Schools’ Roles in Rigorous Education Research: Two Cases from SEDL’s Current Effectiveness Study
When some teachers at Mullins School, an elementary school in Pikeville, Kentucky, wrote a grant to fund an intervention program, they reviewed research studies on the program’s effectiveness. In fact, say teachers at Mullins and other schools in Pike County Schools, research-based practice is an important part of classroom instruction. “Everything we do has to be research based. We can’t include something in students’ RtI [Response to Intervention] plan or a center activity unless it’s research based. It’s just second nature for us now,” says one teacher. With the growing emphasis on the role of research in education, these stories are common.
Many educators are now playing a new role in education research. In addition to using research-based practices or curricula, they are participating in research studies. Pike County Schools is one example. In Fall 2011, Mullins and six other schools in the district joined SEDL’s effectiveness study of McGraw Hill’s Imagine It! reading and Everyday Mathematics.
Gold Standard Research in the Real World
Both Imagine It!, an Open Court reading program, and Everyday Mathematics are widely used curricula. Researchers have conducted small-scale effectiveness studies on the individual programs, and separate findings indicate that each program has a positive impact on student achievement. Building on these findings, the SEDL study is the largest and most rigorous of its kind and will evaluate how these two programs affect teacher practices and student achievement over a 3-year period. So far, 20 schools in 4 districts are participating in the study. SEDL expects to have 40 additional schools join the study this year.
Districts offer a variety of reasons for participating in the study. Gary Jones, superintendent at Rapides Parish School District in central Louisiana, was familiar with both Imagine It! and Everyday Mathematics before he learned about SEDL’s effectiveness study. He wanted to learn more about the programs. “One of the things about textbook adoption is you get a cursory look at [the program],” explains Jones. “A lot of times, the decision as to which program to adopt is based on the skill of the [textbook company’s] presenter. . . . You only really find out how good those programs are when you actually put them into practice.” He saw his district’s participation as an opportunity to have a few schools try the programs before committing his district’s funds to buying new books for all of the Rapides Parish schools.
Jones also believes that educators should contribute to the development of new research so they can ultimately make more informed decisions about what will benefit their students. “There’s kind of an obligation for school districts to do those kinds of things [participate in effectiveness studies] so that you don’t depend on the skill of the salesman in making the purchase,” he says. If more research is available, “you have some sort of ability to sort through the data and find out what works and what doesn’t.”
For many districts, the most compelling incentive to join the study is financial. As districts across the country continue to face budget cuts, participating in an effectiveness study like SEDL’s offers a way for schools to obtain badly needed instructional resources and professional development.
Old and out-of-date curricula pose an even bigger problem when they are not aligned with the most recent standards. In 2010, Kentucky adopted the Common Core State Standards. Teachers began to provide instruction related to the standards in 2011, and students will be assessed on them beginning in Spring 2012. The newly adopted standards left teachers scrambling to fill instructional gaps because their old reading or math curriculum was not aligned with the new standards. “There are new assessments coming up, and there were gaps [in the old curriculum],” explains Phillip Birchfield, principal at Mullins, which is using the Imagine It! reading program as part of the study. “The [reading] books were 7 years old. . . . That was a scary thing.”
Both Imagine It! and Everyday Mathematics are aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Kendra Staton is a first-grade teacher at Southside Elementary School, another Pike County school participating in the study. Southside was assigned Everyday Mathematics for the 3-year study, and Staton says she finds it easier to cover the standards with the new curriculum. “In the program we used before, . . . there were gaps,” she explains, noting that the old curriculum did not cover some topics included in the standards, like the concept of time. “We had to pull those things in ourselves. This program [Everyday Mathematics] seems to have everything. I have not seen any gaps yet.”
From the Researcher’s Perspective
Schools that joined the study were randomly assigned to Imagine It! reading or Everyday Mathematics to use as their core curriculum for that subject. They then received textbooks, ancillary materials, teacher’s guides, and access to online resources for their assigned program. They also received training to launch their assigned program and will receive three follow-up training sessions from a McGraw-Hill representative for each year of the study.
Shortly after schools began using their new curricula, SEDL researchers arrived to begin data collection. Twice a year, the researchers test students in both reading and math, regardless of which program a school is using. Researchers will also survey students to learn more about student motivation and engagement in reading and math. Finally, researchers will collect data about student attendance, placement and referral, and retention. “Both Imagine It! and Everyday Mathematics have built in strategies and resources that are intended to help teachers meet all students’ educational needs,” explains Sarah Caverly, the SEDL project director involved in the study. “By looking at special education referrals and placements, we can try to understand whether the programs impact those objectives.”
To learn how Imagine It! and Everyday Mathematics affect teachers’ instructional practices, SEDL researchers will collect data from teachers and administrators through video-recorded classroom observations and teacher and administrator interviews. “Classroom observations will help us understand what the delivery of these programs really looks like,” says Michael Vaden-Kiernan, who is director of research and evaluation at SEDL and the principal investigator of the study.
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