Iowa is a rural state with 365 public school districts and a strong commitment to local control when it comes to education. Iowa school districts traditionally have functioned autonomously when establishing instructional practices and measuring student progress. Consequently, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is creating a serious challenge for Iowa, as the state tries to balance local decision-making and the need for a more systemic approach to school improvement.
To help ensure that all Iowa school systems meet their required goals for Adequate Yearly Progress, the state has developed a three-pronged plan: (1) improve professional development; (2) support changes in classroom instruction, principles, and beliefs, so that such a reform can become self-generative; and (3) promote the development of professional learning communities that link professional development activities to student achievement.
To maintain an element of local control, however, Iowa has addressed these issues by forming consortia of school districts around their local Area Educational Agencies (AEAs). The resulting 12 consortia each focused on one of four key target areas as established by area superintendents, based on their most pressing local needs: elementary reading, elementary mathematics, middle school reading, or middle school mathematics. The professional development model we used consisted of elements of the Iowa Professional Development Model (IPDM; for a complete explanation of this, visit http://www.iowa.gov/educate/pdmtm/state.html) enhanced with technology support. Our goal was to gather data about credible and effective classroom practices, then use this information at successively higher levels of the educational hierarchy (local school district, AEA, Iowa Department of Education, and higher-education institutions) to improve teaching and learning throughout the state. In short, our goal was to use technology to help teachers work smarter.
Our approach was to deliver targeted professional development activities and support, then measure the impact these efforts had on student achievement. To do this, we relied heavily on two key statewide technology systems: EASIER (Electronic Access System for Iowa Education Records), the state’s central student information system, and our statewide fiber-optic network, the Iowa Communications Network (ICN). Through the ICN, we’ve delivered internet resources, two-way audio-video transmissions, and IP video conferencing to educators at all levels of instruction.
With our hardware infrastructure in place, we developed an organizational infrastructure to support the components of our initiative. This organizational infrastructure extended from the local districts, through the AEAs, to Iowa State University (which was the external evaluator for these projects), to the Iowa Department of Education. We implemented this initiative across the state, with local adaptations. Because these activities were funded by an NCLB grant, the consortia were required to focus their efforts on the poorest and lowest-performing schools.
A look at one consortium’s approach
Each of the consortia began the process with the area superintendents meeting to examine their data collectively. In AEA 1, an analysis of student achievement data in the consortium’s schools showed that students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches had 11 percent fewer students who were proficient in mathematics at the fourth-grade level than the consortium aggregate. An analysis of students with Individual Education Plans showed there were 34 percent fewer students proficient in math at the fourth-grade level than the consortium aggregate. So, AEA1 determined that elementary mathematics should be its focus area, and it established a goal for its intervention: increase student achievement in mathematics at the fourth-grade level.
Available research showed that precise mathematics assessments for lower elementary-school students, followed by learning experiences in identified areas of need, lead to improved proficiency and better readiness for upper-elementary math. It was this model that AEA1 decided to implement.
Next, schools that qualified under the federal guidelines were given the option of which cohort of schools they would join. There were three cohorts: a control group in which no intervention was given; a group that received intervention, but not focused solely on the target area; and a group that received targeted intervention. Most schools chose to be in the latter cohort, which was supported through all three years of the project. But by the end of the three-year project, all schools had a chance to participate in the intervention. AEA1 identified student deficiencies in the lower grades using precise assessments from the Math Perspectives Teacher Development Center. (Math Perspectives is a Bellingham, Wash.-based professional development firm.) Then, based on its review of the existing research, the consortium selected the following intervention strategies: Worthwhile Tasks, Writing for Understanding, Manipulatives, Problem-based Instructional Task, ALEKS for fourth-grade students, and TI-15 Calculators.
For those who are unfamiliar with ALEKS, it is a web-based, artificially intelligent assessment and learning system developed by a team of cognitive scientists and software engineers at the University of California, Irvine, with funding from the National Science Foundation. ALEKS uses adaptive questioning to determine exactly what a student knows and doesn’t know in a course. The system then instructs the student on the topics he or she is most ready to learn. As a student works through the course, ALEKS periodically reassesses the student to ensure that topics learned are also retained.
The consortium’s action plan focused on purchasing the necessary materials and providing four days of professional development to train elementary teachers to identify student deficiencies in the lower grades, using the precise assessments and interventions from the Math Perspectives Teacher Development Center. This training was followed by both online and offline support strategies. For example, follow-up meetings and observations of assessments were held both in the schools and through video conferences with the consortium’s math consultant. In addition, AEA1 set up a math blog to increase communication and problem solving among teachers and the consortium’s math consultant even further.
AEA1 also held Family Math Nights in their high-implementation schools. These nights were characterized by large attendance and changing attitudes of parents and students toward math. High-poverty schools often had many more parents come to Family Math Night than parent-teacher conferences. Community contributions were sought to provide door prizes and supper, and Spanish translators were available for those who needed them.
This initiative has resulted in changes in teacher behavior and improved student learning. Teachers became proficient at using an online technology tutor on a regular basis for instruction; using classroom performance systems for instruction and formative assessment feedback; using online reports of individual student progress to make classroom instructional decisions; using data more frequently when making instructional decisions; and having their students write in journals about their mathematical thinking. According to teachers, the initiative’s impact on student learning has been impressive. “I have found ALEKS to be very beneficial to all of my students, no matter what level they are at. It allows the higher-level students to excel beyond what they’ve been able to do before and also brings along the lower-level students at a pace that’s appropriate for them,” said Terry Rex, a teacher at Wings Park Elementary School.
“My students have shown more than a year’s worth of growth in their ITBS Computation scores for both years I have been using ALEKS. What’s more, I noticed this pattern for the class as a whole, not for just one student,” said Sharon Aisenbrey, another Wings Park Elementary teacher.
Over the course of the study, AEA1 students who were classified as being non-proficient in math showed impressive gains of 7.93 Normal Curve Equivalency (NCE) points. (NCE takes into account the natural maturation process of students–so any gains can be attributed directly to the intervention itself, and not simply the students’ natural cognitive development.) It should be noted that students who were proficient also showed gains of 4.39 NCE points. Thus, both groups showed improvement, with the non-proficient group closing the achievement gap.
What’s more, the consortium’s experimental group started out behind the control group and not only closed the achievement gap, but also surpassed the performance of the control group. Thus, the initiative implementation seems to be having a positive affect.
In summary, the general gains in fourth-grade mathematics achievement are promising; we’ve observed consistent gains above and beyond “natural” growth. Professional development supported by technology seems to be adding an extra “boost” to these mathematics gains–and achievement gaps appear to be closing. Overall, this is a promising start–but, as always, further study is necessary.
Research suggests there are five steps to successful professional development: theory, demonstration, practice, feedback, and coaching. Provide all five, and there’s a 90 percent chance the strategies you’re teaching will be implemented in the classroom, studies show. Iowa historically has been good at providing the first three, but not the last two. It’s these final steps–feedback and coaching–that we’ve hoped to improve upon with our initiative. So far, we appear to be on the right track.
John O’Connell is a consultant for instructional technology at the Iowa Department of Education. Gary Phye is the director of the Psychology in Education Research Lab at Iowa State University. Links:
Area Educational Agency 1
EA1’s “Math Is Elementary” program
Math Perspectives Teacher Development Center