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Schooling Success
UMass researchers exercise the power of students' potential for education outcomes
Apple, books, and blackboard.

“If you can use self-directional capabilities, cooperative skills, and self-
motivation to learn math, you can use them to learn anything.”
–John Carey

After decades of research and millions of dollars spent on improving student test scores and classroom teaching, results are beginning to plateau. Improvements in student test scores are slowing dramatically—a phenomenon observed in schools across the country. John Carey, director of the UMass Amherst School of Education Center for School Counseling Outcome Research (CSCOR) believes a fundamental refocus of our attention to students’ learning behavior—plus a focus on the instructors—will exercise the power of students’ potential for better results.

Educational programming experts have devoted much time and effort to improving content—for math skills and reading comprehension—by fiddling with curriculum and new models of instruction, but they often leave out the biggest piece of the  equation: the learner. How does the learner behave? “Wouldn’t it be better,” Carey asks, “if students had the organizational skills to keep themselves motivated—or if they weren’t that they could get themselves motivated?”

John Carey, Center for School Counseling Outcome Research

CSCOR, in collaboration with Florida Atlantic University (FAU), has received a highly selective, four-year, $2.7 million federal grant from the Institute of Educational Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, to fund the study. The research will determine the particular variables of effectiveness to a popular and successful educational “intervention,” as education psychologists refer to it. The Student Success Skills (SSS) program, developed at FAU, is designed to teach students fundamental learning, social, and self management skills.

SSS is an inexpensive, 15-week program that can be introduced to students by school counselors and teachers. It is widely used in elementary, middle, and high schools across the country, as well as in American schools in 13 countries in Central and South America. Four significant studies have supported the efficacy of the SSS program in impacting academic outcomes for students who participate in the intervention, including sizable demonstrated increases in math and reading achievement. The funding will be used to conduct a controlled trial of the intervention at an unprecedented scale.

Although its success is evident, it remains unclear which variables are generating the more proficient students. “CSCOR is central to the project because we’re a national research center,” says Carey. “What makes us special is our capacity to perform research design, instrument development, and data analysis.” CSCOR will be able to pinpoint the variables that make the SSS program work, which, at present, could be any number of reasons. The most improved students may have better classroom social skills, more disciplined study habits, or better cognitive and self-direction skills, or, likely, some combination of these factors.

For the first year, the research team will be collecting baseline data and training people to implement the program. In the second year, the intervention will roll out to approximately 3,000 fifth grade students in 30 Florida schools—a scale  proportional to drug-effectiveness testing, given the large numbers and the tight control factors. A lot of data analysis will follow, with Craig Wells, educational policy, research and administration, and Aline Sayer, psychology, joining the team to perform a specialized type of data analysis.

“The challenge with this kind of study is not only that our subjects are individuals,” says Carey, “but they are also nested within classrooms, and within schools, and within districts—which all have influences.” Without the advanced statistical  analysis to help measure these nesting effects, the results would not be as reliable.

The struggle to study personal and social cognitive behavior of learning individuals is what makes the work they’re doing so gratifying, Carey adds. The research could have life-long impact on students’ lives. “If you can use self-directional  capabilities, cooperative skills, self motivation to learn math,” he says, “you can use them to learn anything during the course of your life.”

David Bartone '12G