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Spurred by workshops, mentoring, and access to equipment, Alabama teacher Wendy Bramlett shifted from lectures to hands-on lessons—and her students’ science scores soared.
Today only about one-third of eighth graders in the United States show proficiency in math and science. Several standard-setting groups have taken action to boost U.S. performance in science and math. Last summer the National Research Council outlined new science teaching standards that lean heavily on inquiry-based learning. The College Board has overhauled the Advanced Placement Biology curriculum to emphasize scientific inquiry and reduce the emphasis on rote memorization. And 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, a state-led initiative that raises the bar for K–12 mathematics education. These efforts are built on an education research base that says students understand science better by doing it and they learn math best by applying it to real-world problems.
Educators and funders are revamping preparation of prospective teachers (called preservice training) to help them learn how to teach in these new and more effective ways (see “Calling All Teachers,” November 2011 HHMI Bulletin). But what about the nation’s 250,000 middle and high school science and math teachers already in classrooms, and the 1.5 million elementary school teachers who teach some science and math? They’re going to have to raise their game.
For that they’ll need good professional development. It’s no easy task, however, for trainers to change teachers’ practices enough to improve student learning, says Deb Felix, senior program officer for HHMI’s precollege science education initiatives. Good programs help teachers acquire a firm grasp of modern scientific techniques and the teaching methods they need to enable their students to learn through inquiry. They also create opportunities for teachers to test and refine new lessons and carve out ample time for training, mentoring, and peer support—often despite tight and shrinking training budgets (see sidebar, “STEM Teaching 2.0”). A mix of large nonprofit agencies, universities, states, and school districts are incorporating these tested approaches. The work they’re doing is beginning to pay off.
Lots of Options, Not Enough Time
U.S. schools invest 1 to 12 percent of their budgets on staff professional development, according to Learning Forward, a trade group for teacher trainers. This spending creates a huge market for teacher professional development, and there is no shortage of organizations that offer it. School districts often develop and run their own programs, sometimes with advice from companies and independent consultants. Universities, colleges, medical schools, and museums hold summer workshops and develop teaching modules. Some companies sponsor programs for teachers, such as Intel’s Thinking with Technology course. Nonprofit organizations, such as WestEd and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), offer workshops and online programs for teachers, some of them supported by federal funds. “Anybody can get into this mix who can sell it,” says Julie Luft, a science education researcher at the University of Georgia and former director of research at NSTA.
Still, most teachers receive far less training than they need, and not by choice. More than half of U.S. teachers are offered at most two days of paid professional development per year from their districts, according to a large 2003–2004 survey by the U.S. Department of Education. More than half of science teachers surveyed by NSTA in 2009 said they wanted more. In many school districts, professional development is limited to a single workshop. “They get a day right before the school year begins,” Felix points out. These workshops are too short to be of much use, yet districts keep doing them, she says.
Seeing Students Benefit
When done right, however, professional development can make a real difference for students. Carla C. Johnson, of the University of Cincinnati, and two colleagues tracked students at a middle school where all science and math teachers received comprehensive professional development, including monthly in-school sessions in which trainers modeled effective instruction and let teachers practice it. Their students were compared with students at a middle school in the same district with no such program. After two years of instruction by these newly trained science teachers, Johnson’s team gave the seventh-graders a 29-point test to gauge scientific knowledge and reasoning. They scored 50 percent better than students of untrained teachers, Johnson and colleagues reported in 2007 in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. What’s more, the effects lasted. In 10th grade, 88 percent of the students who had learned from the specially trained middle school teachers passed the Ohio Graduation Test on their first try, compared with a 34 percent pass rate among students of the control teachers, Johnson’s team reported in 2010 in School Science and Mathematics.
Two summers of training in an inquiry-based neuroscience curriculum was a big help for middle school science teachers in Minnesota. When science educator Gillian Roehrig and neuroscientist Jan Dubinsky of the University of Minnesota tested the impact of the curriculum, called BrainU, they found that the teachers adopted the methods immediately after the first year, Dubinsky reported at the 2011 conference of the Association for Science Teacher Education. However, “after the second year it’s really transformative in terms of how they’re using inquiry in the classroom,” Roehrig says.
Photo: Rob Culpepper