College of Education and Human Development - George Mason University

Early Results Show VISTA Has Significant Impact on Student and Teacher Learning

January 14, 2014

After three years in operation, the VISTA approach looks promising in delivering quality education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

To date, more than 480 elementary or secondary teachers have completed or are currently participating in Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA) professional development programs, along with 62 school division science coordinators from 82 school districts. Science education faculty members from more than half of the 35 universities with science or elementary education programs in Virginia have participated in a VISTA academy. Collectively, these professionals are impacting 625,000 students statewide.


Arlington County teacher Jeremy Farrara teaches his fourth grade class at Taylor Elementary School. Farrara recently implemented problem-base learning techniques he learned through the VISTA Program. Photo by Alexis Glenn/Creative Services/George Mason University.


In 2011-12, the first year of the VISTA program, 87 teachers and 937 students participated in the Elementary Science Institute. Results showed that economically disadvantaged students of elementary school science teachers who participated in VISTA professional development scored 14 points higher on the state science achievement test than students who had teachers that did not receive this professional development.

According to Donna Sterling, VISTA’s principal investigator and professor of science education in George Mason’s College of Education and Human Development, the student achievement results from this group of teachers confirm that VISTA is having a statistically significant and positive impact on economically disadvantaged students at the elementary level.

“These results show that the changes in classroom practice that VISTA is teaching are making improvements in students’ achievements,” says Sterling. “The program has the effect of reducing the achievement gap in fifth-grade science test scores between economically disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged groups.”

Positive effects were also seen for elementary school English language learners and students with disabilities. However, Sterling notes that sample sizes at this early point in the project were too small for those results to be statistically significant.

Additional research revealed that VISTA positively impacts teachers’ beliefs about science instruction, assessment and how students learn; their confidence in teaching; their classroom practices; and their science content knowledge. Teachers also report that the content and strategies they learned from VISTA were directly relevant to their classroom instruction and would help them improve instruction in the upcoming year.

Results are still being analyzed for the second and third years of the VISTA program, but Sterling says that early research results show a positive impact on student achievement. She also notes that VISTA is succeeding at building a strong community of practice for science education from kindergarten through college graduate-level education across the state.

“VISTA will continue to build on this success over the next two years and will roll out statewide science teacher discussion groups and other interactive communities,” says Sterling.

“A new line of VISTA implementation research just getting underway promises to yield new insights into what works in science education. And VISTA will continue to work with our partners, the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Association of Science Teachers, to identify and deliver new resources targeted to support science teachers.”

VISTA is a statewide partnership among more than 80 Virginia school districts, six Virginia universities (George Mason University, William & Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech, James Madison and the University of Virginia), and the Virginia Department of Education. The initiative is funded by a five-year, $34 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which includes a $5.7 million private sector matching requirement.

This article was previously published in a slightly different format in the fall 2013 Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology newsletter.


About CEHD

George Mason University's College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) includes two schools: the Graduate School of Education, one of the largest teacher preparation and education schools in Virginia, and the School of Recreation, Health, and Tourism. CEHD offers a comprehensive range of degrees, certificates, courses, and licensure programs on campus, online, and on site. The college is distinguished by faculty who encourage new ways of thinking and pioneering research supported by more than $75 million in funding over the past five years.

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