With Federal Backing, Universities to Expand Innovative K-12 Learning Programs

Dr. John A. Nunnery is the executive director at The Center for Educational Partnerships at Old Dominion University. Dr. John A. Nunnery is the executive director at The Center for Educational Partnerships at Old Dominion University.

While most discussions on narrowing the achievement gap emphasize the role of the teacher, a middle school math program being expanded through one of the Obama administration’s signature education programs puts the emphasis on student teamwork.

The program—called Student Teams-Achievement Divisions-Math, or STAD-Math—is one of 23 initiatives to share in $150 million being provided through the latest round of grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation Fund, also known as “i3.”

Expansion of STAD-Math is being overseen by Old Dominion University, which won $25 million in i3 funds to expand the program to serve 135,000 students in 185 “high need” middle schools throughout the country over the next five years.

Like other grantees, to secure the award, the university had to secure 5 percent of its grant money, in this case $1.25 million, in matching funds.

ODU is the lone grantee to win a “scale-up” grant through the federal initiative, due largely to the program’s proven track record. Other grantees won “validation” or “development” grants.

Prior research has shown that the STAD-Math program has spurred gains of 40 percent in math achievement and stands to narrow the achievement gap between ethnic and racial minorities and White students.

“To give a sense of perspective, the difference between African-American or Hispanic and White eighth grade mathematic scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is equal to an effect size of about 0.50,” notes an ODU project narrative titled “A Technology-facilitated Scale up of a Proven Model of Mathematics Instruction in High Need Schools.”

“Based on the confidence intervals derived in the meta-analysis,” the project narrative states, “STAD-Math has a 95 percent likelihood of closing between 44 percent and 92 percent of that gap.”

Dr. John A. Nunnery, executive director at The Center for Educational Partnerships at

Old Dominion University, said the most prominent and distinct feature of the program is that it involves student teamwork instead of making the teacher the center of attention.

“The typical instruction that you see in a middle school is all teacher-directed with a teacher at the front of the room and 25 or 30 kids in the room, and all the feedback or interaction is mediated through the teacher,” Nunnery said. “That turns out to be fairly inefficient, because, at any given time, two-thirds or more of the kids are not engaged, unless you have a truly phenomenal teacher.”

While STAD-Math does entail a teacher-led component, it’s short and takes place at the beginning of class to introduce new concepts. After that, Nunnery said, students work in diverse teams of about four students each to elaborate on and practice the concepts.

“The kids in the group are responsible for each other’s learning,” Nunnery said. “Groups get rewarded based on how well individual members support each other.”

“It’s not just throwing kids into groups, but it’s a fairly structured process,” Nunnery said. “One of the things they’ll do is randomly call on any member of the group, and they go in front of class and report on outcomes of problem solving or activities they were doing.”

“It keeps them engaged,” Nunnery said. “It builds a positive group interdependence, so there’s a lot of social emotional benefits that go with it.”

The program will be expanded initially through use of on-site support and teacher-created instructional videos to keep teachers talking about best practices. Eventually, schools will be expected to rely less on on-site support and more on online coaching.

“We never completely get rid of, but we gradually reduce the amount of live technical assistance,” Nunnery said, “and use technology to replace the live person.”

A number of i3 grantees were colleges and universities or have a strong focus on higher education.

Among them is the North Carolina New Schools Project, which won an i3 grant of $15 million to create Early College High School programs in 18 rural schools that serve high-need students.

The initiative is unique in that most Early College High School programs don’t reach students in rural areas. However, whereas most Early College High School programs have high school students earn college credit at actual colleges and universities, the North Carolina rural expansion project will be challenged because it will not involve any instruction at institutions of higher learning, said Lynne Garrison, vice president of Strategic Partnerships and Engagement.

“The power of place is one of the elements that make Early College High Schools attractive, because it’s on the university campus,” Garrison said. “It will be challenging to translate that same kind of college culture in a traditional high school. Anytime that you take an innovative approach and bring it to more traditional high schools, it’s challenging to help the community and the school and the student recognize the importance of change.”

Primary aims of the program are to build a college-going culture, incorporate more powerful teaching and learning, provide more personal attention to students, and create a shared vision to help all students accrue college credit as part of their high school experience, Garrison said.

“We provide intense professional development and coaching for the teachers, school leaders and central office leaders to bring these things to bear in the classroom and the school and the community,” Garrison said. “It’s really transforming the teaching and learning that go on in schools and the results show.”

Among the results that the North Carolina New Schools Project has achieved thus far are lower dropout and suspension rates, higher graduation rates, and more students succeeding at doing college-level work.