May 21, 2020
More than half of all children in the United States fail to meet basic proficiency scores in math and science. New research in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences finds schools can bolster educational outcomes in STEM through a combination of teacher professional development and new curriculum materials.
“Without changes to classroom processes—what is happening in the classroom each day between teachers, students, and content—student learning is unlikely to improve,” authors Kathleen Lynch, Heather C. Hill, Kathryn Gonzalez and Cynthia Pollard state in “Strengthening STEM Instruction in Schools: Learning from Research.”
Among results from studies published since 1989, the authors found student outcomes in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) were “significantly larger” when school programs were focused on using both curriculum materials and improving teacher content and pedagogical content knowledge.
They also found the most successful teacher development programs had teachers participating along with other teachers in their school. Summer workshops proved particularly beneficial, they state, perhaps because they “provided a prospective, concentrated dose of training at a time when demands on teachers’ time and attention were lower.”
The authors note that the need for instructional improvement in STEM is “particularly acute in high-poverty settings,” where children are “significantly less likely” to pursue careers in STEM than children from more socioeconomically advantaged neighborhoods. They advise new empirical research to include data on school socioeconomic characteristics.
Absent from much of the research to date was studies on how and why teachers abandon existing practices in favor of new ones, the authors note. Changing the way teachers teach often requires replacing long-held beliefs and habits learned over decades—including those years when teachers themselves were students, the authors explain.
In one case study, the authors note, the teacher “implemented the [new program] with high fidelity and quality.” In that study, the researchers asked the teacher to identify barriers to implementation, devised solutions, measured maintenance of the intervention throughout the study and had a plan in place for mid-stream interventions if the teacher’s motivation level dipped.
Particularly useful in combining professional development with new curriculum materials was the opportunity for teachers to “map the [professional development’s] techniques onto their own lessons,” they authors state.