Evidence-based reading instruction and professional development for math teachers are among the priorities the U.S. Department of Education is supporting with its latest round of grants focused on piloting and scaling up promising academic recovery strategies.
The department announced $277 million in awards for 45 nonprofit organizations, state education agencies, and universities through the Education Innovation and Research grant program on Tuesday, Dec. 5. The grant program, which the Trump administration used to replace the Obama administration’s Investing in Innovation grants in 2017, funds projects that aim to by develop, replicate, or scale up innovative strategies for improving student achievement.
Amid a youth mental health crisis, record-low academic achievement, and the rapid ascendance of artificial intelligence, this year’s grants are focused on addressing those pressing challenges, an Education Department news release said.
Specifically, the grant awards include $90.3 million for innovations in STEM instruction, $87.2 million for student social-emotional well-being, and $76.5 million for projects in rural areas.
Improving math achievement
Multiple grant recipients plan to use funds to address declining math achievement.
Results of the 2022 NAEP math and reading exam revealed a nearly two-decade loss in progress among 4th and 8th grade students, with academic declines sweeping the entire spectrum of students, including both low-income and wealthy students, boys and girls, and most racial and ethnic groups. All students either stayed flat or fell behind on the math exam that year.
Earlier this week, results from the 2022 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, showed American teenagers falling behind their international peers in math.
The Education Development Center, a nonprofit that focuses on education, health, and economic challenges globally, plans to use its $15 million grant to expand its Math for All program, which provides professional development to improve math outcomes for high-need students, such as students with disabilities.
EDC, in collaboration with Bank Street College of Education, has operated Math for All since 2003, but the grant will allow it to grow beyond an initial set of schools in Illinois, New Jersey, and New York to include schools in Montana and New Mexico. The center is also partnering with three postsecondary institutions—Montana’s Salish Kootenai College, which serves a predominantly Native American student body, as well as New Mexico State University and Illinois’ National Louis University, which both serve predominantly Hispanic student bodies—to improve teacher education around math instruction.
The EDC will help faculty at those schools “incorporate the ideas that are embedded in the program into their pre-service teacher education programs so that we’re not just constantly fixing a problem after the fact but helping teachers learn about inclusive mathematics instruction from the get-go,” said Babette Moeller, a distinguished scholar at EDC who leads Math for All.
The goal is to give schools long-lasting and sustainable tools to improve math instruction rather than react to declining achievement after it happens, Moeller said.
“There have been performance differences in mathematics for a long time,” Moeller said. “The pandemic has made it worse, but it’s also provided a wake-up call. So let’s not go back to where we were, but let’s try to figure out a way we can improve the system so that we really address those differences and help students be more successful.”
Another recipient, the Concord Consortium, an educational research and development nonprofit in Concord, Mass., will focus on the use of AI in math, the Education Department said. The consortium will launch a program focused in part on training teachers on the use of AI in math instruction and curriculum.
The consortium is the second recipient of an EIR grant specifically focused on AI in education. Texas A&M received a $15 million EIR grant in 2022 for its Turning Around Schools program, which trains teachers and district leaders to use an AI platform that predicts school performance.
Helping students catch up in reading
Other organizations plan to use the grant funding to address reading challenges.
As with math, students saw record drops in reading scores on the 2022 NAEP exams. More schools have responded by adopting and promoting “the science of reading,” a broad movement to align reading instruction with the research on how students learn to read.
WestEd, an organization that researches teaching and learning, plans to use its $8 million award to launch a professional development project and update its reading curriculum, the Reading Apprenticeship for Academic Literacy, which is focused on teaching 8th and 9th grade students. The organization will also work with schools in Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and Utah to train teachers on improving reading skills among 8th and 9th graders.
“We know, especially due to some pandemic-related school closures, more students than ever in 8th and 9th grades are coming in with some gaps in their preparation in some of the foundational skills, both earlier forms of phonics but also in the later forms of morphology,” Linda Friedrich, director of literacy programs at WestEd, said referring to the study of how words are formed through root words, prefixes, and suffixes.
While she doesn’t consider the intervention to technically fall under the “science of reading” umbrella because it serves older students, Friedrich said the curriculum helps older students who have missed out on some of the “science of reading” components catch up.
“A lot of what we’re hearing today … is that teachers are really seeing students, now more than ever, come in and really not having the experience with reading texts at the level of complexity that is necessary to succeed,” Friedrich said.