WWU researchers to study math, science teaching methods in area schools


Sumas Elementary School

Sumas Elementary School teacher Sarah Condreay hands out new math notebooks to her fifth-grade class on Aug. 30, 2012. Condreay teaches fifth-grade math and science at the school, which is in the Nooksack Valley School District.


Starting this fall, researchers from Western Washington University will study local elementary school math and science teaching methods in an attempt to figure out if specialists - those who teach only one or two subjects - are more effective than those who are expected to teach all subject areas.

The three-year project, funded by a $449,957 grant from the National Science Foundation, will compare math and science instruction models currently in place in the Anacortes, Bellingham, Burlington-Edison, Ferndale, Nooksack Valley and Sedro-Woolley districts.

Elementary school teachers have traditionally been generalists, teaching all subject areas to students in the same classroom.

"What's challenging for elementary teachers with the traditional model is that they need to be experts in everything," said Kimberly Markworth, principal investigator for the project and assistant professor of mathematics education at WWU.

Markworth has experience teaching fourth, fifth and eighth grades. Even at the elementary level, teaching several subjects can be complex, she said.

"It's a really challenging model, especially with the emphasis on standards," Markworth said. "It's a lot to ask of them - planning to teach five subjects every day."

Markworth will work with Chris Ohana, associate professor of elementary education in WWU's Woodring College of Education, and Ruth Parker of the Mathematics Education Collaborative in Ferndale. The three researchers will study specialists who already teach in Skagit and Whatcom county schools, and compare them to a matched comparison group of generalists, Markworth said.

Each participating teacher will be asked to fill out surveys that detail their work schedules (e.g. how many hours per week they teach math or science and how many classes they teach each day) and take a content knowledge assessment.

The researchers will then observe each teacher in the classroom and study student test scores from end-of-the-year exams, Markworth said.

"Hopefully what will come out of this is an understanding of how to support teachers so they can really be effective," Markworth said.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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