By Thomas Wei, Evaluation Team Leader
As researchers, we take little pleasure when the programs and policies we study do not find positive effects on student outcomes. But as J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, put it: there are “fringe benefits of failure.” In education research, studies that find no effects can still reveal important lessons and inspire new ideas that drive scientific progress.
On November 2, The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) released a new brief synthesizing three recent large-scale random assignment studies of teacher professional development (PD). As a nation we invest billions of dollars in PD every year, so it is important to assess the impact of those dollars on teaching and learning. These studies are part of an evaluation agenda that IES has developed to advance understanding of how to help teachers improve.
One of the studies focused on second-grade reading teachers, one on fourth-grade math teachers, and one on seventh-grade math teachers. The PD programs in each study emphasized building teachers’ knowledge of content or content-specific pedagogy. The programs combined summer institutes with teacher meetings and coaching during the school year. These programs were compared to the substantially less intensive PD that teachers typically received in study districts.
All three studies found that the PD did not have positive impacts on student achievement. Disappointing? Certainly. But have we at least learned something useful? Absolutely.
For example, the studies found that the PD did have positive impacts on teachers’ knowledge and some instructional practices. This tells us that intensive summer institutes with periodic meetings and coaching during the school year may be a promising format for this kind of professional development. (See the graphic above and chart below, which are from a snapshot of one of the studies.)
But why didn’t the improved knowledge and practice translate to improved student achievement? Educators and researchers have long argued that effective teachers need to have strong knowledge of the content they teach and know how best to convey the content to their students. The basic logic behind the content-focused PD we studied is to boost both of these skills, which were expected to translate to better student outcomes. But the findings suggest that this translation is actually very complex. For example, at what level do teachers need to know their subjects? Does a third-grade math teacher need to be a mathematician, just really good at third-grade math, or somewhere in between? What knowledge and practices are most important for conveying the content to students? How do we structure PD to ensure that teachers can master the knowledge and practice they need?
When we looked at correlational data from these three studies, we consistently found that most of the measured aspects of teachers’ knowledge and practice were not strongly related to student achievement. This reinforces the idea that we may need to find formats for PD that can boost knowledge and practice to an even larger degree, or we may need to find other aspects of knowledge and practice for PD to focus on that are more strongly related to student achievement. This is a critical lesson that we hope will inspire researchers, developers, and providers to think more carefully about the logic and design of content-focused PD.
Scientific progress is often incremental and painstaking. It requires continual testing and re-testing of interventions, which sometimes will not have impacts on the outcomes we care most about. But if we are willing to step back and try to connect the dots from various studies, we can still learn a great deal that will help drive progress forward.
By Emily Doolittle, NCER Program Officer
In school year 2010-11, over half of all operating regular school districts and about one-third of all public schools were in rural areas, while about one-quarter of all public school students were enrolled in rural schools.
(The Status of Rural Education
About 12 million students are educated in rural settings in the United States. Teaching and learning in these settings generates unique challenges, both for the schools operating in rural areas and for the researchers who want to learn more about rural schools and their needs. Recognizing this, NCER has made targeted investments in rural education research through two of its National Education Research and Development (R&D) Centers.
The National Research Center on Rural Education Support focused on the educational challenges created by limited resources in rural settings, such as attracting and retaining appropriately and highly qualified teachers and providing them with high-quality professional development. Specific projects included:
- The Targeted Reading Intervention (TRI) program, which seeks to help rural teachers, who often work in isolation, turn struggling early readers (kindergarten and 1st grade) into fluent ones. Using a laptop and a webcam, a TRI Consultant supports the classroom teacher as they provide diagnostically-driven instruction in one-on-one sessions.
- The Rural Early Adolescent Learning Program (REAL) professional development model, which helps teachers consider the academic, behavioral, and social difficulties that together contribute to school failure and dropout for adolescent students. Accordingly, REAL is designed to provide teachers with strategies to help students make a successful transition into middle school.
- The Rural Distance Learning and Technology Program, which examined the role of distance in advanced level courses for students and professional development for teachers; and
- The Rural High School Aspirations Study (RHSA), which examined rural high school students’ postsecondary aspirations and preparatory planning.
The National Center for Research on Rural Education (R2Ed) examined ways to design and deliver teacher professional development to improve instruction and support student achievement in reading and science in rural schools through three projects:
- The Teachers Speak Survey Study investigated (1) variations in existing rural professional development (PD) experiences; (2) differences in PD practices between rural and non-rural settings; and (3) the potential influence of PD characteristics on teacher knowledge, perceptions, and practices in one of four instructional content areas: reading, mathematics, science inquiry, or using data-based decision making to inform reading instruction/intervention.
- Project READERS evaluated the impact of distance-provided coaching on (1) teachers' use of differentiated reading instruction following a response-to-intervention (RTI) model and (2) their students' acquisition of reading skills in early elementary school.
- Coaching Science Inquiry (CSI) evaluated the impact of professional development with distance-provided coaching for teaching science using explicit instruction with guided inquiry and scaffolding on teacher instructional practice and science achievement in middle and high school.
R2Ed also conducted two related sets of studies.
- The first set explored ecological influences and supports that may augment educational interventions and outcomes in rural schools. The goal of this work is to understand contextual influences of rurality and how they interact to influence parent engagement in education and child cognitive and social-behavioral outcomes.
- The second set explored methodological and statistical solutions to challenges associated with the conduct of rigorous experimental research in rural schools.
As R2Ed completes its work, NCER is considering how to support rural education research going forward. As a first step, we hosted a technical working group meeting in December 2014 to identify research objectives of importance to rural schools and to reflect on the success of the R&D Center model to advance our understanding of rural education. A summary of the meeting is available here on the IES website. The ideas shared during this meeting will help guide future IES investments in rural education research.
Please send any comments or questions to IESResearch@ed.gov.