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NSF funds national research on rural mathematics education

NSF funds national research on rural mathematics education
Pioneering research to forge pathways for enhanced mathematics instruction in rural schools

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $3 million over four years to fund groundbreaking research exploring the current conditions, challenges and resources associated with middle school mathematics education in rural areas across the United States. The grant will support the research team, led by the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, in shedding light on the unique circumstances educators face in rural settings and providing valuable recommendations to enhance mathematics instruction in these communities.

The NSF’s award marks a substantial stride in tackling the pressing education challenges faced by rural school communities exacerbated by geographic remoteness and limited access to resources, according to Jeffrey Choppin, professor at the Warner School serving as the project’s principal investigator.

“In rural school settings, relative to their better-resourced suburban peers, students often underperform in mathematics, hindering their journeys and opportunities within STEM fields,” says Choppin. “We aim to narrow these disparities by enhancing the quality and rigor of middle school mathematics education in rural communities. By targeting the middle-grade levels (grades 5 to 9), we hope to close that gap early on and ultimately impact thousands of students, teachers and communities nationwide. This initiative represents a crucial step toward aligning rural mathematics education with national and global standards, thereby fostering economic competitiveness in these regions.”

The project is part of the Warner School’s Center for Professional Development and Education Reform and will consist of a team of researchers, advisors and professional development providers. The team, led by Choppin and co-principal investigators Julie Amador, from the University of Idaho, and Daniel Heck, from Horizon Research, Inc., has two primary goals. First, they aim to understand the current state of mathematics curriculum and instruction in rural middle schools. Secondly, they seek to discern the factors that either facilitate or impede efforts to implement and deliver rigorous mathematics teaching and learning.

To achieve these goals, the research team will conduct a national survey, reaching a diverse group of 1,000 rural middle school mathematics educators, teacher leaders and administrators across the United States during the project’s first phase. This comprehensive national survey will serve as the cornerstone of the project, providing valuable insights into the current trends in instructional practices, curriculum materials and resources available in rural communities for mathematics education. 

Subsequently, the second phase will encompass in-depth interviews with a sample of teachers, instructional leaders and administrators who completed the survey to dive deeper into their district’s existing mathematics curriculum and instruction, their goals for their mathematics programs, the resources and opportunities at their disposal for enhancing mathematics education, and the challenges they face. 

Drawing on considerable experience in middle school mathematics education, the research team will then leverage its expertise to create and deliver rigorous online professional development to 10 rural middle schools that have expressed interest in enhancing mathematics education. These professional learning experiences will be built from the team’s prior work with rural mathematics teachers and coaches through the Synchronous Online Professional Learning Experiences (or SyncOn) for teachers project and the SyncOn for coaches project, both supported by NSF grants totaling $5.5 million. As part of the third phase, the team will also investigate how the available resources and constraints in rural settings impact the successful implementation of this professional development model. 

In the project’s final phase, the team will collaborate with policymakers to analyze the influence of state and federal education policies on mathematics instruction within rural settings. Additionally, a pivotal component involves convening a Rural Landscape Conference, where 30 to 40 rural educators and stakeholders—including state and regional education policymakers—will participate in dialogue shaped by the study’s findings. The primary objective is to produce actionable recommendations to elevate the quality of mathematics instruction in rural areas. Furthermore, the conference will establish networks facilitating the ongoing exchange and curation of resources among rural educators, extending the project’s impact beyond its intended four-year timeframe. 

Throughout the four-year project, the team will disseminate research findings in a timely manner in the form of white papers, technical reports, and practitioner- and research-focused presentations and articles. 

The funding is part of NSF’s Discovery Research PreK-12 (DRK-12) program, which seeks to significantly enhance the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by preK-12 students and teachers, through research and development of innovative resources, models and tools. Projects in the DRK-12 program build on fundamental research in STEM education and prior research and development efforts that provide theoretical and empirical justification for proposed projects.