Guiding Practice with Evaluation and Research

by Cindy Tananis and Keith Trahan

Created in 2006, the Collaborative for Evaluation and Assessment Capacity (CEAC) is a collaborative workspace housed within the School of Education’s Department of Administration and Policy Studies. Director and Associate Professor Cindy Tananis, along with Assistant Director Keith Trahan, are leading a team of graduate and undergraduate students on nine current evaluation and research projects scheduled for the 2014-2015 academic year. These projects range from large-scale federally funded projects to small local non-profit initiatives. Two of CEAC’s most notable projects this year are Early Learning of Math through Media (ELM2) and Propel School’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21CCLC). 
The Early Learning of Math through Media project is a joint development and research effort of The Fred Rogers Company, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s (AIU) Head Start and Math & Science Collaborative programs, and CEAC. The media grant builds on compelling evidence that early exposure to STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) cultivates children’s critical thinking and reasoning skills and enhances later interest in STEM study and careers. Too few parents, teachers, and children believe that young children have the capacity to learn and be competent in math, and such attitudes reflect the discomfort many parents and educators bring to dealing with the subject. In fact, ELM2 compared its findings to research literature suggesting that early childhood educators have negative attitudes, low self-efficacy, and little content knowledge in math, based on their lack of familiarity and training in the content area. In addition, preschool teachers spend only 7 percent of instructional time on the subject. 
Novel efforts to enhance interest and ability in STEM are important to improving education in the 21st century. Using Peg+Cat, a math-based television series for preschoolers, is being used in professional development (PD) for 58 Head Start teachers and their supervisors. These teachers participated in ten days of PD, developed by the Math Science Collaborative and Head Start staff at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in partnership with The Fred Rogers Company, to improve attitudes and confidence about math, increase understanding of math content and skills, and improve pedagogical content knowledge and instructional practices. Training occurred this summer and will continue through the school year to allow teachers to explore use in the classroom. A family engagement component, Peg+Cat+Us, is also being used with parent activity days to further support learning at home.
CEAC also serves as external evaluator on Propel School’s—a series of charter schools in Pittsburgh—learning centers grant. This fund supports the creation of community learning centers within schools that provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools. The evaluation will assist Propel in developing and expanding a comprehensive and sustainable afterschool program focusing on improving student achievement and behavior and increasing parental involvement.
Research shows that successful afterschool programs must have well-qualified trained staff, connect programming to the regular school day curriculum, provide one-on-one tutoring, and mix enrichment and academic activities. Additionally, afterschool programs that promote and foster a sense of belonging to the program, parental engagement, and connectedness to teachers and classrooms will see better outcomes in terms of student engagement, student achievement, and behaviors. The program serves a population of 1,124 students, where more than 60 percent of students identified themselves as Black, African American, or Multiracial. Program sites are situated in two economically distressed communities, where almost 40 percent of the households live below the poverty level. In these contexts, an afterschool program that provides academic support and enrichment opportunities is seen as invaluable for improving students’ futures.
CEAC conducts a mixed methods evaluation to provide program administrators with vital feedback for adjusting and improving the program while attempting to connect out-of-school activities to outcomes in the classroom. The data used included student assessment scores, attendance records, suspension and expulsion rates, parent surveys, and student focus group data to investigate the following questions. 
  1. Did student participation in academic enrichment improve their academic achievement? 
  2. Did student participation in additional services, programs, and activities improve their behavior? 
  3. Did family opportunities improve family engagement? 
  4. Did family opportunities improve student behavior and achievement? 
Between professional development for the teachers, in-class TV for increasing student interest in STEM, and afterschool programs, CEAC is heavily working in and out of schools in the Pittsburgh area to improve overall education at various levels.