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Utah: In Mint Condition

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Using intensive professional development and technology-poweredstrategies, Utah’s eMINTS program is polishing up the performanceof students in high-poverty schools across the state.

MONTY, A STUDENT in the Salt Lake City School District, was absent a large percentage of the time during his third-grade year, but he had a perfect attendance record in fourth grade. At his midyear parent-teacher conference, his mother commented to the teacher, “I don’t know what you’ve done different in school this year, but my son wakes me up inthe morning to make sure I get him to school.”

What made the difference for Monty was the rigorous professional development and support his teacher, Carol Braegger, was receiving. Braegger spent four intensive hours after school every other Wednesday for two years, learning how to use cooperative learning and question-asking strategies to generate higher-order thinking from her students. She also learned how to design technology-infused classroom projects for teams of students. In addition, Braegger had a mentor come into her classroom twice a month to lend a hand with implementing or perfecting the strategies she was working on at each training session.

One other critical element was behind Monty’s change in attitude toward school: technology. His fourth-grade classroom had a 2-to-1 student-to-computer ratio. The student computers arrived in January. By then, Braegger had become expert in cooperative learning methods, designing student-centered activities, and applying technology in the classroom.

Braegger, like 40 other teachers across five Utah school districts, was participating in the professional development component of eMINTS (enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies), a state program targeting high-poverty schools. The eMINTS philosophy supports transforming teaching using inquiry-based methods and strategies powered by technology. Utah selected eMINTS as one of five models for its school districts to use for the competitive grant program available through Enhancing Education Through Technology funds. According to Kathy Webb, education specialist with the Utah State Office of Education, Utah chose eMINTS partly because of the success Missouri had with the program (see “Making a Difference One Student at a Time,” July 2005), and because the program fit Utah’s own approach toward teaching and learning. Five districts— two rural and three urban—partnered to write for a competitive grant from the state, receiving $1.6 million over two years to replicate Missouri’s eMINTS professional development model. Although no matching funds were required for the grant, each of the five districts chose to provide professional development to additional teachers using district funds, starting their two-year cycle in 2004-2005.

In the Classroom

So what does an eMINTS classroom look like? The first noticeable difference from a traditional classroom is the number of computers within easy reach of the students. The second difference is the presence of student teams working in various group roles on projects. The teacher has a laptop connected to a data projector and an interactive whiteboard— either an Interwrite School Board or a Smart Board. You’ll also find a classroom printer, a scanner, and a digital camera. What you won’t see is drill-and-practice software, or other content-rich software. Each student computer has an office suite, a graphical mapping tool, a web browser, and multimedia creation tools. Most apparent is the teacher’s use of classroom management strategies to focus student attention on learning goals.

Case Studies: UtahBraegger’s students remain linked to her classroom even when they are outside it. Like other eMINTS teachers, Braegger has a classroom web page called MyEDesk, where she posts timely links to assessments, curriculum projects including webquests, and other student-focused instructional resources. When Braegger wants her students to do research over the internet, they go to her website and use the links there to lead them to high-quality and relevant online resources.

Getting Results

A critical component of student achievement is understanding, as precisely as possible, how well students are doing in relation to the state standards. So, in addition to providing teachers with professional development on cooperative learning, questioning strategies, and technology, eMINTS also helps them learn how to conduct focused formative assessment. Utah has a stateadopted core curriculum, developed with a scope and sequence by which concepts are to be taught during each school year.

The state provides a pool of test items correlated to the core curriculum. Teachers learn how to draw items from the pool and construct assessments targeting specific standards and objectives in the core curriculum. Many students in high-access classrooms such as Braegger’s use open-source online software called UTIPS (Utah Test Item Pool Server), which contains the test item pool from the Utah State Office of Education.

Utah’s end-of-level test results bear out the impact that coupling professional development with technology can have on student achievement. For example, in 2005-2006, the statewide end-of-level proficiency pass rate for mathematics in fourth grade was 73.6 percent; the rate for students in eMINTS classrooms was 57.2 percent.

This seems disappointing until one compares the performance of students in non-eMINTS classrooms in the same grade in the same schools. Their math proficiency pass rate was 43.3 percent— almost a 14 percent difference and statistically significant. The same positive trend was seen in language arts and science in eMINTS classrooms for grades 4-6. Students in high-poverty schools with eMINTS teachers are closing the achievement gap faster than those who don’t have the benefit of classroom computers and intense professional development.

Building on Success

The same five districts, plus three others (two urban and one rural), joined to write a second grant proposal for Utah’s competition for years 2005-2006 and 2006-2007.

With the grant money, another group of teachers is now receiving eMINTS’ rigorous two-year professional development, as well as access to the program’s technology. In total, Utah now has 93 classrooms where students have high access to technology, run by teachers who know how to maximize these tools for student achievement.

Rachel Murphy, the Utah eMINTS coordinator, says the professional development scope and sequence is “mostly about becoming a better teacher, not just about learning technology skills.” She says teachers who go through this training are reenergized about their classrooms and students. Some teachers who are close to retirement age have decided to stay in the classroom for a few extra years because they are having fun again.

In light of its student successes, Monroe Elementary School in the Granite School District has committed a portion of its Title I funds to providing eMINTS professional development for every teacher in the school beginning next year. Rachel Mutterer, a third-grade teacher in the district, has completed the two years of professional development. “Having a mentor helps me put the things we learn about into practice,” she says. “There’s help in my class with my students, and there’s accountability. Since I know the mentor will be coming to my classroom to help me implement the strategies, I know I will have support to dowhat we’ve been learning in our after-school sessions.”

Because the students in eMINTS classrooms are outperforming students with similar demographics, another Utah professional development initiative meant just for administrators— Leadership in Technology—includes a visit to an eMINTS classroom to see how a classroom with high access to technology and a well-prepared teacher operates.

Teachers are the key to successful classrooms. For school to be engaging and productive for our students, each teacher needs to be adept at designing the learning environment— doing authentic projects, fostering collaborative peer-to-peer interaction, utilizing quality learning resources, and teaching to the whole classroom without losing focus on individual student strengths and weaknesses. Effective teachers create a climate in their classrooms that generates self-motivated students who want to attend to their studies and stretch themselves. That’s what happened for Monty, and what is now happening for hundreds of other students across Utah.

Rick Gaisford is an educational technology specialist with the Utah State Office of Education and Kathleen Webb is an online content and tools specialist with the Utah State Office of Education.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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