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Review Finds Few Impacts for Math Professional Development

A wide-ranging review of more than 600 studies on math professional development for K-12 teachers found just two studies showing positive effects on students' math proficiency.

The review concludes that schools and districts are basically shooting in the dark when trying to boost teachers' skill in math instruction. It was prepared by the Southeast Regional Educational Laboratory at Florida State University for the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. And it appears to confirm many scholars' assertions that the PD research base is pretty thin overall.

"The limited research on effectiveness means that schools and districts cannot use evidence of effectiveness alone to narrow their choice" of professional-development approaches or programs, authors Russell Gersten, Mary Jo Taylor, Tran D. Keys, Eric Rolfhus, and Rebecca Newman-Gonchar write. 

The authors pulled some 900 studies in all. Of those, 643 looked at PD in K-12 math, but only 32 had a research method that was designed to examine causal impacts between the program and student achievement. And of those 32 studies, just five met the evidence standards of the federal What Works Clearinghouse. (To be fair, the WWC sets a very high bar; anecdotal and descriptive studies, the most common in education research, don't make the grade). 

Of those five studies, only two showed statistically significant positive effects, and neither examined a commercial program. One approach, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, combined university courses with follow-up workshops focused on designing lessons on algebraic patterns and functioning, math modeling, and geometry; the other used lesson study to teach fractions. 

Two of the other three studies, which examined professional-development programs provided by Pearson and America's Choice (which is now owned by Pearson), showed no effects.

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