ISU Psychology in Education Research Lab evaluates state technology teaching success

AMES, Iowa -- Gary Phye is a believer in the educational power of technology -- particularly if administered to students through properly-trained teachers. And he has the numbers to prove it.

The director of the Psychology in Education Research Laboratory (PERL) at Iowa State University, Phye and statistics graduate student Kari Kraemer presented those numbers in a recent report to the Iowa Department of Education -- one that was also presented in March at national conferences of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics and the Consortium for School Networking. The report showed how middle school students from the Heartland Consortium -- schools in central Iowa -- who received new technology-based teaching strategies became increasingly more proficient in mathematics on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS). One study found that students who were rated as non-proficient in seventh grade -- those who scored below the 41st percentile in comparison to all Iowa student test scores -- improved to achieve proficiency, on average, within one year of receiving the new teaching methods.

"We're getting the worst up (in their standardized basic skills test scores) first," said Phye, who is also a professor of curriculum/instruction and psychology. "The program is designed to focus on the students who are struggling."

Teaching strategies that work

The intervention strategies -- which included Mental Math, Base Instructional Decision of Student Understanding, Promoting Discourse, Extend Students' Thinking, Daily Math Review, and Worthwhile Tasks -- were developed for teachers and administered through staff development learning events. They're part of the Enhancing Education Through Technology (E2T2) and the Evaluating State Educational Technology Program (ESETP), which were developed jointly by Iowa State's PERL, the Iowa Department of Education, the state's 12 Area Education Agencies (AEA), and from school districts across the state.

Each learning activity was supported by professional development Web-based activities such as discussion boards, blogs, e-mail, videoconferencing with content specialists, and personal development coaches over the Iowa Communications Network.

"We're training the principal players (teachers) in these new strategies to transfer to their teaching environments," said John O'Connoll, a consultant in instructional technology, Bureau of Instructional Services, Iowa Department of Education. "We're convincing teachers that they need to move forward through these teaching strategies, and we're supporting them electronically in terms of professional development."

The results are compelling. Among 340 seventh-grade students in nine schools who were rated as non-proficient in mathematics in 2003-04, their ITBS test scores improved from an average percentile ranking of 32.82 to 46.76 in the year following administration of the new intervention strategies. A separate study of 342 non-proficient students from 19 schools saw a similar rise over a one-year period ending in 2005-06 -- from an average of 33.03 to 40.22.

A study of 4,411 students in 49 schools also found that seventh-grade students who received the new math teaching strategies -- both proficient and non-proficient -- improved their ITBS test scores slightly on average (62.13 to 62.26 percentile) by the next year, while those who received existing teaching methods regressed slightly (57.93 to 57.44 percentile).

"Do teachers who are getting this technology-based professional development do better than the ones who are doing the same old thing? I'd say the results suggest that they do," said Phye.

A PERL of wisdom

All the data is being collected and compiled by Iowa State's PERL, which serves as a research and development center for statewide education, according to Phye. He reports that PERL receives computer and telecommunications assistance from ISU's Durham Center, statistical assistance from the university's Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, and additional research support from the Institute for Social and Behavioral Research.

PERL also supports the Polycom and Codian multi-channel videoconferencing unit, which links together teachers and education officials from across the state. The unit also allows researchers to look in live on classes in schools where the new strategies have been administered.

"The videoconferencing unit reduces travel and maximizes our time," said Nancy McIntire, general education coordinator of quality learning for the Area Education Agency (AEA) Region 9 in Bettendorf. "We're also bringing in national speakers through this unit too -- saving us on travel and lodging while providing greater access by limiting schedule conflicts."

"We're having meetings once or twice a month (via the videoconferencing unit), and the mileage saved from those meetings has already paid for its installation within a month," said Dr. Sally Lindgren, coordinator, technology team, AEA Region 16 in Burlington.

Iowa is tracking individual student progress more closely between first and eighth grade than other states, according to Phye. He reports that PERL researchers have completed two years of data on the impact of the new teaching strategies and are already working on gathering a critical three-year measurement.