Montana State University
Archived Spotlight story

Burroughs LuebeckFive Montana State University math professors have received a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study how instructional coaching helps elementary schools teach math to students across the country.

"Congress has recognized the need to improve K-8 students' skills in math and science," said David Yopp, an MSU math professor and one of the principal investigators on the grant. "Coaching seems to be one way to address that need and help students succeed."

Schools often hire instructional coaches to work with teachers to implement new curriculums and improve students' classroom experiences. But so far, little research has been done on the effect coaches have or even on what they need to know about math and coaching to do their jobs well, Yopp said.

"We're spending a lot of money hiring these coaches, but we're not quite sure that coaching's effective or what the coaches need to know," he said. "This grant and our study will contribute significantly to answering those questions."

Elizabeth Burroughs
, another MSU math professor and principal investigator on the grant, said the NSF-funded study will help put MSU at the forefront of research that will impact mathematics and science teaching nationwide.

An increasing number of schools across the country -- including at least eight in large and small school districts in Montana -- are hiring instructional coaches in all disciplines, Yopp said. These coaches help teachers put in place the curriculums and reforms that have been adopted since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001.

Schools can hire whomever they want to become an instructional coach, whether it's a professional coach or knowledgeable teacher already working at the schoool, Burroughs said.

"There's not really a common definition of what an instructional coach does, and there's not much high-quality research on coaching effectiveness out there," she said.

One hope is that the MSU study will give schools some criteria to work with during the hiring process, Burroughs said.

This fall, the professors will begin to collect information from classrooms in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and other states. Yopp, Burroughs and the other faculty members working on the study will evaluate what the teachers in those classrooms already know and what techniques they use with their classes. That information will be compared to data gathered after coaches work with the teachers.

Beginning in 2010, the researchers will begin training 60 instructional coaches to use a common set of coaching practices and techniques. They will also work to teach the coaches more about math itself. Each of those coaches will work with three teachers in the field, Yopp said.

Some of the grant money will be used to train the study's instructional coaches and to develop methods to collect and analyze data about coaches' performance. Other grant money will go to stipends for the coaches and teachers involved and to observers who will be gathering data in the studied classrooms, Yopp said.

In addition to Burroughs and Yopp, MSU mathematics professors Warren Esty, Mark Greenwood and Jennifer Luebeck are working on the project, as well as researchers at RMC Research Corporation in Denver.

The grant comes from the NSF's Discovery Research K-12 program, which focuses on improving science, technology, engineering and math learning for students and teachers. Out of about 340 proposals submitted, only 15 percent of them were funded, including the MSU project, Yopp said.

Projects funded by the DR K-12 program are meant to challenge existing assumptions about learning and teaching and explore new methods to help students and teachers in the future.

Contact: David Yopp at 406-994-3123 or yopp@math.montana.edu.

September 4, 2009