Scaling Up the Success for All Middle School Math Program


Middle school is a crucial stage for math instruction because students must master the context needed for more advanced high school math. But middle school math achievement has been difficult to improve. While the mathematics performance of American students has improved in recent years it still remains unimpressive by international standards, and the steep decline in math proficiency that occurs when U.S. students transition from elementary to middle school is particularly troubling. Further, math achievement is lowest for groups underrepresented in careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The Success for All Foundation, best known for its reading program, also has developed a math program to address these concerns. Like its reading counterpart, the program has substantial research evidence showing its effectiveness. A grantee of the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) initiative — which awards grants to expand to a larger scale education interventions that have shown success in large, rigorous experiments — Success for All’s PowerTeaching (also known as Student Teams-Achievement Divisions [STAD] Math) is a structured cooperative learning program in which students work in four- to five-member heterogeneous teams to help each other solve problems and build mathematical understanding. Teachers follow a schedule of teaching, team work, and individual assessment. The student teams receive continual feedback and recognition based on how all team members perform on weekly assessments of understanding. PowerTeaching can be used with any textbook or curriculum, making it flexible and easy to implement in a variety of contexts. Teachers receive blended face-to-face and online professional development support. MDRC is evaluating PowerTeaching i3 as it expands to schools across the country, to determine whether it is as effective in the expanded version as it was in earlier tests.


Agenda, Scope, and Goals

A substantial body of research indicates that the "middle grades drop-off" in math learning can be attributed to changes between elementary and middle school in the way math teachers deliver information and relate to students. PowerTeaching i3 is grounded in cooperative learning, one of the most extensively researched and generally accepted approaches to pedagogy in mathematics. Research on cooperative learning in mathematics has found strong impacts on learning when the cooperative learning methods incorporate two key elements: group goals and individual accountability. Cooperative learning is especially effective with nonwhite, low-income students; students with limited English proficiency; and students with disabilities.

PowerTeaching currently is used in approximately 50 middle and high schools across the country. To reach the next phase of its expansion, the Success for All Foundation has proposed significant changes to its professional development model intended to reduce costs, encourage school-based ownership, and enhance sustainability. Staff members from Old Dominion University and the Success for All Foundation will train and certify local coaches, who will then provide coaching to math teachers in their own districts. Old Dominion experts in school reform, math instruction, and instructional technology will collaborate with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University to develop technologies that reduce the level of dedicated local coaching support necessary to implement PowerTeaching i3. This process should reduce per-student costs with each successive expansion. The economies of scale involved in expanding PowerTeaching i3 are so great, and the anticipated economies derived from the technology-facilitated professional development model are so powerful, that it should be possible to pass on meaningful savings to schools.

The partnership between Old Dominion University and the Success for All Foundation is using i3 funding to enable more districts and schools to adopt the PowerTeaching i3 program. The full-scale random assignment study of the impacts on middle school students produced by PowerTeaching i3 will include 53 middle schools across five districts. The programs will receive technical assistance and support from the 2013-2014 school year through the 2015-2016 school year to help ensure solid implementation.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

MDRC is employing an experimental research design to determine whether PowerTeaching i3 continues to be effective as it is expanded to more schools. Approximately 50 schools recruited in two cohorts will be randomly assigned; half to receive the program, and half to a “business-as-usual” control group.

The evaluation will compare math outcomes for middle school students in both sets of schools for up to three years, using math scores from state standardized tests that are administered each spring. The impact analysis will also measure the program’s effects on student attendance and grade promotion.

Further, the evaluation will assess program fidelity and the contrast in math instruction between the program and control schools. MDRC will collect and analyze data from a variety of sources — teacher logs, principal and teacher surveys, and rating sheets completed by the coaches — to examine the implementation of PowerTeaching i3 in the treatment schools and how math instruction differs between the treatment and control schools. It will also compare the characteristics of the study schools with those of other schools participating in the i3 demonstration, providing suggestive evidence about the extent to which the evaluation’s findings can be generalized.