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Impact of ASSET Inc. on Student Learning: Report on Results in the Systemic Reform of Education in Southwestern Pennsylvania from 1995 - 2000

author: Reeny Davison, Kalyani Raghavan
published: 12/07/2000
posted to site: 12/07/2000
Report on Results in the Systemic Reform of Education in Southwestern Pennsylvania from 1995 - 2000

Impact of ASSET Inc. on Student Learning:

Report on Results in the Systemic Reform of Education in Southwestern Pennsylvania from 1995 - 2000




The crisis in U.S. pre-college science education came to the national fore in 1983 with the publication of "A Nation At Risk." Since then, mounting evidence from various sources, including the U.S. Labor Department and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has continued to underscore the problem. Perhaps most damning are the results of the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). Over the past decade, TIMSS has tested fourth, eighth and twelfth grade students from more 41 countries in math and science proficiency. Unfortunately, U.S. students, with the exception of fourth graders, have under-performed compared with their international counterparts, consistently scoring at or near the bottom in both subjects.

Seeking to redress the problem and reverse this trend, education experts have called for major reform of science education at the elementary school level. They advocate inquiry-based, hands-on curricula that allow students to learn science the way scientists do — through research, experimentation, analyzing data, hypothesizing, and testing conclusions. For teachers, this approach requires ongoing professional development in both science content and teaching methods, something the nation’s pre-college science teachers who are members of the National Science Teachers Association overwhelmingly support.

This report benchmarks the progress made by teachers and students participating in the ASSET Inc. program.

Begun in 1992, the ASSET (Allegheny Schools Science Education and Technology) Inc. initiative brought together partners, financial supporters, and 30 school districts in Allegheny County to improve student learning in science through systemic reform. Over 90,000 students are benefiting from the investment made by the National Science Foundation, and many local foundations and corporations.

ASSET’s reform strategy incorporates the five components of exemplary science education programs identified by the National Science Resources Center and required by the National Science Foundation for Local Systemic Reform Initiatives: quality hands-on curriculum materials, ongoing professional development, centralized materials support, assessment, and community and administrative involvement.

Cross-district collaboration revolutionizes student learning.

ASSET is producing systemic change in southwestern Pennsylvania schools and is significantly advancing student learning. During its six years of operation, ASSET awakened thousands of students’ interests in science. Results show measurably better skills in comparing, graphing, and measuring among ASSET students compared to those who didn’t participate in ASSET programs.

These enhancements in student learning result from ASSET ‘s commitment to collaboration. By establishing partnerships among disparate districts, ASSET encourages teachers who would otherwise never interact to share ideas. This produces a synergy among districts that enhances teachers’ capabilities and invigorates students.

As a result, most Allegheny County school districts now use a common elementary science curriculum framework. Collaborative structures provide ASSET schools with the benefits of diversity while enabling each district to maintain its administrative independence. Through their involvement with ASSET, districts understand that teacher professional development engenders continuous improvement in student learning. Because of ASSET:

  1. Sixty-nine school districts in southwestern Pennsylvania teach science using standards-based curricular modules that are nationally endorsed. Centralized Materials Support Centers in each county purchase, refurbish, and distribute these modules to schools throughout the region.
  2. 16,192 teachers participated in 1,708 professional development sessions addressing specific modules, as well as teaching methods, learning theory, and leadership skills over the past five years. A network of teacher leaders and district administrators from each district conduct the sessions. Over the past 3 years focus groups of teachers worked with their peers to complete a performance-based assessment framework to measure student learning. They also designed professional development sessions to implement it.

Community partnerships strengthen science understanding.

ASSET reaches out to the community to further enhance student learning. The Carnegie Science Center, the National Aviary, the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, and Pittsburgh Voyager provide field experiences relevant to the ASSET curriculum which enrich both students’ and teachers’ understanding of science.

Administrators throughout the region are requesting the Principals’ Academy of Southwestern Pennsylvania at the University of Pittsburgh to provide guidance in applying the principles of inquiry, which form the basis of ASSET’s philosophy, to their school setting. Duquesne University, Carlow College, the University of Pittsburgh, and Indiana University of Pennsylvania are aligning their programs for teacher preparation to ensure that new teachers graduating from these institutions will have the skills to guide student learning using inquiry. To further enhance learning, university scientists co-teach with elementary teacher leaders in summer science institutes.

Teachers are better prepared to teach science.

  1. The quality of instruction in ASSET classrooms showed steady improvement over the past five years. This improvement increases with teachers’ level of involvement in ASSET, the amount of professional development in which they participate, and their increased familiarity with the instructional materials. Specifically, teaching practices and classroom cultures of lead teachers who have participated in at least 100 hours of professional development was observed to be significantly better than teachers with fewer hours of professional development.
  2. Teachers’ responses on questionnaires administered each year from 1996 to 2000 indicate significant improvements in the following areas:
    • preparedness to engage students in investigative activities;
    • student-centered teaching practices fostering an investigative culture in the classroom;
    • opportunities for science-related professional development and collaboration with teachers within and across districts; and
    • principals’ support in implementing standards-based instructional materials.

Student performance is higher in districts with sustained involvement in ASSET.

In the spring of 2000, a test administered to approximately 1500 fifth-grade students in 29 ASSET districts showed dramatic improvement in ASSET students’ performance. The assessment consisted of 4th and 7th grade science items selected from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Results from this test indicate the following impressive accomplishments:

  1. Within ASSET districts, total scores of students from districts in the program since 1995 were significantly higher than those of students from districts that joined in 1998. Scores were higher in all skill and concept areas, suggesting that sustained involvement in the systemic reform of science instruction impacts positively on student learning.
  2. ASSET 5th graders' scores on individual questions were higher than the international averages from the TIMSS on:
    • 8 of the 9 fourth grade questions and
    • 10 of the 13 seventh grade questions.

ASSET students’ scores rank competitively with Japanese students’ scores.

  1. Compared with scores of 7th graders from U.S. and high-scoring countries, ASSET fifth graders’ mean scores were
      • much higher than U.S. students’ scores;
    • almost the same as Japan, which ranked behind Singapore and Korea;
    • ahead of England, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Canada.
  1. A "before and after" study of ASSET students’ progress in the understanding of concepts and skills from 4th grade (Fall ’97) to 6th grade (Fall ’99) using an independently developed instrument found that they
    • improved significantly in the skills of comparing, graphing, and measuring, but not in predicting and investigating. Predicting and investigating need greater emphasis in the curriculum and in professional development.
    • demonstrated significant understanding of all five concepts tested.

National study confirms the benefits of investing in teaching quality.

Asset began a tidal wave of school improvement in southwestern Pennsylvania. Its teachers and administrators and its many valuable partners are producing reform with measurable results. Significant student achievement in science validates the importance of inquiry-based instruction. This confirms the research conducted for the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, which concluded that student performance improves with "long-standing investments in the quality of teaching" (Darling-Hammond, L., Teaching Quality: Policy Briefs, December, 1999).

Because of their involvement with ASSET, 69 area school districts have engendered change:

    • from rote learning in textbooks to hands-on experiences;
    • from single didactic training sessions to an ongoing system of professional development and support that includes coaching and collaboration;
    • from isolated teachers to teams of teachers and administrators prepared to facilitate the development of an inquiry culture;
    • from competition between single districts to collaboration across the county.

These systemic improvements are significant advances for students and ultimately the community.

A continued emphasis on teaching quality will improve student learning further and allow an expanding number of students to reap the benefits.

Based upon research conducted by Kalyani Raghavan, Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh, and Reeny Davison, ASSET Inc.