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JTE Author Interview: ‘Connecting Teacher Professional Development and Student Mathematics Achievement’

Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team? Check out the following interview with the authors of a recent article. This blog is available to the public, and AACTE members have free access to the articles themselves in the full JTE archives online – just log in with your AACTE profile here.

This interview features insights from the article “Connecting Teacher Professional Development and Student Mathematics Achievement: A 4-Year Study of an Elementary Mathematics Specialist Program,” from authors Traci Shizu Kutaka, Wendy M. Smith, Anthony D. Albano, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Lixin Ren, Heidi Lynn Beattie, W. James Lewis, Ruth M. Heaton, and Walter W. Stroup. The article, featured in the March/April issue of JTE, is summarized in the following abstract:

The present study investigated the effects of Primarily Math, an in-service elementary mathematics specialist program. Primarily Math sought to augment the mathematical knowledge for teaching of kindergarten through third-grade teachers using a longitudinal multiple cohort design. Two sets of analyses were conducted. The first examined impact on teachers’ mathematical knowledge for teaching, attitudes toward learning mathematics, and beliefs about teaching and learning relative to a matched comparison group. Primarily Math teachers demonstrated greater knowledge for teaching Numbers and Operations and more positive attitudes toward learning mathematics, and more often endorsed student-centered beliefs about teaching and learning. The second set of analyses examined the extent to which students of three cohorts of Primarily Math teachers demonstrated more fall-spring growth in a measure of mathematics achievement relative to students of comparison-group teachers. There was a small but positive effect of participation in Primarily Math on student mathematics achievement.

Q: What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

A: Primarily Math (PM) is a program focused on K-3 teachers that is part of the larger NSF-funded Math Science Partnership called NebraskaMATH (2009-2015). We (a subset of the author team) had a different Math Science Partnership project for middle level teachers: Math in the Middle (2004-2011). We were convinced that although middle level was important, that we really needed to extend our reach down to the elementary level (and up to the high school level), so NebraskaMATH focused on K-3 and high school teachers. We adapted our Math in the Middle professional development model of intensive summer courses, and blended online/in-person academic year courses to support teachers’ learning of mathematics, mathematics pedagogy, and child development. Our efforts thus spanned K-12 both for offering mathematics-focused teacher professional development, and surrounding the professional development with research to better understand how teachers change.

Q: Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?

A: No. Our group generally has been dedicated to the overarching goal of improving PK-20 (preschool through undergraduate) mathematics teaching and learning statewide, with particular attention to closing opportunity gaps. Nebraska has some very large gaps in mathematics achievement when students are disaggregated by ethnicity, language, and socioeconomic status; our general stance is to work with teachers of mathematics to help them better enact equitable mathematics teaching and learning practices with all students.

Q: What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?

A: It is hard to recruit comparison teachers. Even when there are funds to compensate them for their time, teachers are very busy and research can be perceived as requiring too much effort. We had problems with attrition from our comparison group, mainly due to teachers changing grade levels or schools and thus no longer being part of our target demographic. It can also be hard to balance the needs of the research with the needs of the partner districts. For instance, although our research design called for teachers for three cohorts to all be recruited in Year 1, some districts needed to hold spots for “players to be named later” and so we don’t have as much baseline data on some of our teachers in cohorts 2 or 3.

Q: Writing, by necessity, requires leaving certain things on the cutting room floor. What didn’t make it into the article that you want to talk about?

A: The manuscript did not describe the growth of school and district investment in professional development in mathematics. Starting in 2013, we saw districts begin to use their own funds (or local foundation funds) to launch new cohorts of Primarily Math. Schools in districts with PM teachers wanted to hire more PM-trained teachers when their schools had openings. To date, nearly 500 teachers have participated in the PM program.

Also, qualitative data about teacher growth – their course work and reflections – didn’t make it into this quantitative study. We are separately analyzing aspects of teacher and teaching artifacts, and have some publications that takes a closer look at teacher thinking and action. We are also separately working on manuscripts that look more closely at the roles, responsibilities, and impacts of mathematics coaches.

Q: What current areas of research are you pursuing?

A: We continue to study the impact of Primarily Math involving more recent cohorts with local funding. We have also expanded the scope of our work to include providing professional development (along with an associated research agenda) with preschool teachers (Math Early On, funded by the Buffett Early Childhood Initiative). One team member, Traci Kutaka, is also part of another NSF-funded project that provides professional development in mathematics to Head Start practitioners in the city of Chicago (Collaborative Math, led by the Erikson Institute).

We are studying systemic change more intentionally as we consider what it takes to affect cultural changes related to mathematics teaching and learning. Some of the questions driving this work include: What does it take for a district to make mathematics teaching and learning as central as literacy already is? What do teachers, math coaches, administrators need to know and be able to do to have frequent and meaningful conversations about mathematics teaching and learning? What structures can schools or districts put in place that can support such conversations (e.g., common grade-level planning time, time for professional learning communities, funding for math coaches, assessments that go beyond measuring procedural skills, home-school partnerships, valuing continued teacher learning of mathematics)?

Q: What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?

A: Math coaches, or elementary mathematics specialists more generally, are becoming a more popular form of professional learning and support for teachers. Yet few programs exist to educate not only coaches but those who work with coaches.

How can coaches work productively with teachers in ways that support and enhance teachers’ classroom practices? How do we support early childhood educators in enacting rich mathematical experiences with children? Given the disparate paths to certification (including situations where early childhood educators need no license or minimal training) and competing priorities and values related to providing early care and education, how do we help young children cultivate strong mathematics foundations that are so crucial to their developmental trajectories?

Q: What advice would you give to new scholars in teacher education?

A: Important research in teacher education requires a large team of people, so we strongly recommend you develop a research group that encourages mixed methods designs and includes people from, but not limited to, the following disciplines: mathematics, education, mathematics education, developmental psychology, educational psychology, statistics, early childhood research, and sociology. The partnership also should include PK-12 personnel – district level mathematics supervisors, principals, math coaches, and teachers. Having graduate seminars for graduate students from these disparate fields, to have collective conversations about the project (and math education research in general), can provide a powerful platform for learning and collaboration. General teacher education conversations can be very valuable, especially across disciplines and with people who have differing methodological experiences.


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