(Rural Education Aligned for Learning)
Project REAL (Rural Education Aligned for Learning) began in the summer of 1999 as an intervention for six troubled school districts in rural southeastern (Appalachian) Ohio. The Ohio Department of Education had classified each of these districts as under academic emergency or academic watch. Unless these districts improved, they risked state takeover.
The primary goal of Project REAL was to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics and science. The primary method of encouraging this improvement was through professional development activities for teachers, including intensive summer workshops and inservice seminars. Project REAL activities were designed to promote engaged learning for students through hands-on, authentic tasks, and thus increase not only basic mathematics and science skills but also higher-order thinking skills. Leadership teams in the district were charged with focusing the improvement efforts of the district. The teams comprised two mathematics teachers, two science teachers, and one administrator per district. By the end of the fourth year, all districts were off both academic emergency and academic watch lists, and two of the districts were recognized for their exemplary academic performance.
Interviews and surveys of Project REAL participants revealed that several factors contributed to achievement improvements. Two assessments in particular were mentioned by almost everyone. A qualitative curriculum audit that included classroom observations was very important because it provided districts with an objective perspective of curriculum and instructional practices. Using the Horizon protocols developed for reviewing National Science Foundation projects, the curriculum audit revealed that instruction in most classrooms primarily consisted of teachers' lectures and worksheets filled out individually by students.
The North Central Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Consortium (NCEMSC) conducted a quantitative audit that revealed very significant differences in subscore area achievement. The required Ohio Proficiency Tests were used as the benchmark because these tests were most significant for determining whether districts would remain in either academic emergency or academic watch. The analysis revealed serious misalignment between the Ohio Proficiency Tests and the curriculum materials and instruction provided in most of the Project REAL schools. The materials and instructional strategies used in the schools covered only four of the seven areas emphasized on the Ohio Proficiency Tests in both mathematics and science. Although the districts exceeded state averages in three areas and scored near average on a fourth, they scored extremely poorly in the other three areas. Generally, Project REAL students scored much better on more concrete topics (such as number operations and science facts) than they did on more cognitive topics (such as probability and science processes).
The quantitative and qualitative assessments clearly indicated the need for different curriculum materials and instructional strategies. In addition, Project REAL teachers credited the inclusion of new materials and instructional strategies for the increase in achievement. NCEMSC and the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL) provided information about the research implications of various materials and how some either did or did not address some of the needs revealed in the assessments. In choosing new curriculum materials, most of the districts selected Foundational Approaches in Science Teaching (FAST) Science and Active Physics in science, and Connected Mathematics and Cognitive Tutor Algebra in mathematics. These science and mathematics programs had some of the strongest research foundations and positive student learning results of the many curriculum options considered.
Teachers then participated in one to four weeks of professional development on the use of these materials, taught by sanctioned presenters who were experts in these programs. In subsequent summer academies, NCEMSC and NCREL contracted with the Ohio Mathematics and Science Network to provide grade-level-appropriate resources and professional development in those areas and concepts in which Project REAL students were having the most difficulty. NCREL staff provided technology-supported resources and lessons used to teach other difficult-to-learn concepts through interactive and application examples. NCEMSC and NCREL staff or consultants led many of the early professional development efforts. However, each year more and more of the presentations were led by Project REAL teachers, so that by the fourth summer, they were doing more than 80 percent of the presentations.
Another important but less easy to document variable involved a change in the psychological mindset of both educators and students about the inherent educational abilities of Appalachian students. It is very apparent that educators and students are beginning to believe that they can excel in academics irrespective of the high poverty found in five of the six districts. Teachers now talk about high expectations and standards for all their students, and excuses blaming the high-poverty backgrounds of students are seldom mentioned.
Successful Technology Tools Used in Project REAL
In 2003, Project REAL used three technology tools as professional development materials with teacher participants. Those tools include Teacher to Teacher: Reshaping Instruction Through Lesson Study; the Exemplary Lesson format. which was created for developing exemplary or model Ohio standard-linked lessons (see an example of a lesson format and samples of exemplary lessons at the beginning of this introduction); and the Ohio Resource Center Web Site. These three tools were intended to help project teachers find strategies to teach difficult-to-learn concepts their students were struggling with. Each of the technology tools provided needed supplemental support to help students reach desired levels of understanding in various content areas.