Evaluation of the Maryland Virtual High Schools CoreModels Project: Year Two Report

September 1, 1999

The CoreModels Project brings together, into a single program, a range of challenges that are often addressed individually: technology integration, standards-based science curriculum development, and peer-supported professional development. CoreModels is run by and for classroom teachers, and it involves teachers in a range of activities, including writing curriculum, building expertise with classroom technology, enhancing science pedagogy, and building peer support skills. By blending these components, CoreModels moves beyond being only a technology-focused project or only a curriculum development project, and becomes an innovative model of how teachers can, given appropriate supports, work together to improve and expand upon their practices, their resources, and their expectations for themselves and their students.

The specific challenge addressed by the CoreModels team is creating an effective infrastructure to support the broad-based adoption of computer-based modeling tools and curricula that support students and teachers in engaging in systems thinking. A wide range of research projects as well as theoretical perspectives on science learning suggest that systems thinking, supported by computer-based model construction, is a promising approach to engaging students in critical inquiry into the dynamics of complex systems (Forrester, 1994; Gordin & Pea, 1995; Krajcik, Soloway, Blumenfeld, & Marx, 1998; Mandinach, 1994). Previous research has also found, however, that introducing modeling into science classrooms is impeded by the need to connect systems thinking concepts to existing curricular content, teachers' lack of familiarity with the systems thinking approach, and inadequate access to appropriate technologies (Mandinach, 1994). A key goal of the CoreModels program is to implement a multifaceted program that invites teachers into systems thinking, and provides them with the appropriate supports as they begin to implement it in their classrooms.

CoreModels builds on previous experiences of the Maryland Virtual High School (MVHS) staff. The CoreModels project was designed to build on what had been learned through the MVHS project and to emphasize three features that were judged to be of particular promise but had been lacking in that project.

The CoreModels project invites teachers into using modeling for science learning by providing examples. In previous experiences with MVHS and other programs, the CoreModels staff had found that even teachers who had received extensive training with STELLA (a modeling tool that supports systems thinking) or other pieces of software rarely integrated them extensively into their curriculum or their day-to-day classroom practice. Teachers reported that while they could see the usefulness of these tools in the abstract, they had not been exposed to any of their concrete applications that were directly applicable to their classroom circumstances. In response to this obstacle to leveraging change in teachers' classroom practice through the introduction of new software tools, the CoreModels project provides its participating teachers with a suite of "packets," or units, of curriculum materials that address diverse content areas through modeling and systems thinking.

CoreModels training and materials development is all done by teachers in peer-to-peer teams and groups. Research on professional development strongly suggests that teachers want to learn, and learn best, from other teachers (National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, 1996). The CoreModels project builds on the experiences of the Maryland Virtual High School, which has always been teacher-run, and responds to the need for more peer-to-peer professional development opportunities. The project is designed as a three-tiered organization of teachers, all within the state of Maryland. In addition to a Project Director, the project has three Center Directors, each responsible for one region of the state of Maryland (Western, Central, and Northern); 8 Supporting Teachers, spread across the three regions, who are expected to help the Center Directors develop materials and provide one-on-one peer support to project participants; and 30 Participating Teachers, who are trained in using STELLA, make use of the CoreModels packets, and are invited to participate in one-on-one peer-support relationships with Supporting Teachers. Two of the Center Directors have each received half-time relief from teaching, but continue to work half-time in their own classrooms, while the Project Director and one Center Director are released full-time from teaching.

The CoreModels materials are keyed to the Maryland Core Learning Goals and are designed to help teachers meet these learning goals in their teaching. The MVHS project, and many others, have found that teachers often see technology-rich tools and curricular components to be interesting, but fundamentally peripheral to the "business" of teaching a core curriculum. However, expectations of teachers and curriculum are changing in many ways. One of the central shifts is the dramatic growth in interest, nationwide, in setting standards for what and how students should learn.

Like other states across the country, Maryland is placing an increasing emphasis on state standards as a means to increase uniformity and rigor in standards and expectations for student learning across the state. Teachers in Maryland, like other teachers confronted with increasing pressure to demonstrate the fit between their curriculum and the standards, are in urgent need of new materials, resources, and teaching methods that will help them to engage with a range of content with their students in ways that are, and can be demonstrated to be, consistent with the state learning standards.

The CoreModels project responds to this need by providing teachers with a set of exemplary curricular units, which can be pursued on their own or in the context of existing curricula, and were specifically designed to meet state standards and to produce student work which can be evaluated according to those standards.

Consequently, teachers understand the materials and software they are exposed to through this program to be immediately relevant to their current curricular concerns and are more likely to integrate them into their overall curriculum.

The Evaluation of CoreModels
The evaluation of CoreModels focuses on three main themes, corresponding to the key features of the CoreModels program

  • Changes in teacher practices. CoreModels is designed to introduce teachers to new resources, new curricular materials, and new ways of approaching traditional science concepts. If teachers engage deeply with the systems thinking approach embodied in STELLA and the CoreModels curricular units, and implement them extensively, these changes should have a demonstrable impact on their beliefs and practices.

  • The efficacy of the program's key components - mentoring relationships, workshops, and online discussions - as professional development mechanisms for teachers. The CoreModels program offers multiple sources of support to teachers. If these supports are logistically viable and appropriately tailored to the needs and interests of the teachers, they should lead teachers to engage with one another constructively and substantively; to explore new concepts, materials, and skills; and to feel comfortable experimenting with unfamiliar techniques in their classrooms.

  • The impact of the program on student learning. If the teacher development model, the modeling and simulation tools, and the sample curriculum units being developed are working together effectively, it should be possible to demonstrate in a sample of classes that students are engaging with and understanding certain key concepts about the nature of dynamic systems and of modeling as a methodology for exploration and analysis.

Key evaluation tasks for Year 2 included the following:

  • Interviews with key project team members and observations of workshops and meetings;

  • Periodic interviews and classroom visits with a subgroup of participating teachers;

  • Administration of a survey in fall 1998 and spring 1999;

  • Continued support of discussions of student learning goals and the development of assessment components for CoreModels curriculum units.

The following sections will outline tasks accomplished to date in each of these areas and discuss relevant findings from Year 2 related to each area. Because this is the final formative evaluation report for this program (before a summative evaluation report in Year 3), this report will place a primary emphasis on findings related to the efficacy of the program components, with the intention of providing the project team with information that can help them to continue to refine and improve the program during Year 3. The other two project goals will be discussed in terms of progress being made and preliminary evidence of impact of the program. In the final section of the report, plans for Year 3 research are outlined, followed by a discussion and recommendations for further program refinement and development.


Katherine Culp
Wendy Friedman