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November 21, 2012

Research Notes

School programs’ success can hinge on principals’ support

When principals go “all in” in terms of supporting school programs, teachers stand a better chance of successfully implementing change, according to research published by Pitt and the University of Virginia (UVA).

The researchers report in Prevention Science that if school principals lack enthusiasm or show little support, they are viewed as a hindrance by teachers, posing “major challenges” to the success of school programs such as the “Responsive Classroom,” an approach emphasizing social-emotional learning.

Additionally, apprehensive teachers fearing change are more willing to try new approaches in their classrooms if they know they have administrators’ support.

“Implementation matters,” said lead author Shannon Wanless, Pitt faculty member in psychology in education. “When implementation is weak, school programs are not able to have as strong of an effect as they could. This spurred us to figure out why this integration is weak.”

Together with Sara E. Rimm-Kaufman, principal investigator and faculty member at UVA, Wanless focused on implementing the Responsive Classroom approach, a program developed by the Northeast Foundation for Children, into third- and fourth-grade classrooms.

In this model, a sense of community is stressed wherein students use skills such as cooperation, assertiveness and empathy to better achieve their academic goals. Such emotional connectivity is proven to promote a deeper style of learning.

For the study, the Northeast Foundation for Children provided coaches trained in the Responsive Classroom approach who worked alongside teachers and were able to answer questions when needed. Teachers viewed these coaches as important assets for helping them to understand the strategies and making sure the strategies were integrated.

“We’re going through a period when schools have become bombarded with new initiatives and programs,” said Rimm-Kaufman. “Sorting through those and creating priorities has become an increasingly challenging task for our teachers. This work calls attention to the importance of school coaches — and school leadership — in better understanding and implementing those priorities.”

All teachers involved in the study were trained in the Responsive Classroom approach and monitored over two years. In the first year, the researchers sought to determine the biggest roadblocks to successful implementations. In the subsequent year, the researchers evaluated how school personnel rated one of their own potential roadblocks: principal support.

During the first year, the team collected data only from third-grade teachers. The research team looked specifically at how well the teachers introduced practices in the manner in which they were intended.

After the first year of teaching with Responsive Classroom, teachers were asked to reflect on barriers and gateways.

“We found that some teachers were afraid to shift out of what felt tried and true — afraid of the chaos that comes with initially trying new programs,” said Wanless. “However, when they felt a sense of empowerment or support from their administrators, they were more likely to successfully implement the program.”

Wanless said teachers noted that they could tell when the principal was “behind something” — specifically through their motivation, consistency in use of related practices, and the accommodations they provided to teachers.

At the same time, a lack of support also was noticeable and viewed as a barrier.

In a subsequent study, the research team took a different look at the rating system. They again focused on principal support, this time studying how the perceptions of this level of support varied among those in different roles. There were four raters: principals, teachers, intervention coaches for teachers, and an intervention coach for principals.

All 48 fourth-grade teachers in 13 schools participated during their second year of teaching with the Responsive Classroom approach. Teachers rated their principals’ level of support based on why they thought the principals wanted them to be trained. Coaches rated principals based on indicators such as how often principals initiated contact with them. Principals rated their own involvement with the approach, and principal coaches rated how invested the principals seemed.

The intervention coaches for teachers and principals provided a unique perspective unseen by the teachers or administrators. They could rate most accurately the level of administrator support — or lack thereof.

“The coaches’ ratings were the most predictive of actual implementation of the program,” said Wanless. “This indicates a need to consider changing the way we gather data in schools, including an external person to collect this type of information.”

Rimm-Kaufman said: “The work calls attention to the importance of school leadership in producing school change. As with any intervention, this approach only relates to positive outcomes if teachers are actually using the practices in their classrooms. The work helps shed light on what school leaders can do to set the stage for success of new interventions.”

The research was supported by a grant to UVA from the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education.


Defense grants fund study to diagnose TBI

Researchers at the School of Medicine have received two grants totaling $5.4 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to evaluate whether a new imaging tool called high definition fiber tracking (HDFT) can diagnose traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in wounded warriors. The announcement was made at a scientific symposium that introduced the University’s Center for Military Medicine Research (CMMR).

Conventional CT and MRI scans often are unable to reveal damage to the brain’s network of neural cables, or fiber tracts, that could cause significant cognitive or physical impairments after TBI, explained principal investigator David Okonkwo, faculty member in neurological surgery, clinical director of the Brain Trauma Research Center, and director of the neurotrauma program at UPMC and the School of Medicine.

“Our preliminary research indicates that HDFT can reveal breaks in brain wiring, just like X-rays show us broken bones,” Okonkwo said. “That’s a big step forward because knowing where the damage lies will allow us to better plan our treatments and give TBI patients more accurate predictions of the long-term prognosis.”

In the new study, a team led by Okonkwo and Walter Schneider, faculty member and senior scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center, will perform HDFT scans at UPMC or Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on 240 soldiers who recently have sustained a TBI and on 60 uninjured volunteers. The researchers hope to show that HDFT is able to identify fiber damage and correlate it with neurologic symptoms, including post-concussion syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder.


Calculators in college classes: Perhaps not the best idea?

Math instructors promoting calculator usage in college classrooms may want to rethink their teaching strategies, says Samuel King, postdoctoral student in the Learning Research and Development Center.

King has proposed the need for further research regarding calculators’ role in the classroom after conducting a limited study with undergraduate engineering students published in the British Journal of Educational Technology.

“We really can’t assume that calculators are helping students,” said King. “The goal is to understand the core concepts during the lecture. What we found is that use of calculators isn’t necessarily helping in that regard.”

Together with Carol Robinson of Loughborough University in England, King examined whether the inherent characteristics of the mathematics questions presented to students facilitated a deep or surface approach to learning.

Using a limited sample size, they interviewed 10 second-year undergraduate students enrolled in a competitive engineering program.

The students were given a number of mathematical questions related to sine waves — a mathematical function that describes a smooth repetitive oscillation — and were allowed to use calculators to answer them.

More than half of the students adopted the option of using the calculators to solve the problem.

“Instead of being able to accurately represent or visualize a sine wave, these students adopted a trial-and-error method by entering values into a calculator to determine which of the four answers provided was correct,” said King. “It was apparent that the students who adopted this approach had limited understanding of the concept, as none of them attempted to sketch the sine wave after they worked out one or two values.”

After completing the problems, the students were interviewed about their process. A student who had used a calculator noted that she struggled with the answer because she couldn’t remember the “rules” regarding sine waves and it was “easier” to use a calculator.

In contrast, a student who did not use a calculator was asked why someone might have a problem answering this question. The student said he didn’t see a reason for a problem. However, he noted that one may have trouble visualizing a sine wave if he/she is told not to use a calculator.

“The limited evidence we collected about the largely procedural use of calculators as a substitute for the mathematical thinking presented indicates that there might be a need to rethink how and when calculators may be used in classes — especially at the undergraduate level,” said King.

“Are these tools really helping to prepare students or are the students using the tools as a way to bypass information that is difficult to understand? Our evidence suggests the latter.”


Genetic link found between pancreatitis, alcohol intake

A study published online last week in Nature Genetics reveals a genetic link between chronic pancreatitis and alcohol consumption.

Researchers from Pitt’s School of Medicine and more than 25 other health centers across the country found a genetic variant on chromosome X near the claudin-2 gene (CLDN2) that predicts which men who are heavy drinkers are at high risk of developing chronic pancreatitis.

This finding enables doctors to identify people with early signs of pancreatitis or an attack of acute pancreatitis who are at very high risk for progressing to chronic pancreatitis, allowing them to take preventative action to slow the development of the disease and give the pancreas a chance to heal. Once an individual develops pancreatitis it takes several years for the pancreas to deteriorate.

“The discovery that chronic pancreatitis has a genetic basis solves a major mystery about why some people develop chronic pancreatitis and others do not,” said lead author David C. Whitcomb, faculty member in medicine, cell biology and physiology, and human genetics at Pitt’s School of Medicine.

“We also knew there was an unexpected higher risk of men developing pancreatitis with alcohol consumption, but until now we weren’t sure why. Our discovery of this new genetic variant on chromosome X helps explain this mystery as well.”

More than 100,000 Americans suffer from chronic pancreatitis, a progressive inflammatory disease characterized by abdominal pain and permanent damage to the pancreas. Most studies report excessive alcohol consumption as the major risk factor for adult-onset chronic pancreatitis.

However, according to Whitcomb, who also is chief of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, only 3 percent of individuals who are alcoholics develop chronic pancreatitis, suggesting a pancreas-specific risk factor.

The study was conducted over 10 years and involved more than 2,000 patients, all of whom underwent DNA testing.

Researchers discovered that there was a common DNA variant on the X chromosome that is present in 26 percent of men without pancreatitis, but jumps to nearly 50 percent of men diagnosed with alcoholic pancreatitis. Women have two X chromosomes, so most women with the high-risk DNA variant on one X chromosome appear to be protected from alcoholic chronic pancreatitis by the other X chromosome, if it is normal.

Men have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome, so if they inherit a high-risk X chromosome, there is no protection. The factor on chromosome X does not appear to cause pancreatitis, but if pancreatic injury occurs for any reason such as gallstone pancreatitis or abdominal trauma, it is more likely that the person will develop chronic pancreatitis — especially if they also drink alcohol.

“This information is important because the high-risk chromosome can be identified in patients who drink and have early signs of pancreatic injury,” said Dhiraj Yadav, Pitt faculty member in medicine, Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition and a co-investigator on the study.

“If pancreatic injury and acute pancreatitis occur, patients must stop drinking immediately.”

Nationally, 16 percent of men drink alcohol at levels defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as high risk. Twenty-six percent of these men who drink heavily are at high risk of chronic pancreatitis following pancreas injury.

Only 10 percent of women drink alcohol at dangerous levels, and of these only 6 percent have the X chromosome variant on both X chromosomes.

“Previous discoveries show that chronic pancreatitis without alcohol involvement has a strong genetic link. This helps to eliminate the previous stigma that patients with chronic pancreatitis must also be heavy drinkers,” added Whitcomb. “This study proves that there is a genetic element to the disease.”

Pitt collaborators on the study included Bernie Devlin, psychiatry; Alyssa M. Krasinskas, pathology, and Adam Slivka, Randall E. Brand and Vijay Singh, all of medicine.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.


The University Times Research Notes column reports on funding awarded to Pitt researchers as well as findings arising from University research.

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