Western Washington University faculty members have been awarded a $449,957 National Science Foundation grant to study specialized math and science teaching in elementary schools, with the aim of improving instructional practice and student learning.
The three-year project, titled “Every Day, Every Child: A Partnership for Research with Elementary Math and Science Instructional Specialists,” will study various models of elementary mathematics and science instructional specialists that are currently in place in six local school districts in Whatcom and Skagit counties: Anacortes, Bellingham, Burlington-Edison, Ferndale, Nooksack Valley and Sedro-Woolley.
Kimberly Markworth, assistant professor of mathematics education in WWU’s College of Sciences and Technology, is the principal investigator for the research project. Co-principal investigators are Chris Ohana, associate professor of elementary education in WWU’s Woodring College of Education, and Ruth Parker of the Mathematics Education Collaborative in Ferndale.
Traditionally, elementary teachers have been generalists – required to teach all subject areas to their students in the same classroom. However, they often lack knowledge of math or science subjects and the United States is falling behind other nations in math and science competency. For example, a comparison study between Chinese and American elementary teachers found that American teachers lacked a profound understanding of even basic mathematics. Science accounted for only 11 percent of the instructional time in a national sample of fifth grade teachers. And just 7 percent of Washington fourth-grade teachers reported more than four hours of science instruction per week.
A different approach to the traditional model of an elementary teacher teaching all subjects to the same class of children is the use of instructional specialists, teachers who specialize in math or science content. There are various models: for instance, a science teacher who moves between different classrooms on a regular basis to provide science instruction, or a team of teachers who provide math or science instruction to rotating groups of students.
The research project will investigate the content knowledge, preparation and needs of teachers in these specialized roles in the local school districts. The project also will gauge their effectiveness and determine the impact of instructional specialists on student learning and attitudes toward math and science.
The professors note the timing and location is good for the research project, as the local school districts already have various models of instructional specialists that can be studied. Also, the state of Washington recently adopted legislation calling for creation of an elementary mathematics specialist endorsement. And recent implementation of state testing in elementary science has highlighted the need for more attention to science instruction in those grades.