George Mason University

Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA)

The project is designed to improve elementary, middle, and high school students’ performance in science courses by providing teachers with research-based instructional strategies. Virginia teachers in 88 districts receive “just-in-time” coaching and participate in problem-based learning workshops, honing their skills in order to better support students in both rural and urban settings. 

Description of Project

The Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA) is a partnership among 88 school districts, 7 universities, and the Virginia Department of Education to build an infrastructure to provide sustained, intensive science teacher professional development to increase student performance. The goal of VISTA is to improve science teaching and student learning throughout Virginia, especially in high-needs (high-poverty, high-minority) schools.

Through the initiative, upper elementary teachers (grades 4-6) experience problem-based learning and student-centered inquiry as they work in teams to conduct inquiry-based science for children. Secondary science teachers in grades 6-12 are provided with just-in-time coaching and research-based teaching coursework for two years. VISTA builds state infrastructure for the leadership and support needed to extend quality inquiry-based science teaching to limited English proficient students, rural students, and students with disabilities.

VISTA offers innovation by enhancing the effectiveness of elementary and secondary science teachers through intensive, sustained professional development focused on problem-based, inquiry-based science teaching. This professional development begins in the summer and continues throughout the school year with coaching from experienced teachers. Another innovation is the focus on building infrastructure in the state through a focused effort to build capacity among principals, school district science coordinators, and university science and science education faculty. These two innovations offer a heightened focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in Virginia.

Program objectives are as follows:

•    Increase student learning in science, including learning among students with special needs and limited English proficiency.
•    Enhance the quality of elementary science teaching by including inquiry-based teaching.
•    Enhance the quality of teaching by new, often underprepared secondary science teachers, in part by enabling them to have students conduct inquiry-based laboratory activities.
•    Increase the number of certified middle school and high school science teachers.
•    Increase access for rural teachers to professional development.
•    Build the state infrastructure to support effective science teaching and learning.
•    Conduct research to determine what makes the most significant difference in helping teachers to help students learn.

Expected outcomes for students include increased scores on statewide science tests. Expected outcomes for teachers include improved science teaching. The 90,000 students of teachers who receive professional development through VISTA will benefit  directly. VISTA will ultimately affect 61 percent (760,000) of K-12 students through school district science coordinators. The project is designed to be validated in Central Virginia (Virginia Commonwealth University), Tidewater Virginia (College of William & Mary), and Southwest Virginia (Virginia Tech) following the original effort in Northern Virginia (George Mason University).

Description of Evaluation

The objectives the VISTA evaluation are to (1) document the implementation of the teacher professional development components of VISTA and (2) track and assess the extent to which VISTA promotes positive outcomes for teachers and students. The evaluations of the VISTA elementary and secondary teacher professional development programs will  be conducted as randomized controlled trials (RCTs). The elementary school evaluation uses a delayed-start design in which teachers who are initially randomized into the control condition receive the treatment the following year. The secondary school evaluation uses a traditional RCT design, with teachers randomized into either the treatment or control condition.