blog posts and news stories

New Project with ALSDE to Study AMSTI

Empirical Education is excited to announce a new study of the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) commissioned by the Alabama legislature. AMSTI is the Alabama State Department of Education’s initiative to improve math and science teaching statewide; the program, which started over 20 years ago and now operates in over 900 schools across the state, has been validated multiple times by external evaluators, including Empirical’s own 2012 study directed by Chief Scientist Andrew Jaciw. That cluster-randomized trial, which involved 82 schools and ~700 teachers, assessed the efficacy of AMSTI over a three year period and showed an overall positive effect (Newman et al., 2012).

The new study will use a quasi-experimental matched comparison group design and take advantage of existing data available from the Alabama State Department of Education and the AMSTI program. Schools using AMSTI will be compared to matched schools not using AMSTI to determine the impact of the program on math and science achievement for students in grades 3 through 8, as well as differential impacts of the program on important student subgroups. We will also make use of Improvement Science principles to examine school climates where the program may have greater or reduced impact.

At the conclusion of the study, Empirical Education’s report will be made available to select committees of the Alabama state legislature, the Governor and the Alabama State Board of Education, and the Alabama State Department of Education. Researchers from Empirical Education will also travel to Montgomery, Alabama to present the study findings and recommendations for improvement to the Alabama legislature.


Study of Alabama STEM Initiative Finds Positive Impacts

On February 21, 2012 the U.S. Department of Education released the final report of an experiment that Empirical Education has been working on for the last six years. The report, titled Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) is now available on the Institute of Education Sciences website. The Alabama State Department of Education held a press conference to announce the findings, attended by Superintendent of Education Bice, staff of AMSTI, along with educators, students, and co-principal investigator of the study, Denis Newman, CEO of Empirical Education. The press release issued by the Alabama State Department of Education and a WebEx presentation provide more detail on the study’s findings.

AMSTI was developed by the state of Alabama and introduced in 2002 with the goal of improving mathematics and science achievement in the state’s K-12 schools. Empirical Education was primarily responsible for conducting the study—including the design, data collection, analysis, and reporting—under its subcontract with the Regional Education Lab, Southeast (the study was initiated through a research grant to Empirical). Researchers from Academy of Education Development, Abt Associates, and ANALYTICA made important contributions to design, analysis and data collection.

The findings show that after one year, students in the 41 AMSTI schools experienced an impact on mathematics achievement equivalent to 28 days of additional student progress over students receiving conventional mathematics instruction. The study found, after one year, no difference for science achievement. It also found that AMSTI had an impact on teachers’ active learning classroom practices in math and science that, according to the theory of action posited by AMSTI, should have an impact on achievement. Further exploratory analysis found effects for student achievement in both mathematics and science after two years. The study also explored reading achievement, where it found significant differences between the AMSTI and control groups after one year. Exploration of differential effect for student demographic categories found consistent results for gender, socio-economic status, and pretest achievement level for math and science. For reading, however, the breakdown by student ethnicity suggests a differential benefit.

Just about everybody at Empirical worked on this project at one point or another. Besides the three of us (Newman, Jaciw and Zacamy) who are listed among the authors, we want to acknowledge past and current employees whose efforts made the project possible: Jessica Cabalo, Ruthie Chang, Zach Chin, Huan Cung, Dan Ho, Akiko Lipton, Boya Ma, Robin Means, Gloria Miller, Bob Smith, Laurel Sterling, Qingfeng Zhao, Xiaohui Zheng, and Margit Zsolnay.

With solid cooperation of the state’s Department of Education and the AMSTI team, approximately 780 teachers and 30,000 upper-elementary and middle school students in 82 schools from five regions in Alabama participated in the study. The schools were randomized into one of two categories: 1) Those who received AMSTI starting the first year, or 2) Those who received “business as usual” the first year and began participation in AMSTI the second year. With only a one-year delay before the control group entered treatment, the two-year impact was estimated using statistical techniques developed by, and with the assistance of our colleagues at Abt Associates. Academy for Education Development assisted with data collection and analysis of training and program implementation.

Findings of the AMSTI study will also be presented at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) Spring Conference taking place in Washington D.C. from March 8-10, 2012. Join Denis Newman, Andrew Jaciw, and Boya Ma on Friday March 9, 2012 from 3:00pm-4:30pm, when they will present findings of their study titled, “Locating Differential Effectiveness of a STEM Initiative through Exploration of Moderators.” A symposium on the study, including the major study collaborators, will be presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) on April 15, 2012 from 2:15pm-3:45pm at the Marriott Pinnacle ⁄ Pinnacle III in Vancouver, Canada. This session will be chaired by Ludy van Broekhuizen (director of REL-SE) and will include presentations by Steve Ricks (director of AMSTI); Jean Scott (SERVE Center at UNCG); Denis Newman, Andrew Jaciw, Boya Ma, and Jenna Zacamy (Empirical Education); Steve Bell (Abt Associates); and Laura Gould (formerly of AED). Sean Reardon (Stanford) will serve as the discussant. A synopsis of the study will also be included in the Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development.


Research: From NCLB to Obama’s Blueprint for ESEA

We can finally put “Scientifically Based Research” to rest. The term that appeared more than 100 times in NCLB appears zero times in the Obama administration’s Blueprint for Reform, which is the document outlining its approach to the reauthorization of ESEA. The term was always an awkward neologism, coined presumably to avoid simply saying “scientific research.” It also allowed NCLB to contain an explicit definition to be enforced—a definition stipulating not just any scientific activities, but research aimed at coming to causal conclusions about the effectiveness of some product, policy, or laboratory procedure.

A side effect of the SBR focus has been the growth of a compliance mentality among both school systems and publishers. Schools needed some assurance that a product was backed by SBR before they would spend money, while textbooks were ranked in terms of the number of SBR-proven elements they contained.

Some have wondered if the scarcity of the word “research” in the new Blueprint might signal a retreat from scientific rigor and the use of research in educational decisions (see, for example, Debra Viadero’s blog). Although the approach is indeed different, the new focus makes a stronger case for research and extends its scope into decisions at all levels.

The Blueprint shifts the focus to effectiveness. The terms “effective” or “effectiveness” appear about 95 times in the document. “Evidence” appears 18 times. And the compliance mentality is specifically called out as something to eliminate.

“We will ask policymakers and educators at all levels to carefully analyze the impact of their policies, practices, and systems on student outcomes. … And across programs, we will focus less on compliance and more on enabling effective local strategies to flourish.” (p. 35)

Instead of the stiff definition of SBR, we now have a call to “policymakers and educators at all levels to carefully analyze the impact of their policies, practices, and systems on student outcomes.” Thus we have a new definition for what’s expected: carefully analyzing impact. The call does not go out to researchers per se, but to policymakers and educators at all levels. This is not a directive from the federal government to comply with the conclusions of scientists funded to conduct SBR. Instead, scientific research is everybody’s business now.

Carefully analyzing the impact of practices on student outcomes is scientific research. For example, conducting research carefully requires making sure the right comparisons are made. A study that is biased by comparing two groups with very different motivations or resources is not a careful analysis of impact. A study that simply compares the averages of two groups without any statistical calculations can mistakenly identify a difference when there is none, or vice versa. A study that takes no measure of how schools or teachers used a new practice—or that uses tests of student outcomes that don’t measure what is important—can’t be considered a careful analysis of impact. Building the capacity to use adequate study design and statistical analysis will have to be on the agenda of the ESEA if the Blueprint is followed.

Far from reducing the role of research in the U.S. education system, the Blueprint for ESEA actually advocates a radical expansion. The word “research” is used only a few times, and “science” is used only in the context of STEM education. Nonetheless, the call for widespread careful analysis of the evidence of effective practices that impact student achievement broadens the scope of research, turning all policymakers and educators into practitioners of science.


Methods for Local Experimental Evaluation of STEM Initiatives Presented to State Legislators

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) presented a seminar for education committee chairs January 9-11 in Huntsville, Alabama, home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The topic was “Linking Research and Policy to Improve Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education.” Empirical Education‘s president, Denis Newman, presented the company‘s research on the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative, an 80-school randomized experiment being conducted as part of its contract with the Regional Education Laboratory for the Southeast. The presentation also drew on findings from experiments the company has conducted to evaluate STEM initiatives elsewhere in the country to illustrate the importance of local research goals and characteristics in evaluation design. The seminar was part of a series on research funded by the Institute of Education Sciences. (Click here for a copy of the presentation.)


Maui Community College Hires Empirical Education for an Evaluation of NSF-Funded Project

In Hawaii, Ho’okahua means “to lay a foundation”. Focusing on Hawaiian students over multiple years, the Ho’okahua Project aims to increase the number of Maui Community College (MCC) students entering, persisting, and succeeding in college level science, mathematics, and other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) degree programs. Several strategies have already been implemented, including a bridge program with the high schools from which the MCC student community is largely drawn.

The Maui Educational Consortium provides leadership for this work and has been instrumental in a number of other initiatives for increasing the capacity to achieve their goals. For example, the implementation of Cognitive Tutor for Algebra 1 was the subject of a related Empirical Education randomized experiment. Another important capacity fostered by the Educational Consortium, working with the University of Hawai’i Office of the State Director for Career and Technical Education, is an initiative called HI-PASS, which aggregates student data across high school and community college. Initially in its evaluation, Empirical Education will be using information on math courses developed through the HI-PASS project to follow the success of students from the earlier study.