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November 2010

From the National Center for Education Research (NCER)

New R&D Center Uses Cognitive Principles from IES Practice Guide to Transform a Middle School Mathematics Curriculum

The National Center for Cognition and Mathematics Instruction has a core goal of redesigning components of a widely used middle school mathematics curriculum—Connected Mathematics Project (CMP)—and evaluating the efficacy of the redesigned curriculum materials. The center brings together leading experts in cognition, instruction, assessment, research design and measurement, mathematics education, and teacher professional development. The team will apply research-based design principles to revise mathematics curricular materials for grades 6 through 8, when fundamental concepts required for algebra and advanced mathematics are addressed. The redesign draws upon four principles described in the IES Practice Guide, Organizing Instruction and Study to Support Student Learning:

After the revision is complete, the Center will conduct a series of controlled experiments to examine the effects of revised curricular units with 50 participating teachers and a large-scale, school-level random assignment efficacy study to examine the effects of the redesigned CMP in 78 schools.

The National Center for Cognition and Mathematics Instruction is housed at WestEd and operated in collaboration with partners at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Carnegie Mellon University, Temple University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The Center is funded with a 5-year, $10 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences.


To learn more about the goals and expectations for this new R& D Center, Liz Albro of NCER interviewed two of the center's lead scientists. Dr. Steven Schneider is Senior Program Director of Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics at WestEd, and Dr. James Pellegrino is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Tell us a little about your background — how did you become interested in your research topics?

Dr. Steven Schneider: I started my career as a middle school math teacher, then moved to teaching high school physics, oceanography, and biology, and served as the science department chair. I then went on to work at the University of California at Santa Cruz with pre-service science and math teachers. This experience stimulated my interest in educational research and I applied to the doctoral program at Stanford. While a graduate student, I was fortunate to work with Lee Shulman. In our work together, we focused on examining teacher pedagogical knowledge, and on developing the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Assessment, that was intended to measure how teachers can be effective in the classroom.

Dr. James Pellegrino: From my earliest position at the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center, I have always been interested in the application of cognitive research and theory to problems of educational practice. This has taken different forms over time, especially as cognitive theory "matured" and focused more and more on substantive types of knowledge and learning, especially those forms of content and skill that are a major focus of schooling. Over time my research has increasingly focused on applying the power of cognitive theory to research problems associated with student learning of important content in math and science. Much of my research has tried to affect a bridge between the laboratory and the classroom. As someone trained as a cognitive psychologist I believe in the value of theory and research in my discipline but I also want that knowledge to be useful and useable.

What questions will the research program of the new R&D center address?

Schneider: The overarching question of the R&D center is to explore whether students who are exposed to specific redesigned CMP curriculum modules exhibit greater improvements in mathematics performance in the module-specific content area than their counterparts exposed to the regular CMP curriculum. The team will also explore whether the intervention shows differential impacts on student performance for traditionally low-performing subgroups, including English-language learners, as well as different impacts for males and females. The team is interested in understanding whether the revised curriculum influences students' engagement and motivation, and whether the effects of the intervention vary across teachers, classrooms, and students.

Pellegrino: One of the most interesting and important questions that the Center will address is how we take "general" principles of learning and translate them into actual design principles for substantive amounts of curriculum content. Not just that, but how we put them together in ways that create a synergy for student learning without further expanding the size of the curricular materials and/or the time for instruction. Also, is it practical from a curriculum and instructional design perspective to use all the principles or are some more beneficial to apply than others?

What do you anticipate the novel contributions of the R&D Center will be?

Schneider: I believe our work in the national math center will allow us to learn if cognitive research findings can be used to successfully revise the CMP curriculum and support the improved understanding of large numbers of 6th-8th grade students. I am specifically interested in learning if incorporating these principles will improve students' understanding of the mathematics concepts that serve as the building blocks of success in algebra, given the importance of algebra as the gatekeeper for students' future math and science course-taking.

Pellegrino: A novel contribution of this Center will be detailed information in the form of blueprints and heuristics for going from cognitive theory to instructional practice in a major mathematics curricular program. This is not some small, select unit of instruction but large chunks of the 6th and 8th grade mathematics curriculum, as well as the entire 7th grade mathematics curriculum. Of course, we won't be able to test every possible nuance or alternative way in which the principles might be applied and/or combined, so we will also generate a whole host of both theoretical and practical questions to be answered in future research.

How will receipt of this grant influence your future work?

Schneider: Utilizing the findings from our work, I believe this will set the stage for other large-scale curriculum revisions. If our studies show that systematically using cognitive principles to revise curricula makes a difference in student learning, I hope to work with other publishers to utilize our redesigned framework to improve their curricula.

Pellegrino: I fully expect that everyone involved in the project will gain a host of new insights about student cognition and end up with more questions about the teaching and learning of mathematics than we can possibly answer in the next decade — let alone in the 5-year span of the Center. So we won't be without important things to propose and study in the future, and I fully expect that a good bit of that will be pursued collaboratively.

IES Small Business Innovation Research Awardee Sells Accessible Computer-based Testing Tools

Nimble Pad

SBIR Success Story

The Institute's SBIR program funds the full-scale development and research of education technology products. The ultimate goal for the program is for developed products to be commercialized in the private sector. One measure of success in commercialization is the interest of other businesses in the products developed with SBIR funding.

Nimble Assessment Systems recently was acquired by Measured Progress, a New Hampshire-based not-for-profit organization. Measured Progress specializes in developing state- and district-level assessments and provides alternate assessments for students with cognitive disabilities. Measured Progress will incorporate the NimbleTools and NimblePad systems, and other tools developed by Nimble Assessment Systems, within its suite of products and services designed to improve the quality of assessment of all students.

For more information, visit the Nimble Assessment Systems website at or the Measured Progress website at

Finding the best way to administer standardized tests to students with disabilities and special needs is an ongoing challenge in the area of education assessment. Since 2004, a Massachusetts-based small business, Nimble Assessment Systems, has specialized in developing accessible computer-based testing tools for students who require accommodations. With awards in 2008 and 2009 from the IES' Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, the firm successfully created the NimbleTools and NimblePad systems.

NimbleTools, which recently was purchased by an assessment firm, delivers standard versions of assessment instruments and tailors embedded accommodation tools to meet the specific needs of each student. Some of the accommodation tools include a keyboard with custom keyboard overlays, read-aloud text, an onscreen avatar presenting questions in American Sign Language or Signed English, and the magnification of text and images for students with visual impairments. Research to date supports the validity of NimbleTools as a method to accommodate the identified needs of students being assessed.

NimblePad is an external tablet device that plugs into a personal computer and allows students to produce handwritten responses to open-ended items presented on a computer-based test. NimblePad expands the type of information that can be collected by making it easier for students to show their work for problems, produce drawings or graphs, label figures, and write short answer responses. Through the use of a tactile overlay, NimblePad also can be used by blind or visually impaired students. Research is currently being conducted to test the validity of the NimblePad.

For more information about the Institute's SBIR program, visit The program provides awards to small business and partners for the research and development of commercially viable products to facilitate student learning or teacher efficiency. The 2011 request for proposals will be released in late 2010. For more information contact Edward Metz at