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May 2010

From the National Center for Education Research (NCER)

Virtual National Parks Field Trips Expand Access to Social Studies and Science Learning for Middle School Students

Virtual representation of Mesa Verde National ParkVirtual representation of Mesa Verde National Park

One Planet Education Network (OPEN), in partnership with Indiana University School of Education's Quest Atlantis Program, is developing a series of 3D virtual environments that are representations of real-world parks and historic sites. These include Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, and Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania. This 3D virtual reality game series for middle school students is made possible by a 2008 contract for $850,000 from IES' Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

Virtual environments broaden opportunities for experiential learning by providing interactive web-based activities that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. Through the web-based intervention, students can explore natural settings by taking on the roles of Native Americans, park rangers, archeologists, or volcanologists. The embedded storyline and narrative are aligned to standards-based curriculum activities. The goal is to enrich middle school students' social studies and science learning. OPEN will complete the project in fall 2010 with a pilot research study testing the intervention in several middle schools in North Carolina and Indiana.

Even as OPEN is completing this SBIR project, it is disseminating the completed Virtual Mesa Verde National Park to over 45,000 students worldwide via the Quest Atlantis program. This summer and next fall the environments will be available in kiosks at visitor centers at Mesa Verde and Hawaii Volcanoes National Parks. The Virtual Mesa Verde world was also featured in an episode of The Learning Channel's Designing Spaces—Kid Spaces. For more information and a demonstration of the virtual world's project, see

NCER Announces 62 New Research Grants

From a total of 433 applications submitted in the first round of FY 2010 grant applications, NCER recently announced funding for 62 grants totaling approximately $96 million. New awards for the second round of FY 2010 grant applications will be announced in June.

The newly funded projects address a wide range of educational issues. For example,

For a list of new awards, visit

For links to current Request for Applications, visit

New Work Published from NCER-funded Research

NCER grantees regularly publish research findings in reports, books, and peer-reviewed journals related to pressing topics related to improving education. Several recent examples include studies examining classroom and school-level factors that influence student academic and non-academic outcomes.

For a complete list of publications by NCER grantees, visit

Teacher Quality and Student Achievement Study Findings

Recruiting and maintaining teachers is an on-going challenge for many schools in poor neighborhoods. Studies find that schools in low-income urban neighborhoods with higher proportions of at-risk students typically employ teachers with lower qualifications and weaker academic credentials in comparison to schools in more affluent neighborhoods with students from middle or upper income homes. But are these the right characteristics for describing "quality"?

In a recently completed IES study, Richard Buddin of the RAND Corporation and his colleagues conducted a series of analyses on the impact of teacher background characteristics on student learning using multi-year (longitudinal) data from the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest district in the United States, with a high proportion of at-risk students. These researchers identified which teachers were high-quality teachers by analyzing which ones contribute most to student learning gains, using a statistical technique known as value-added modeling.

Similar to other recent studies of value-added effects on teacher quality, Buddin and colleagues find that traditional measures of teacher quality like experience and educational degree are weakly related to student achievement, even though these are the main factors that affect teacher recruitment and salary. They also find that teacher licensure scores have no relationship to student achievement. Teacher effectiveness is unrelated to teacher scores on general aptitude, pedagogic skill, or subject-matter knowledge.

Teacher quality varies substantially from teacher to teacher. Some teachers have more success than others in improving student achievement. However, in contrast to conventional thought, Buddin and colleagues find that high quality teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District are broadly dispersed across schools in the district. The distribution of high quality teachers, as defined by value-added teacher effects, is similar between low and high performing schools.

These results led Buddin and colleagues to conclude that in order to improve teacher quality, school systems need to stop rewarding teachers for credentials and experience (input characteristics) and focus more on measuring and rewarding student learning (output results).

For more information on these and other related studies visit: