Group Work Is Not Cooperative Learning: An Evaluation of PowerTeaching in Middle Schools

A Report from the Investing in Innovation (i3) Evaluation


In the next decade, the fastest growing occupations are projected to be in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and will require advanced mathematical and scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, many American students today, especially those in low-income schools, are performing at low levels in math and will have trouble gaining access to these jobs. It is therefore critical that middle school students succeed in math. The PowerTeaching program is a middle school math program that has shown strong evidence of effectiveness. Developed by the Success for All Foundation, it emphasizes cooperative learning to instruct math. In 2011, Old Dominion University received a grant through the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation program to scale up the PowerTeaching program. In 2012, MDRC began a multiyear evaluation of the scale-up effort, conducting an implementation study and an impact study that included a school-level randomized controlled trial. Over two years, the research team randomly assigned 58 schools, of which 30 (those assigned to the program groups) were part of the scale-up effort. The remaining 28 schools were assigned to the control group and as such were not part of the scale-up group of schools. This report describes the evaluation and presents its findings, key among which are the following:

  • Although the Success for All Foundation and the schools in the study provided the requisite time, staff, and materials needed to support teachers in their implementation of the PowerTeaching program, teachers in only a few schools collected and used student assessment data to drive instruction, and most teachers did not receive the kind of training and support needed to create cooperative learning teams in their classrooms.

  • Students in both program and control group schools worked in groups often, but students in program group schools spent more time in groups than students in control group schools. Students in program group schools were also more likely to be in longstanding mixed-ability groups. Despite these differences found in group work, many teachers in program group schools did not use the techniques that move group work to true cooperative learning.

  • Students in both the program group and control group schools performed equally well on math, as measured by their state math test scores. However, students in schools that enrolled in the study earlier did worse than those students in schools that enrolled later.

  • While, overall, implementation of the program was weak in all the schools participating in the evaluation, the non-research scale-up schools — which tended to be smaller and in less urban environments — implemented the PowerTeaching program slightly better than the schools in the study.