New Research Finds Benefits From Alabama STEM Initiative

By Erik W. Robelen — February 22, 2012 2 min read
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An ambitious effort to improve STEM education in Alabama has generated academic gains for students, according to a study issued this week by the federal Institute of Education Sciences.

The study involved a randomized control trial to assess the effectiveness of the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative. The program, which was profiled in a 2009 EdWeek story, seeks to provide teachers with intensive professional development, access to quality instructional materials and technology, and in-school supports.

After one year, the effect on math achievement was positive and statistically significant, based on end-of-year scores on standardized tests, according to the new study. That impact amounted to a gain of 2 percentile points, the study says. The researchers helpfully sought to translate this for a general audience (as in reporters like me!) and said the gain was equivalent to 28 days of additional student progress in comparison with students receiving “conventional mathematics instruction.” However, the effect on science achievement was not statistically significant after one year.

In reading, meanwhile, the study detected a gain of 2 percentile points for students participating in the STEM initiative.

Although the Alabama program targets students and schools across all grade levels, the study from U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences focuses on the effectiveness in grades 4-8.

An “exploratory investigation” of the two-year effect of the Alabama STEM program found a gain of 4 percentile points—equivalent to an estimated 50 days of additional student progress. In science, the gain was 5 percentile points. (The two-year effect is less reliable, the report says, because of changes to the control group. Or to put it in research-speak, the analyses after two years is “exploratory rather than confirmatory.”)

The researchers also explored matters beyond test scores, including changes in classroom practices and teacher knowledge. It found that the STEM program “had a positive and statistically significant effect on classroom practices in mathematics and science after one year.” Based on multiple teacher surveys, math teachers reported an average of an extra 50 minutes, every 10 days, in which they used “active learning strategies.” For science teachers, the bump was 40 more minutes in comparison with teachers in the control group.

The study also looked at the impact of the initiative on teacher-reported content knowledge and here found no statistical difference in the level of such knowledge.

The Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative, which was described in my colleague Sean Cavanagh’s 2009 story as “one of the largest and most ambitious state-run math and science programs in the country,” was launched in 2002 and has seen increased participation across the state over time. As of 2009, the report says, it reached about 40 percent of the state’s public schools.

Alabama’s state schools superintendent, Tommy Bice, hailed the report’s findings

“This is a day of affirmation, that what we’ve felt and known for almost a decade we’ve now had affirmed,” he said, according to the Birmingham News. “Alabama’s future is bright as these young minds are challenged to think critically and solve complex problems with no obvious answer—the 21st-century skills business and industry are asking of our graduates.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.