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IES Grant

Title: Understanding Life Science: Improving Student Achievement by Deepening Teacher Content and Pedagogical Content Knowledge in Ways That Transform Instructional Practice
Center: NCER Year: 2011
Principal Investigator: Schneider, Steve Awardee: WestEd
Program: Effective Instruction      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years Award Amount: $1,494,103
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305A110285

Co-Principal Investigators: Jerome Shaw and Kirsten Daehler

Purpose: Despite small gains in science achievement over the last decade, American students' academic performance in science remains poor. In order to increase performance, students need teachers who are knowledgeable about the subject matter and who are prepared to teach science in clear, engaging ways. This research and development project will address this need by designing a teacher professional development program focused on the life sciences. By building the content and pedagogical content knowledge of teachers in life science, this program aims to improve the science achievement of grade 3–8 students, especially English learners and students with poor literacy skills.

Project Activities: The researchers will develop two teacher courses targeting life science content, thus bringing to completion a full compliment of Making Sense of SCIENCE professional development courses for teacher learning across earth, life, and physical science domains. Materials will be collaboratively and iteratively developed, piloted, and revised with input from teachers, scientists, science educators, and staff developers. Small, pretest-posttest studies with no-treatment comparison groups will be carried out to investigate the course's promise for improving teacher content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge and practice, along with strengthening student achievement, in urban schools in California serving a high percentage of minority students and English learners.

Products: Products include two fully developed professional development courses and materials (teacher book, workbook, and facilitator guide) on life science content for professional development facilitators and teachers of grades 3–8. These materials will show promise of increasing teacher knowledge of and student achievement in science. Researchers will also publish reports of their findings.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The primary research and development will be conducted in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Final pilot testing will occur in five sites in states that are part of the project's network from previous research: Alabama, California, Michigan, Washington, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Arizona.

Population: The 20 teachers per course in Year 2 and the 50 teachers per course in Year 3 will come from urban schools that serve a high percentage of English learners and minority students.

Intervention: The professional development program focuses on two life science topics common to elementary and middle school curricula. The topics are Earth's Organisms (for grade 3–5 teachers), which focuses on the structural and behavioral characteristics of organisms and their function in the larger environment, and Heredity & Selection (for grade 6–8 teachers), which focuses on the relationship between genetic variation and environmental pressure on organisms and populations. The format of the courses will adopt the Making Sense of SCIENCE approach. Each course will consist of 40 hours of learning, with 30 hours to be delivered in the summer to support standards-based instruction and implementation of science curricula. Following that, a 10-hour Looking at Student Work component will take place at school sites during the year. The courses will focus on helping teachers learn about core science concepts, literacy supports, classroom practices, and students' science ideas. The main components of the course will include, hands-on Science Investigations targeting adult learners as they explore core science concepts and classic misconceptions; Literacy Investigations in which teachers strengthen their own abilities to write, read, and talk in science-specific ways and learn classroom routines to support students' science literacy needs; and Teaching Investigations based on cases of practice drawn from actual classrooms that lead teachers to examine teaching moves and student thinking, as well as explore alternate solutions and rethink their instruction. The techniques of hands-on learning in small groups, a mix of communicative modes (interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational), and a variety of texts and representations of content have been shown in previous empirical tests of the Making Sense of SCIENCE approach to be particularly helpful for English language learners.

Research Design and Methods: The proposed research consists of developing professional development materials for teachers and staff developers, evaluating the materials to refine them, and studying the potential impact of the professional development on teacher and student outcomes. Each of the two life science courses will undergo a three-year iterative development cycle. The design and revisions will be informed by expert reviews, teacher input, and pilot data. After the initial development and trial of each course in Year 1, the teacher materials will be piloted in Year 2 with 10 classroom teachers in each of the courses (treatment groups) and 10 comparison teachers. Feedback from these teachers along with data on teacher changes and student growth will inform further development. After revisions of materials based on Year 2 pilots, facilitator materials will be piloted in Year 3 at five national sites along with pre-post-tests of the teacher from the two life science professional development courses. The pilot will involve 2 facilitators per site (10 in all) and 10 teachers per site (50 in all) for each of the 2 courses.

Control Condition: Teachers in the comparison groups will receive no additional treatment as part of this study. They will be free, however, to take part in other science professional development during the school year, except in the same life science domains as the courses.

Key Measures: Key measures to be used include surveys, interviews, focus groups, and observations of professional development and classroom instruction. Classroom observations will be conducted using Part One of the 2002–03 Classroom Observation Protocol developed by Horizon Research, Inc. To collect information on teachers' pedagogical reasoning about the lesson, with particular emphasis on their perceptions of the factors that influenced the selection of lesson content and pedagogy, researchers will use the Inside the Classroom Interview Protocol from Horizon Research, Inc. In addition, the Assessments of Life Science Intermediate School Educators (ALSISE) tests for teachers and Misconceptions-Oriented, Standards-Based Assessment Resources for Teachers (MOSART) life science tests for students will be used.

Data Analytic Strategy: Primary analyses of science content test data will involve fitting conditional mixed-effects regression models (hierarchical linear modeling or multilevel models). Additionally, facilitator and teacher practice/interview data will be analyzed using a variety of qualitative procedures. Researchers will also begin to investigate the feasibility of implementing the Making Sense of SCIENCE approach to professional development on a larger, district-wide scale.

Project Website:

** This project was submitted to and funded under Teacher Quality: Mathematics and Science Education in FY 2011.