U.Va. Secures $6.4 Million from U.S. Department of Education to Improve K-12 Teaching and Learning

August 30, 2010 — Faculty at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education have secured five grants worth more than $6.4 million, issued this year from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. The work funded by these grants will support curriculum implementation nationally in urban third- through fifth-grade classrooms, improve K-12 teacher quality throughout the U.S., and assess the availability of early childhood care and instruction across communities nationwide.

"Curry faculty had an extraordinary success rate in securing these competitive grants from the Institute for Education Sciences this spring," Curry School Dean Robert Pianta said. "These funds provide support for important and innovative ways to enhance teaching and learning in schools and to build an evidence base for policy and practice. That we were so successful means we compete well at the highest levels, and speaks to the quality and rigor of the work we do."

Summaries of the five Curry School projects that received IES funding:

• Availability of Early Childhood Care Across Communities Nationwide

In recent years, there has been heightened interest in early childhood programs and their potential for helping children start school ready to learn. At the federal level, as well as across many states, there has been a tremendous investment in expanding high-quality care and education options for young children. 

Child care and preschool are provided by a wide variety of public and private organizations, ranging from public school pre-kindergarten and Head Start programs to nursery schools and home-based day care. This variety makes it difficult for researchers and policymakers to gain a clear understanding of what programs are available to families now and how this has changed over the last 15 years.

A project led by Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor of education, which received a grant for $136,510, seeks to use census data to provide a more complete understanding of early childhood program availability.

"We have detailed data on all child care centers and workers in the United States over a 15-year period," she said. "The goal of this work is to investigate how access to care varies across communities, how the recent expansion of school-based preschool has influenced the use of other types of care, and how efforts to expand and improve child care options have influenced children's school readiness."

• Supporting Curriculum Implementation in Urban Schools

With a $1,469,976 grant, Curry School faculty, led by senior research scientist Jason Downer, are teaming with the developers of a curriculum, the "4Rs" (Reading, Writing, Respect and Resolution), to enhance and make more consistent its implementation.

This curriculum focuses on literacy development and conflict resolution. Though 4Rs has a proven track record of success, implementation varies from day to day and classroom to classroom.

Curry faculty will develop and test a package of supports for teachers, including continuous, on-demand access to high-quality video examples of 4Rs lessons in action and individual coaching that involves video-based feedback evaluating how effectively teachers interact with their students during 4Rs, Downer said.

"These resources will be developed in collaboration with the curriculum developers and teachers, with the end goal of creating a set of resources for supporting future teachers of the 4Rs," he said.

• Improving the Quality of Teachers' Interactions with Children

The third IES-funded project, in the amount of $1,469,171, is designed to create effective professional development for early childhood teachers. 

"The average school district pays thousands of dollars each year for teacher professional development, but there is almost no evidence that any of this professional development leads to improved teaching or student learning," Curry School senior scientist Bridget Hamre said. "We recently showed that a 14-week course that focused early childhood teachers on understanding and observing effective teaching practices led to improvements in their use of these practices in classrooms."

However, the team also found that it was hard for many teachers to fit this traditional, in-person coursework into their busy professional and personal schedules. With this grant, the faculty will develop an online version of this course for use by early childhood teachers around the country.

• Postdoctoral Training in Education Sciences

In education science, researchers study how both school and out-of-school settings affect the development of children and youth, seeking to discover systematic changes to these settings that can move children and youth toward more successful educational experiences. The Institute for Education Sciences itself is designed to develop a new generation of researchers in education science. 

A Curry project led by associate professor of education Sara Rimm-Kaufman, which received $678,686, offers an opportunity to prepare post-doctoral fellows for careers in education science. Three or four candidates who have recently received their Ph.D.s are chosen each year to collaborate with Curry faculty on their research for between one to three years.

"Often, fellows bring a set of expertise that adds to our projects in ways that help us contribute to education science in ways that we didn't originally anticipate," Rimm-Kaufman said. "It's exciting to engage with promising researchers at this important point in their own careers."

• Testing the Effectiveness of 'Banking Time'

Aggression, oppositionality and impulsivity are behaviors that most children display at one time or another. Children who display these behaviors frequently at high levels have trouble developing positive and supportive relationships with their peers and teachers and have trouble engaging in learning tasks within the classroom. These children are also at significant risk for being expelled from their preschool or child-care programs – beginning a pattern of school failure for a subset of these children.  

"Banking Time" is an intervention developed by Curry School dean Pianta that focuses on the teacher-child relationship as a resource for promoting children's development. This project, which received funding of $2,688,025, aims to test the effectiveness of this intervention.

"The intervention is called 'Banking Time' to emphasize that relationships serve as a resource for children," said Amanda Williford, a senior scientist working on the project.  "Teachers invest in these resources during one-on-one sessions with students, and then students and teachers draw upon the 'relationship capital' invested to help solve problems or conflicts within the classroom."

"Banking Time" sessions take place within the school setting and occur regularly (three times per week for six to eight weeks) for scheduled, short periods of time (e.g., 10 minutes). The most important component of the intervention is not the increased quantity of time a teacher spends with a particular child, but the improved quality of the experience of these interactions, Williford said.