Making a Difference in Middle Grades Mathematics: A Goals-Based Approach
Examining the interplay of mathematics textbooks, teaching, and professional development
When it comes to raising student achievement in mathematics, educators must consider a variety of factors that can affect what and how students learn. Rarely do improvements in learning result from changes in just one part of the system; instead, the entire context of learning—and all of the factors that affect it—must come into play. Acknowledging this complexity, AAAS Project 2061 is working closely with research partners at Texas A&M University and the University of Delaware to explore how the interactions of textbooks, classroom instruction, and professional development can lead to improved student learning in mathematics. Funded by the Interagency Education Research Initiative (IERI), a joint program of the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, this five-year project expects to yield empirically tested instructional strategies and professional development interventions that can be used successfully throughout the country to help students achieve important learning goals in mathematics.
In the first phase of the study, the team has focused on developing tools to address an interrelated set of research questions:
- To what extent does teachers’ use of some promising instructional strategies affect their students’ learning of specific ideas and skills found in national and state mathematics standards and addressed in middle school textbooks?
- How does professional development and ongoing support build teachers’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes and lead to more effective teaching?
- How can technology help to provide teachers with cost-effective professional development and ongoing support on a large scale?
To investigate these questions, the team has developed protocols and methods for analyzing videotaped lessons, measuring students’ and teachers’ learning, and delivering professional development. While Phase 1 of the study involves about 50 teachers and their students, Phase 2 will engage a larger number of classrooms to compare several models of professional development designed to support the use of highly rated curriculum materials and to assess the impact of the models on teaching and on students’ achievement in mathematics. An overview of the study was presented at the recent meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego (DeBoer et al., 2004).
Working and Why?
To be able to analyze more precisely teachers’ practices, target professional development interventions, and measure students’ learning—and to increase chances of observing an effect—the research team is limiting the study to concepts and skills spelled out in three mathematics learning goals related to Number, Algebra, and Data. These goals were selected because they are central to national and state content standards for the middle grades and are presented in virtually every mathematics curriculum program, including the textbooks that are being used in this study.
In designing the study the research team has been guided by some key assumptions about the factors that influence mathematics teaching and learning. One assumption is that all textbooks are not the same in terms of their alignment with the learning goals and their effectiveness in helping students achieve those goals. Some of the teachers in the study are using textbooks that scored well in Project 2061’s evaluation of middle grades mathematics textbooks, some are using textbooks that received a mid-range score, and some are using a textbook that scored at the low end of the range. We expect that this variability in textbooks will lead to variation in teacher behavior and student learning as well. Another assumption is that teaching can be measured against the same criteria that Project 2061 used in its evaluations of mathematics textbooks. Although it was necessary to modify some of the textbook evaluation criteria so they could be used to describe teacher behavior, most have translated easily for this new purpose.
After videotaping classroom lessons focused on the selected learning goals, researchers analyze each taped lesson to evaluate the quality of the teaching. Based on the analyses of the videotaped lessons, the research team is designing professional development interventions to help teachers acquire instructional patterns that target learning goals and incorporate pedagogical practices that are derived from research on how students learn mathematics concepts and skills. Finally, the researchers want to see how all of these factors—a focus on specific learning goals, teaching that varies in the quality of its support for the learning goals, and professional development that aims to promote learning goal-oriented instructional teaching strategies—can interact to help students gain a deeper understanding of the concepts and skills related to the learning goals.
Given the complexity of the study and the real-world context in which it is taking place, a number of issues have arisen to challenge the research team. For example, the influence of state and federal accountability measures such as high-stakes testing means that teachers participating in the study have to see that the changes in their teaching actually support their students’ performance on the tests they will be required to pass. Future issues of 2061 Connections will provide a closer look at some of these research design challenges and at other aspects of this ongoing study and its findings.
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For more information, please contact:
DeBoer, G., Morris, K., Roseman, J. E., Wilson, L., Capraro, M. M., Capraro, R., Kulm, G., Willson, V., & Manon, J. (2004, April). Research issues in the improvement of mathematics teaching and learning through professional development. [Online]. Retrieved on April 26, 2004, from http://www.project2061.org/research/ieri/aera2004.htm