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A Randomized Controlled Trial of Professional Development for Interdisciplinary Civic Education: Impacts on Humanities Teachers and Their Students


by Dennis J. Barr, Beth Boulay, Robert L. Selman, Rachel McCormick, Ethan Lowenstein, Beth Gamse, Melinda Fine & M. Brielle Leonard — 2015

Background/Context: Billions of dollars are spent annually on professional development (PD) for educators, yet few randomized controlled trials (RCT) have demonstrated the ultimate impact PD has on student learning. Further, while policymakers and others speak to the role schools should play in developing students’ civic awareness, RCTs of PD designed to foster civic learning are rare. This randomized controlled trial contributes to the knowledge base on the effectiveness of PD designed to integrate civic learning, ethical reflection, and historical thinking skills into high school humanities courses.

Focus of Study: The study examined the impact of a PD intervention in two areas: (a) teacher self-efficacy, burnout, and professional engagement and satisfaction; and (b) the academic, civic, social, and ethical competencies of 9th and 10th grade students in the teachers’ classes.

Population/Participants/Subjects: The study involved 113 teachers and 1,371 9th and 10th grade students in 60 high schools from eight metropolitan regions in the United States.

Intervention/Program/Practice: The intervention, Facing History and Ourselves, provides PD through a five-day seminar, curricular materials, and follow-up coaching and workshops to help teachers develop their capacities to implement an interdisciplinary historical case study unit using student-centered pedagogy.

Research Design: The study used a school-level, randomized, experimental design to investigate impacts of the intervention for teachers and their 9th and 10th grade students.

Findings/Results: Intervention teachers showed significantly greater self-efficacy in all eight assessed domains, more positive perceptions of professional support, satisfaction and growth, and greater personal accomplishment. Intervention students demonstrated stronger skills for analyzing evidence, agency, and cause and effect on an historical understanding performance measure; greater self-reported civic efficacy and tolerance for others with different views; and more positive perceptions of the classroom climate and the opportunities afforded for engaging with civic matters. Fidelity analysis found these causal effects despite the fact that roughly half of the intervention teachers did not fully implement the program.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Educators need evidence-based approaches for teaching complex social, civic, and political issues enabling students of diverse mindsets and backgrounds to engage constructively with one another while obtaining necessary skills and knowledge. These findings provide empirical support for a professional development approach that engages teachers in fostering academic and civic competencies critical to both participation in a democracy and success in college and career.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 2, 2015, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17470, Date Accessed: 12/18/2014 3:31:40 AM

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About the Author
  • Dennis Barr
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    DENNIS J. BARR is the director of evaluation at Facing History and Ourselves and an instructor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His research focuses on the development of social and ethical awareness and civic learning in adolescence and the effectiveness of educational programs seeking to promote growth in these areas. His course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education uses a case study approach to investigate theory, research, and practice related to fostering informed civic engagement. Recent publications include the following: • Barr, D. J. & Bardige, B. (2013). Case study 18A: Facing History and Ourselves. In P. M. Brown, M. W. Corriga, & A. Higgins-D'Alessandro (Eds.), Handbook of prosocial education (Vol. 2). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. • Selman, R. L. & Barr, D. J. (2009). Can adolescents learn to create ethical relationships for themselves in the future by reflecting on ethical violations faced by others in the past? In M. Martens, U. Hartmann, M. Sauer, & M. Hasselhorn (Eds.), Interpersonal understanding in historical context (19–41). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
  • Beth Boulay
    Abt Associates
    E-mail Author
    BETH BOULAY is a principal associate in Abt Associates’ Social and Economic Policy Division. Her research focuses on the rigorous evaluation of a range of educational interventions aimed at solving our nation’s most persistent education problems. She currently directs the National Evaluation of Investing in Innovation (i3) Program. The i3 Program funds the implementation and evaluation of more than 100 educational interventions; the National Evaluation provides technical assistance to improve the strength of the evidence generated by the evaluations supported by i3 and will provide comprehensive reports of the results. She often presents at conferences on overcoming practical barriers to rigorous research and learning more from evaluation through high-quality measurement of implementation fidelity.
  • Robert Selman
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT L. SELMAN is the Roy E. Larsen Professor of Human Development & Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He founded its Prevention Science and Practice Program in 1992 and, from 2000 to 2005, he was the chair of the Human Development and Psychology Area. Selman also serves as a professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His courses draw from ongoing studies of the developmental and cultural antecedents of social competence in children and youth, and the application of research to both the promotion of their capacity to form and maintain positive social relationships and the prevention of the risks that make them vulnerable to highly negative psychological, social, and health risks. His recent book, The Promotion of Social Awareness (2007) describes approaches to the integration of social awareness and literacy skills through literature.
  • Rachel McCormick
    Abt Associates
    E-mail Author
    RACHEL MCCORMICK has extensive experience in education research and program evaluation focused on diverse children and families. She works at Abt Associates, Inc., where she is currently the deputy project director for the National Evaluation of Investing in Innovation (i3) and recently completed work as the project director for the New York City/Expanded Learning Time Impact Evaluation. She was previously a teacher, and received a master’s degree in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2007, where she specialized in the link between education policy and practice.
  • Ethan Lowenstein
    Eastern Michigan University
    E-mail Author
    ETHAN LOWENSTEIN is a professor of curriculum and instruction at Eastern Michigan University and the director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition (www.semiscoalition.org), a professional development network of schools, community partners, K–12 teachers, and university educators working together to address serious ecological and social problems in Southeast Michigan. He has close to two decades of experience in facilitating and researching professional development in moral, civic, and ecojustice education. Recent publications include the following: • Burke, W., Marx, G., & Lowenstein, E. (2012). Leading, leadership, and learning: Exploring new contexts for leadership development in emerging school environments. Planning & Changing, 43, 113–126. • Lowenstein, E., Martusewicz, R., & Voelker, L. (2010). Developing teachers’ capacity for ecojustice education and community-based learning. Teacher Education Quarterly, 37(4), 99. Lowenstein, E. (2010). Navigating teaching tensions for civic learning. Learning and Teaching (LATISS), 3(1), 32–50.
  • Beth Gamse
    Abt Associates
    E-mail Author
    BETH GAMSE is a principal associate at Abt Associates whose work examines educational policy, including curricular, human capital, and structural reforms within the K–-12 system. Among her recent publications are two reports on expanded learning time: • Gamse, B. C., Checkoway, A., & Darrow, C. (2013). Measuring implementation in Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time schools [White paper]. Malden, MA: Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Posted at http://www.doe.mass.edu/research/reports/2013-05ELTimplementation.pdf • Rulf Fountain, A., Velez, M., Gamse, B. C., Sahni, S., Caven, M., Roy, R., . . .Lamothe, H.. (2013). Evaluation of Citizen Schools’ expanded learning time model: Year 3 interim report. Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates.
  • Melinda Fine
    Public Interest Projects
    MELINDA FINE is the director of education at Public Interest Projects (PIP), a 501C3 public charity, where she leads Communities for Public Education Reform, a national foundation initiative that supports community groups and advocacy efforts to achieve educational equity and excellence. Her research interests include youth civic engagement, community organizing, and movement building. Recent publications include "Advancing the Civic Mission of Schools" and "What Does Fieldbuilding Mean?" both by the Academy for Educational Development.
  • M. Brielle Leonard
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    M. BRIELLE LEONARD is a graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education working toward a master's degree in Education and Certificate of Advanced Study for school counseling. She is interested in youth moral, social, and emotional development; civic education; and how schools can best support students academically and emotionally.
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