Management); and curriculum programs (e.g., Cal Alive!).

We realize the importance of these partnerships and seek to cultivate them as well as form new ones in the future. Science and mathematics education needs real-life connections to assist not only the students' understanding but also the instructor's benefit.

"Do You Have Change for a Paradigm?"
-- Sign on a sweatshirt

The K-12 Alliance constantly evolves to meet the changing needs of districts and teachers. The Teaching-Learning Collaborative (TLC) is an original professional development strategy that has revitalized maturing teachers and modeled good teaching practices to those new to teaching. It has put the professional back into teaching!

Our products often served as prototypes. For example, the Storyline units served as foundational work for developing conceptual hands-on units. Our 4A Model featured in "What's the Big Idea?" served as the basis for the CSTA Making Connections book. The K-12 Alliance Student Work Protocol, also featured in "What's the Big Idea?", has provided pre-service programs with fodder for assessment courses.

"Life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it."
-Lou Holtz
(football coach)

Through the course of our existence, the K-12 Alliance has continued to stand up for quality education. We will not be "bought off" on issues that matter to our profession. We want problem-solving techniques to assist districts with issues that are often political rather than educational.

"We believe that teaching is the greatest act of optimism," says educator Colleen Wilcox. Science and math education in California can rise to new heights with talented teachers who know content and pedagogy, who have a keen understanding of what the teaching profession is and can be, and who can nurture and support one another.

Questioner: "Is losing your eyesight the worse thing than can happen to someone?"
Helen Keller: "No, losing your vision is."

As the K-12 Alliance family celebrates its existence, we promise teachers everywhere that we continue to be here for you. We will hold onto our core values as we continue to grow as an organization that provides quality professional development programs that strengthen teaching and learning that cares for our teachers and students. Together, we can make a difference and we can, to paraphrase Don Quixote, "Dream an Impossible Dream."