NSF Educator-Training Effort Seen as Helpful

By Sean Cavanagh — March 07, 2006 5 min read
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As federal officials search for ways to upgrade the quality of math and science instruction, a study concludes that a large-scale venture to spread professional- development throughout entire districts had a positive effect on teaching those subjects.

The findings suggest that similarly ambitious teacher-training undertakings could also work—if sustained over time, its authors say. At the same time, the study also found that the gains were relatively small and came slowly, after extensive teacher training.

“Lessons from a Decade of Mathematics and Science Reform” is available from Professional Development for Mathematics and Science Teachers.

The report, “Lessons from a Decade of Mathematics and Science Reform,” scheduled to be released in Washington this week, is based on an evaluation of the Local Systemic Change Through Teacher Enhancement program, a major, federally financed professional-development effort. Now in its final stage, it has trained 70,000 teachers working with an estimated 2 million students, mostly at the K-8 level, since it was launched in 1995.

The program, established by the National Science Foundation, improved the overall quality of mathematics and science content taught in participating schools, boosted teachers’ confidence in presenting that material, and increased the amount of time devoted to elementary school science, the study found.

Yet it also found that the gains in improving teachers’ understanding of math and science content were uneven, in part because of the NSF program focused so extensively on building teachers’ understanding of instructional materials and lessons. The report’s authors say the program also had mixed results in encouraging principals—who play critical roles in teachers’ growth—to take part. And relatively few teachers completed all the professional development targeted in the program, the research showed.

“The impacts are very modest for the hours of professional development,” said Iris R. Weiss, the president of Horizon Research Inc., the Chapel Hill, N.C., organization specializing in math and science research that conducted the study. Nonetheless, she said, advocates of strong professional development in math and science have reason to be encouraged by the results.

Upgrading Practice

Teachers taking part in a federally financed professional-development program found their ability to establish a classroom culture that supports student discussion and analysis and to employ practices that encourage student engagement in investigation gradually improved during the first 80 hours of training.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: Horizon Research Inc.

“Making modest gains with large numbers of teachers—I’m not disappointed with that,” Ms. Weiss said. She believes the findings drive home an important point about improving the quality of teaching throughout whole districts. “It’s hard,” she said. “It’s steady work.”

A total of 88 local systemic-change projects nationwide have been underwritten by the NSF, an independent federal agency located in Arlington, Va., that supports science, engineering, and math research. The systemic-change program differed from other NSF-supported professional-development enterprises in its attempt to reach entire populations of math and science teachers, across districts and consortiums of districts—rather than just select teachers, or volunteers. It also sought to have educators take part in a relatively large amount of training, 130 hours.

Unanswered Questions

Though grant requirements changed over time, recipients were eventually required to partner with higher education institutions as part of the programs. Businesses and nonprofits with teacher-training expertise could also contribute. Both district personnel and outside partners provided teacher training; districts were also free to use textbooks and other materials of their choosing, as long as it was deemed high-quality. The report estimates that $250 million was awarded since the program’s inception, and the average project received $2.8 million in total funding, said Jean E. Vanski, the deputy division director for the office of elementary, secondary, and informal education at the NSF.

The last round of projects was funded in 2002. NSF officials decided to end the program in part because the agency wants to focus more on researching effective professional-development and teacher- recruitment and -retention programs, and less on implementing those projects, Ms. Vanski said. Eighteen projects remain active, the Horizon report says.

About half of all the professional-development programs took place in urban schools, and half the students served were members of minority groups.

The NSF contracted with Horizon Research to study the program’s effectiveness. Horizon conducted its review over a 10-year period, collecting information through questionnaires sent to teachers and principals, interviews, and in-person observations of randomly selected classrooms.

Michael Marder, a co-director of the U-Teach program, a highly regarded teacher-preparation program at the University of Texas at Austin, said the study leaves several questions about the NSF-financed program unanswered, partly because it relies on questionnaires.

“Left open at this point are whether activities actually were institutionalized, whether teachers actually improved their content or pedagogy, and whether students learned more math and science as a result,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Horizon Research has received several grants from the NSF to conduct research, worth at least $20 million, Ms. Weiss estimates. She said she did not believe that relationship had an influence over her report’s findings on the quality of the systemic-change program. Ms. Weiss noted that her study was not shy about criticizing the project, pointing out that “some things work, other things could work a whole lot better.”

Turnover Steady

Some districts have taken the lessons learned through the program to establish more permanent teacher professional-development programs.

Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, has proposed $10 million in Pennsylvania’s budget for next year to support a statewide training venture for elementary science teachers. That initiative is based in part on a project serving several districts in southwestern Pennsylvania, which received money through the NSF program.

The 31,000-student Pittsburgh school system has received more than $3 million in local systemic-change funds since 1996. That money was instrumental in allowing highly skilled math teachers to take time away from their traditional duties to help tutor struggling peers, said Diane J. Briars, the district’s math director. The Horizon study found that the NSF program had a strong impact on districts’ ability to spawn and sustain such “teacher-leaders.”

But she also said a finding in the Horizon study rang especially true in Pittsburgh: Professional-development activities can easily unravel because of steady turnover of teachers.

Said Ms. Briars: “You are constantly having to deal with new people coming in.”

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