back to the front page
National Center
for Improving Student Learning and Achievement in Mathematics and Science (NCISLA)



...builds on earlier research

...promotes learning with understanding

...connects with policy and practice

...produces results


The Center has conducted an intensive, nationally coordinated research program ó in collaboration with teachers ó to advance effective reform of K-12 mathematics and science.

Charged by the U.S. Department of Education in 1995 to build a solid research base about ways instruction can be improved, Center researchers have worked with teachers and diverse student populations to develop new mathematics and science learning environments and professional development models. They investigated:

  • student reasoning
  • mathematics and science instruction
  • student assessment
  • teacher professional development and "travel" to new school sites
  • school features that support learning and achievement

The Centerís work has yielded classroom-based findings about effective instruction and new professional development models for sustained student learning and achievement in mathematics and science.

Significant results indicate that diverse students can excel in classrooms that support inquiry and exploration. These also provide insight about ways that teachers and schools can be better supported in their efforts to advance student learning and achievement.

Building on earlier research

The Centerís research and professional development work has built on more than two decades of studies conducted by researchers affiliated with several institutions, including:

Supporting students' learning with understanding

The Center's research has aimed to identify ways that students can learn mathematics and science with understanding. To this end, researchers designed and evaluated instruction that can enhance students' abilities to connect ideas and concepts and apply what they know to new situations and phenomena. Researchers reasoned that these abilities, in addition to students' mastery of basic skills, are vital for students facing an increasingly complex world.

During America's industrial age, mathematics and science instruction was designed to meet the demands of citizens whose work lives changed relatively little over their lifetimes. In the 21st century, the situation has changed dramatically. Our society has become technologically and information-driven, and our students need to know more than the basics in mathematics and science to cope with accelerating changes.

Ideally, schooling should enable students to reason competently, think constructively, and understand key ideas in mathematics and science. The Center's work has aimed to identify ways that schools can prepare students to comprehend and manage new information, technologies, and ever more complex problems as these emerge throughout their lifetimes. This aim has driven our in-class studies and close examination of student understanding, assessment strategies, and teachers' practices.

web site...MORE on Learning with Understanding (HTML)

...MORE on Learning with Understanding (PDF)

Connecting research with practice and standards

Center researchers have played key roles in the development of standards for mathematics (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) and science education standards (National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council). They also have developed curricula and professional development programs related to those standards (e.g., Mathematics in Context and Cognitively Guided Instruction).

In addition, Center researchers have contributed directly to the development of new forms of assessments (e.g., Organization of Economic and Cultural Developmentís PISA), and have worked with technical assistance organizations like the North Central Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Consortium (NCEMSC) at Learning Point Associates, Midwest Comprehensive Regional Assistance Center and the Phoenix Systemic Initiative to deliver professional development programs and a multimedia product based on Center researchersí work.


Producing results

Center researchers have analyzed results from eight years of in-class research and professional development work. Findings and principles have been summarized in a book, Understanding Mathematics and Science Matters (in press 2004 at Earlbaum publishers) ? and in several journal articles, book chapters, and the Centerís multimedia product, Powerful Practices in Mathematics and Science. A brief summary of emergent research-based principles is below. See also the Centerís publications page.

For example, we have found that:

  • children are capable of learning more complex ideas at earlier ages than traditionally believed possible.
  • student achievement cannot be considered apart from teachersí professional development.
  • teachers need more substantive professional development about student thinking and subject matter.
  • standardized tests, though psychometrically sound, do not adequately assess studentsí long-term growth of knowledge nor depth of understanding.

Findings about Student Achievement

What is student achievement? Center research clearly has shown that student achievement involves much more than the ability to solve textbook problems, learn facts, or pass current versions of standardized tests. Achievement means that students should be able to:

  • learn to engage in mathematical and scientific inquiry.
  • understand relationships among big ideas in mathematics and science.
  • put their knowledge to use in situations removed from the original learning context.

Research has indicated that:

  • even young children can grasp mathematical generalizations (early algebra, early geometry) and the roles of models and modeling in science.
  • different forms of disciplinary argument are accessible to students at different ages.
  • appropriate instruction can enable students to connect everyday reasoning and arguments about natural phenomena.
  • models and modeling can provide students early access to scientific and mathematical reasoning.
  • even first-grade children can invent and revise models of natural phenomena (e.g., models of growth and decomposition, "working" elbows).

Center studies have indicated that it is feasible to introduce school children to powerful ideas in mathematics and science as early as the primary grades. Our research thus compels a close examination of what is traditionally considered appropriate school mathematics and science.

Findings about Teacher Professional Development

Center researchers worked from the premise that teachersí knowledge of student thinking is a cornerstone of professional development. In our work with teachers, we have observed the ways that teachers examined student thinking about important mathematics and science ideas, and how their observations about student thinking enhance their classroom instruction and strengthened students' learning.

Research indicates that:

  • teaching for understanding involves a significant reorientation of teacher beliefs and the acquisition of new forms of pedagogical and content knowledge.
  • to be productive, teachersí investigations of student thinking needs to be anchored in their own deepening understanding of powerful ideas in mathematics and science.
  • when teachers commit to understanding student thinking, their classroom practices change and significant improvements in student achievement result.
  • teacher inquiry into student thinking can become a generative, ongoing activity that sustains teachersí long-term professional development.
  • traditional efforts to help teachers develop as professionals, such as one-shot workshops, are inadequate and contradict what is known about human learning.

  • teachersí inquiry does not survive well in isolation.

  • teacher professional communities are critical to sustaining and generating teacher professional development, for many of the same reasons that mathematicians and scientists conduct their work within larger communities of inquiry.

Strategies for creating teacher communities to support inquiry and sustained professional development vary widely, but successful strategies all involve substantial restructuring of schooling to enhance collaboration between teachers and administrators. We have observed that such restructuring can provide teachers the necessary resources to conduct practical inquiry in their classrooms and to share the results of their learning with their colleagues and community.

Findings about School Structures that Support Teacher Change

Just as we have found that teacher professional development and communities are crucial for long-term reform, we have also found that the creation and maintenance of such communities is influenced by the supports provided by schools and districts.

Our research indicates that:

  • resources provided by district and school administrations are essential for the long-term sustainability of teaching reforms. Essential resources include:

    • release time for teacher collaboration
    • material supports, such as curriculum and technological tools
    • a work environment that supports teacher decision-making

  • schools and districts enhance their capacity for reform if they promote:

    • teacher leadership
    • administrative roles recast as facilitators rather than managers
    • changes in the allocation of time during the school day
    • materials to implement new teaching practices
    • resources modified to fit new teaching endeavors

  • when schools and districts allow new roles to emerge, they foster new human and social resources. Schools and districts that force new initiatives to conform to existing arrays of resources, however, risk stifling potential change.
  • even relatively small infusions of resources, when used productively, can support significant change. Conversely, even substantial commitments of resources, if used inappropriately, can fail to support change.

Because teachers often find it difficult to manage the added time burdens that leadership and participatory decision-making require, designs for reform will need to include means for reducing other aspects of teachersí obligations.