Professors Awarded Grants to Expand Collaborations with Tennessee Educators

Issue Date: 
October 7, 2013

A team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education has received two grants to monitor instructional quality in classrooms across the state of Tennessee. The awards, which include a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant and a William T. Grant Foundation grant, will extend ongoing collaboration between the Pitt researchers and educators in that state.

The National Science Foundation grant will allow faculty from Pitt’s Learning Sciences and Policy program to partner with officials in Tennessee’s Department of Education to study instructional quality, teachers’ access to resources, and student achievement across Tennessee.

“The objective of our work,” said Mary Kay Stein, professor of learning sciences and policy in the School of Education, “is to build an indicator system that will help leaders in Tennessee monitor the impact of all of their work to train teachers and coaches to better help students reach the Common Core State Standards.”

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a national campaign aimed at increasing the quality of education in English language arts and mathematics.

The project will be led by Stein; Richard Correnti, associate professor in the School of Education; and Jennifer Russell, assistant professor in the School of Education. All three are also scientists in Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center.

The indicator system to be designed by the research team will measure two main dimensions, Stein explained. The first dimension is the extent to which teachers select, and are able to maintain, high-cognitive-demand tasks for their students as part of their mathematics instruction. This will help state educators monitor instructional quality. The second dimension is the teachers’ access to resources that facilitate their improvement as teachers. This will help officials in the Department of Education decide what resources they need to add to the system to improve instructional quality.

The researchers will utilize a three-tiered approach to monitoring these two dimensions, Stein said. The first tier focuses on creating an intensive sample.

“Data about cognitive demand and teachers’ access to resources will be collected on 50 teachers in labor-intensive, up-close ways by observing classes and interviewing teachers,” Stein said. “These are the measures that we will have a lot of confidence in in terms of how valid they are and their ability to predict student learning.”

But no state can monitor instruction this way, Stein added, because this method is too labor-intensive. For that reason, an intermediate sample of 100 teachers—the second tier of the approach—will be used to generate less intensive measures, such as having teachers keep logs and collect assignments and samples of student work.

The third tier, known as the scale sample, will collect survey responses from approximately 1,000 teachers by the end of the third year of the project.

“What we’re hoping to do is to refine the less-intensive measures so that they correlate heavily with what we find out in the intensive sample,” Stein said. By calibrating the design of the logs, assignments, samples of student work, and surveys to closely correlate with the observational and interview measures, the researchers intend for their indicator system to offer a less-intensive set of tools that the Tennessee Department of Education can use to accurately monitor teacher performance.

Stein anticipates that the team will require three years to build the indicator system, with researchers working in Tennessee classrooms as well as hiring Tennessee-based individuals to carry out some tasks in the state.

The William T. Grant Foundation grant of $25,000, awarded to Correnti, has already allowed School of Education researchers to collaborate with the Tennessee Department of Education.

Correnti is currently conducting analyses of the performance of students in grades 3 through 10 on two assessment tests. By comparing and contrasting the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program—a statewide standardized test—with a performance-based assessment developed by the Institute for Learning in preparation for the Common Core State Standards’ Assessment in the 2014-2015 academic year, Correnti will investigate validity claims for the new performance-based assessment. His findings will include an assessment of how well ratings of teacher-assigned tasks predict classroom performance on the two different types of assessments.

Both grants come just a few months after a team from Pitt’s Institute for Learning, also within the University’s Learning Research and Development Center, worked with more than 900 Tennessee literacy coaches, preparing them to train more than 30,000 teachers across the state. Using institute-developed materials, institute staff trained the coaches during the summer of 2013 in five core content areas: mathematics, English language arts, science, history/social sciences, and career and technical education.

The new collaboration between Pitt’s School of Education and Learning Research and Development Center and the Tennessee Department of Education, now supported by the $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant, came about, Stein said, when she learned of the Institute for Learning’s work training Tennessee coaches in the Common Core State Standards.

“From a research point of view, I was intrigued,” she said. She asked Anthony Petrosky, codirector of Pitt’s Institute for Learning, if anyone was studying the work the institute was doing in Tennessee. As far as Petrosky knew, no one had stepped forward to study the institute’s work, prompting Stein and her team to apply for the National Science Foundation grant.

“Quite frankly, state-supported reform is somewhat unusual,” Stein said. “States by and large play a traditional role in education, passing through money that comes from the federal government to districts and schools. But in this case, the Tennessee Department of Education was taking an active role in collaborating with the Institute for Learning and in training coaches and teachers to be ready for the new Common Core State Standards.”