The online SciPacks tool of the National Science Teachers Association helps teachers and their students learn more science. That's the conclusion of a just-released independent evaluation by Edvantia, Inc, and it's good news. For several years, ever since writing an Ed Week article on how difficult it is to find evidence that professional development "works," I've been on the lookout for studies like this one.
Sure, there are plenty of evaluations that show that teachers liked their professional development, found it useful, and report they learned from it or even changed their practices as a result. There are relatively few studies that actually pre- and post-test teachers to measure their learning gains. Even more rare are studies showing that professional development for teachers led to greater learning among those teachers' students. But isn't that what we really care about? We work with teachers so students will learn more.
This was a good study. New Houston middle school science teachers or fifth grade teachers with at least a year of teaching experience were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Each group was then given access to one of the two SciPacks (online ten-hour mini-courses) under study, and the two groups served as controls for each other. One group studied the Earth's Changing Surface while the other studied Force and Motion. During the learning window, teachers logged into each of the two units an average of 15 times. Teachers filled out surveys about their science teaching practices and took tests of their content knowledge before and after using the SciPacks.
Following use of the SciPacks, teachers showed a gain of half a standard deviation in their confidence in teaching the topic covered. "Treated" teachers also showed a gain in content knowledge for the topic studied of about 17 percentile points, as compared to gains of 5 to 12 percentile points for the control teachers. Even more interesting were the student results. Fifth graders who had teachers in the treatment group gained 17 percentile points from pre- to post-test on earth science concepts, and 6th and 8th graders gained 10 percentile points on force and motion concepts, compared to 12 and 3 point gains for students who studied the same material but whose teachers had not had the professional development.
That's a very respectable linkage. Teachers who underwent online, self-paced and self-monitored professional development gained knowledge and confidence, and their students learned more than the students of teachers who did not have the same experience. NSTA deserves praise for its careful work in creating and testing these modules. So far there are 22 SciPacks available, covering topics in all major areas of science, some geared to elementary school teachers and some to middle or high school teachers. And these are only one piece of the many tools available in the NSTA Learning Center. Let's hope they see wide use.