A new study suggests that when science teachers spend their summers collaborating with university scholars on research projects, their students do better on standardized tests.
Scheduled to appear tomorrow in the journal Science, the study reports on effects from a professional development program at Columbia University for middle and high school science teachers from New York City's public schools. As part of the program, which is competitive, teachers spend a total of 16 weeks over two summers working with faculty mentors. The teachers spend one day a week in a professional-development session and the rest of the week in the laboratory.
To gauge the program's effects, a group of university researchers collected data on 32 teachers who passed through the program between 1994 and 2005 and who taught Regents-level science courses for several years in a row. (In New York City, high school students have to pass at least one Regents science test in order to graduate.)
Compared to teachers who did not take part in the program, the researchers found, the passing rates for students of participating teachers were 10 percent higher in the two years following their laboratory stints.
If you think the participating teachers were more motivated—and they probably were—you might also want to consider this: Before the study began, the students of teachers from both groups passed the exams at identical rates.
The growth in passing rates presumably came because teachers had improved their instruction. Most teachers did say, in fact, that they had changed their teaching to reflect what they had learned in their summer study programs. They introduced new laboratory exercises, for example, revised content, or introduced PowerPoint, chromatography, and other new technologies.
"Teachers are asked to teach inquiry-based science and that's something they never experienced when they were students," said Jay Dubner, a study co-author and the program coordinator. "This is actually giving them an experience they've only read about."
This study was 13 years in the making, though, and the researchers don't stop there. They go on to show how the program, which also includes a $6,000 stipend for teachers as well as other expenses, translates into short- and long-term cost savings for society. In the short term, savings come from a reduction in the number of students who have to retake a Regents science course and lower turnover rates among participating teachers.
The bottom line: For every $1 spent on the program, New York City's education department saved $1.14. The researchers calculate that the long-term savings amount to $10.27.
Dubner says the National Science Foundation has helped sponsor hundreds of programs like this around the country over the last two decades. This is the first study, though, to document its effects. When you consider that few professional development programs of any kind seem to yield much in the way of student-achievement effects, I'd say these findings give hope.