Eisenkraft Gets $3M Grant to Study Science Teachers’ Professional Development

October 10, 2012

Zach Herman, Office of Communications

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Advanced Placement tests in biology, chemistry, and physics – which give high-school students an opportunity to earn college credit and prepare them for the rigors of university instruction – are undergoing major changes for the first time in decades.

As the tests change, the 20,000 teachers who lead AP science courses nationwide must adapt their methods accordingly. A team of professors led by the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Arthur Eisenkraft has been awarded $3 million to study the best ways to provide professional development to these educators.

The Center of Science and Mathematics in Context (COSMIC) at UMass Boston will serve as principal investigator for the four-year grant, funded by the National Science Foundation.

“We are going to study what these 20,000 teachers do, in terms of trying to come up to speed on the changes, the new knowledge and ways of teaching that will be required by these changes,” Eisenkraft said.

COSMIC has been studying the professional development choices made by teachers for many years, but the samples have been small. This new grant will survey teachers across the country, including every AP biology teacher in the United States.

“What we’ll be studying is: What professional development opportunities do teachers choose as they change their instruction?” Eisenkraft said. “And which professional development paths provide the highest student achievement?”

The research will have an economic impact, as well. The federal government spends $1.5 billion each year on professional development for teachers; private industry and state and local governments spend millions more.

“Nobody knows which programs are most effective. So what we’re trying to find out is, with that smorgasbord of professional opportunities available to teachers, which ones do they go to, which choices do they make, and which ones are the most valuable for them in terms of student achievement?” Eisenkraft said.

To tackle such a broad project, Eisenkraft has assembled a team of colleagues from Harvard University, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, and the Education Development Center. The team will work in conjunction with the College Board, which oversees the AP program.

Students sit for AP exams each May. Changes to the tests will be introduced over a three-year period, with the new biology test debuting this spring, followed by chemistry for the 2013-2014 school year, and physics for 2015-2016.

The schedule gives Eisenkraft’s team three years of data on the 10,000 biology teachers who will be surveyed, but less information from the other subjects.

The changes are the culmination of an eight-year effort started in the wake of a 2004 National Academy of Sciences report that said the AP classes and first-year college science courses “were not really meeting the needs of our future scientists,” Eisenkraft said.

The AP changes present an “incredible opportunity” to reach educators who may otherwise be reluctant to alter the way they teach.

“Certainly in all the movement we have, whether it’s at the K-12 level or the university level, you try to provide changes in curriculum based on research on how people learn and what’s important in science to know,” Eisenkraft said.

“When push comes to shove, though, we’ve seen the instruction doesn’t change unless the assessment changes. Teachers say, ‘Show me the assessment, then I’ll know if you’re really serious about me changing the instruction.’”

“Here we have incredible leverage, because we’re saying, ‘No, the exam is changing, and now change your instruction to meet these needs and demands.”