Persistent calls for improved math and science education have been met in recent years with efforts to better train teachers in the subject matter. For all the time and money spent on training programs, however, has it made a difference in the classroom?
There’s no simple way of accurately measuring if teachers are benefiting from professional development, says Dr. Emilio Duran, adding that “very little empirical evidence” suggests such programs are effective—and even less that students are doing better on standardized achievement tests as a result of their teachers’ training.
But Duran, School of Teaching and Learning, is heading an attempt to measure the impact of a professional development project that he also helps lead. More specifically, he and BGSU colleagues are looking to measure acquisition of content knowledge by participants in Northwest Ohio Teachers Enhancing Achievement in Mathematics and Science (NWO TEAMS).
Last year, Duran and Jake Burgoon, a TEAMS internal evaluator, presented a paper on science content knowledge in participating elementary and middle school teachers at the National Social Science Association conference. The paper was published recently in the association’s official publication, the National Social Science Journal, which accepts only about 15 percent of all submitted articles, screened by national referees and consulting editors, Duran says.
For teachers of grades 3-6, NWO TEAMS started three years ago as a Northwest Ohio Center of Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education effort, with $1.9 million in grant funding from the Ohio Department of Education. Last year, the focus was narrowed to science at the same time the composition was expanded to special education teachers, of both gifted and special-needs students.
“We’re providing training for teachers to address the needs of every student,” says Duran, a former University of Toledo biologist whose career has shifted from molecular biology research to applied study of science education. The change began about 10 years ago, when he was asked to be part of a BG-UT grant pairing on professional development of teachers.
A spinoff of that elementary science-related project, NWO TEAMS has allowed his group to conduct research while being part of a professional development effort. Also among the subjects of study are factors that influence teachers’ beliefs and perceptions in science teaching and learning, he says, noting that the way teachers feel about their ability will affect their classroom performance. “Teachers are lifelong learners, and we need to come up with ways of helping them.”
To keep grant money coming for training programs, proof of their worth will be necessary as well, adds Duran, who came to BGSU in 2007. “If we don’t do something about it, we’re not going to get funding anymore,” he says, so TEAMS leaders are trying to develop accurate, effective ways of measuring the project’s impact in the classroom.
They hope to devise a model that is based on teachers’ needs and also applicable to other programs at BGSU and beyond—even with the knowledge that teachers, and students, all differ in ability and training. In science, Duran says, referring to his own background, thousands of researchers can look in a laboratory at cells with the same genetic information. But in education, “we can’t do that with our students,” he points out. “We need to do a better job, and everyone needs to do their share.”
He sees that happening at BGSU, which he calls “unique” for hiring people like him, with content knowledge in the sciences, to work with current and future teachers through its College of Education and Human Development. Citing the joint work of the education college and the College of Arts and Sciences, he says “the positive climate of collaboration that exists at BGSU right now is very rare.”
“We have an incredibly passionate group of people at BGSU who care about our teachers,” Duran adds. “We are one of the top colleges of education for a reason.”