U.Va. Among the National Leaders in 2015 Education Science Grant Awards

Man wraps his arms around two little boys shoulders while they walk down a ramp

One of the grants will test a mentoring program that will seek to connect middle-schoolers with non-parental adults.

Faculty at the University of Virginia received $9.2 million in four grants from the Institute of Education Sciences, the federal government’s largest funding source for education research.

The grants, awarded to faculty members in the Curry School of Education and the College of Arts & Sciences, are among the most awarded to top universities in education.

“When we compare these grants to the top 10 schools of education in the country, we were awarded more funding than all but two,” Curry School Dean Robert Pianta said.

The four projects all aim to increase effective teaching and learning for K-12 students, each from a unique angle.

Service Learning for Science

One grant will provide funding to create professional development options for fourth- and fifth-grade teachers, helping them incorporate service-learning opportunities into their science classrooms.

“Service learning is often seen in curricula for older students and tends to be only loosely linked to curricular goals,” said Curry School Professor Sara Rimm-Kaufman, the principal investigator of the project.

According to Rimm-Kaufman, teachers often see service learning, a teaching strategy that engages students in a community service project, as an extra activity, not something that can be embedded into instruction.

“By working to develop materials and professional development supports for fourth- and fifth-grade teachers, we aim to meet a number of teacher goals for their classroom,” she said. “For instance, the professional development that we create will help teachers make science learning more engaging and interesting. The professional development will also help teachers manage classroom behavior well and facilitate students’ social skills, enabling them to work together on projects that teach rigorous academic content.”

According to Rimm-Kaufman, national fourth- and fifth-grade science standards include a unit on the Earth and human activity. A potential service-learning project connected to this topic might involve having students examine the use of plastic water bottles in their schools; they might measure how many water bottles are used each day, determine the life cycle of the bottle, and research how that life cycle impacts various elements of the environment, like energy consumption or what happens in landfills.

“With a service learning project that is successfully implemented and deeply rooted in the curriculum, students have the opportunity to gain a deep understanding of specific science standards, as well as other skills – like working as a team, or what you do when you are faced with an outcome that is different from what you expect,” Rimm-Kaufman said.

Eileen Merritt, an assistant professor at the Curry School,  will co-lead the project, joined by Jamie DeCoster of the Curry School and Tracy Harkins of Harkins Consulting LLC. The team will begin the project developing their materials and supports with six teachers expert in service learning, with the ultimate goal of piloting their program with more than 70 teachers and 500 students.

The DREAM After-School Program

Noelle Hurd, an assistant professor of psychology in the College of Arts & Sciences, is partnering with Nancy Deutsch, associate professor in the Curry School, to develop and test a program to connect middle school students with adults who are not their parents in the aim of improving their academic achievement. Hurd and Deutsch are both affiliated with Youth-Nex: The U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, based at the Curry School.

“Evidence suggests that many students, especially students from disadvantaged backgrounds, are lacking supportive relationships with non-parental adults,” Hurd said.  “Supportive relationships with non-parental adults have been associated with greater social and emotional competencies, such as self-control, self-acceptance and autonomy, all of which may contribute to increased academic engagement among middle-school students.”

According to the researchers, adolescents who lack supportive relationships with non-parental adults in their everyday lives (e.g., teachers, school staff, extended family members, neighbors) may be at greater risk of academic disengagement and disruptive behaviors in the classroom.

Project DREAM – an acronym for “Developing Resourcefulness, Engagement, Acceptance and Mentoring” – will provide a setting where, after the school day concludes, students will work with a non-parental adult from their family, school or community for eight two-hour sessions that occur weekly. Two trained school staff members will facilitate the sessions.

The research team will develop the mentoring program and test a pilot of the program in an urban and suburban region of Virginia over the next three years.

Maryland’s Statewide Implementation of Behavior Strategy

Over the past nearly 15 years, the state of Maryland has provided training to 1,000 of its 1,400 schools in the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports framework. 

“The PBIS is a multi-tiered model designed to prevent student behavior problems and promote a positive school climate to support academic success,” said principal investigator Catherine Bradshaw, associate dean for research at the Curry School. As compared to the traditional reactive approach to discipline, PBIS is a proactive and preventive approach to supporting teachers in their work with students in order to improve student-teacher interactions, enhance student engagement and improve school climate.

For example, schools identify a set of positively stated behavioral expectations, like being ready, responsible and safe, and describe what that looks like in different settings across the school.

Over the next five years, Bradshaw will evaluate the impact of implementing the statewide program.

“While our prior research projects on PBIS have demonstrated several significant impacts of the model on students and the school environment, the state is very eager to learn whether the scale-up effort has resulted in beneficial student outcomes across the entire state,” she said. “This work is particularly timely, as Maryland and other states, like Virginia, are expanding PBIS into more schools.”

Bradshaw, joined by representatives from the Maryland State Department of Education and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, will conduct three evaluation studies of the framework. The research team will evaluate the effectiveness of the program between elementary, middle and high schools, as well as between schools that voluntarily elected to implement the new framework and those that were mandated by state law.

The team will also evaluate the level of funding required to implement the program and what the state’s return was on that investment. 

Bradshaw and her team’s research could be relevant to many other states.

“Twenty-two thousand schools nationwide are using PBIS and about 40 states have made a strong commitment to expansion,” Bradshaw said. “Therefore, this project has considerable local as well as national significance.”

Testing ‘Double Check’

Researchers, led once again by Bradshaw, will test the impact of “Double Check,” a professional development program for teachers designed to promote cultural proficiency and student engagement.

“A teacher exhibits cultural proficiency when he or she can effectively bridge cultural differences to ensure all students have equal opportunities to learn and succeed,” Bradshaw said.

Research shows that minority students receive disciplinary action at twice the rate of their white counterparts, are disproportionately referred to special education, and are not as frequently identified as gifted and talented, according to Bradshaw. 

“While we can’t explain all of the reasons why this occurs, we hypothesize that increasing a teacher’s cultural proficiency can reduce these occurrences,” she said.

Double Check was created to increase student engagement and reduce the disproportionality of disciplinary actions and special education referrals by providing school-wide training and individualized coaching. The aim of the training and coaching is to increasingly integrate culturally responsive practices into the classroom.

Over four years and across 30 Maryland schools, the research team will evaluate nearly 6,000 teachers’ attitudes and practices and more than 13,000 middle school students’ perceptions of school climate and equity, plus their behavior and academic performance following a one-year participation in the Double Check program.

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

School of Education and Human Development