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The Study of Schools

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Debra Viadero

You would think schools were all about nurturing children's intellectual potential. But A. Wade Boykin, the co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk, says you would be thinking wrong.

Most schools tend to sort and classify children, says Boykin, who also teaches educational psychology at Howard University in Washington. Teachers funnel the highest-achieving students into honors classes and point them toward college. Special-education students go into one program; non-English-speakers go in another. And the rest get herded into lower-level high school classes, where they face an uncertain future.

What schools should be doing instead, he argues, is maximizing the intellectual capabilities that children bring to school, providing support when necessary, and easing them over the inevitable developmental bumps in the road to school success.

"Basically, we think all children can attain," Boykin says, "given the proper supports and the right context."

This philosophy, known as the "talent development" model, is one of the driving forces behind the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk, called CRESPAR for short. Established a little more than a year ago, the center is one of the first pieces the U.S. Department of Education has put in place in an ambitious plan to overhaul the way it supports research.

Approved by Congress last year, the reorganization is aimed at making federally funded studies in education more credible and consumer-driven. As part of the restructuring, the department reduced the number of federal research centers from more than 20 to seven in the belief that bigger centers could conduct bigger--and more definitive--studies. Broad institutes, akin to those at the National Institutes of Health, were also created to provide umbrellas for the new centers.

Operated jointly by Johns Hopkins and Howard universities, CRESPAR became the first of the "bigger and better" research centers. In part, its creation stemmed from a fluke in timing. Old contracts on the existing center for research on disadvantaged students' schooling were scheduled to expire a year earlier than those for most of the other centers the department funds. Still, Education Department officials say kicking off the research center lineup with CRESPAR was no accident: It serves as the so-called "brain center" of the largest of the new institutes, the Institute on the At-Risk. And the department has backed up its aspirations for the center with a record five-year grant of $27.8 million.

"This is the largest center ever funded on a topic, and I think it's the most important of them," says Robert E. Slavin, Boykin's counterpart at Hopkins.

Now, a little more than a year later, CRESPAR is on its way to fulfilling its new mission.

Proven Track Record

Before there was a CRESPAR, Hopkins already had a long history of studying the schooling of disadvantaged students. Under the umbrella of the university's Center for the Social Organization of Schools, a federally funded center on the subject had existed in one form or another on campus since the late 1960s. The names had changed over the years, but the mission had remained intact. For most of those years, the centers were even located in the same crowded three-story brick townhouse that now houses CRESPAR.

The last in that long succession was Slavin's Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students. Slavin, who had started as a graduate student at the new center's predecessor, had earned a national reputation as the architect of Success for All, a comprehensive elementary school improvement program that focuses on communication and language skills, cooperative learning, one-on-one tutoring, and family supports.

Howard, arguably the nation's preeminent historically black university, had no such center. But Boykin and other researchers on campus had for decades been studying the role ofculture in children's learning and resiliency in children exposed to violence.

With the federal grant money, the university was able to draw together the scholars working in those areas and offer them a common intellectual home in a 4th-floor suite on Howard's law school campus.

"What we ought to be able to do is work together in a collaborative fashion and create a synergy so that the whole is substantially greater than the sum of its parts," Boykin says. "If we can do that, and bring more minority scholars to the process, so much the better."

In all, the combined center draws on the talents of more than two dozen principal investigators, roughly half from each university.

Bang for the Bucks

You might also think $27.8 million is a lot of money for education research. But once again, you would be wrong, at least in part. That figure pales in comparison with the funding that some of the centers funded under the National Institutes of Health receive. The National Institute on Aging, for example, has an annual operating budget of more than $434 million.

Moreover, as is the case with any research grant, universities extract steep overhead fees from their grant recipients. Grantees at Hopkins, for example, must fork over about 60 percent of their grant awards to the university.

And of the $4.7 million the center receives in its first year, $1 million goes to Howard, and $1.7 million goes to Hopkins. Another $1 million gets divvied up among the subcontractors participating in center projects: the University of California at Los Angeles, Arizona State University, the University of Chicago, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., the Southwest Regional Laboratory, Memphis State University, and the University of Houston at Clear Lakes.

Still, Hopkins and Howard can do a lot more with the federal funds than they could without them. For starters, they can take the talent-development philosophy that Boykin talks about and put it into practice in real schools. Hopkins researchers are working toward that end in a troubled Baltimore high school and a Philadelphia middle school.

At Baltimore's Patterson High, for example, that means giving all students the option of going to college or some other form of postsecondary education. All students get the same, demanding curriculum, and those who are struggling can take a "double dose" of the troublesome course in place of an elective. The second course, however, is taught using different instructional methods.

"The idea isn't to change the course and give some dumbed-down version of it, it's to create flexible resources and supports," says James McPartland, the principal investigator on that project. For example, students might be given computer-aided instruction in their second "dose" of the course.

Other elements of the model include career academies that serve as "schools within schools" for students, 90-minute-block class periods, interdisciplinary teaching, and sanctions for tardiness and absenteeism.

After one semester, McPartland says, surveys show that teachers are already reporting improvements in the school's climate and in morale.

Speaking Broadly

Having a large and stable source of funding also means the centers can consider what it means to take small, successful programs and scale them up. Starting last year, for example, 54 schools in Houston began introducing Slavin's Success for All program. What's more, the sample of schools is large enough to allow researchers to test program variations. Will the Spanish-language versions work as well? Will more slimmed-down versions of Success for All improve student achievement as well as the full model can?

"This is the first time anybody's ever done this on a mass scale," Slavin says. "One of the big questions is what we have now is OK, it's not a pilot program anymore. But can it work at scale?"

In another center project, Hopkins researcher Samuel Stringfield plans to track 34 Memphis schools over the next five years as they put into effect six different reform plans. The reforms range from Mortimer J. Adler's Paideia schools that stress providing Socratic dialogues and a strong classical education for all students to Stanford University professor Henry Levin's accelerated-schools model that offers challenging studies to at-risk students.

An added benefit to CRESPAR, these researchers say, is that the center can now cover the entire range of children's educational experiences, from kindergarten to 12th grade and from the teaching that goes on in schools to the learning that takes place outside of them.

"There are key points at which children fall by the wayside, and schools have to intervene at each of those key points," Slavin says.

These transition points include the kindergarten shift from home to school; the evolution from "learning to read to reading to learn" in upper elementary school; the point at which students move from a small nurturing elementary school to a large, departmentalized middle school; and the transition to high school and beyond.

"High school is a pretty awful experience even for people who are good at it," Slavin adds. "For kids who are not good at it, it's torture."

Providing the supports students need during these transitions is a second theme that colors the center's work. Toward that end, Howard researcher Hakim Rashid is studying an entire pathway of schools--a high school and its feeder middle and elementary schools.

And Hopkins' Joyce L. Epsteinis continuing work on one often-neglected aspect of children's schooling--parent involvement. This year, Epstein is working to create a national network of schools that are actively taking steps to draw parents into the educational process.

The cultural ecology of classrooms, struggling schools in the federal Title I program, and resiliency in young people are among the other studies the center has launched in its first year.

And Slavin's prediction for the future is even more ambitious: "We expect that after a few years, we'll be able to say, 'This is what it would take to say that any kid born in America will be successful."'

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