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Leaders of a research effort getting under way in Baltimore introduced a series of studies this week they will conduct over the next three years aiming to improve student achievement and lower the dropout rate in the city’s public schools.
The Baltimore Education Research Consortium, which formed in 2006 with the help of several Baltimore-based philanthropies, recently launched the first three of eight studies meant to find and identify the school-based and classroom-based practices that are helping students succeed academically at all grade levels.
The consortium, a joint venture among education researchers at Morgan State University and Johns Hopkins University, as well as leaders in Baltimore’s public school system, is modeled in part on the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a nearly 20-year-old organization at the University of Chicago that conducts research on the policy and practices of Chicago’s public schools.
The Baltimore consortium is co-directed by Obed Norman, a professor of science education at Morgan State University, and Stephen Plank, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.
“We intend to be part of the public conversation about how to improve the schools in Baltimore,” Mr. Plank said in an interview. “To do that, we will need to get our results out. We want to benefit the children and families of Baltimore, and one way we can do that is by making educators here much more data-rich to help them as they make their decisions.”
Planning the consortium began three years ago, a process complicated by two changes in the city’s school leadership. Earlier this year, the scholars reached an agreement with Andrés A. Alonso, who became the chief executive officer of Baltimore’s 82,000-student school system in July 2007.
SOURCE: Baltimore Education Research Consortium
Mr. Alonso and his team played a key role in helping design projects to address two of the district’s most pressing concerns: keeping on-level students on track, and driving down the city’s dropout rate, Mr. Plank said.
Mr. Alonso said he wants answers to not only what puts children at risk of dropping out, but also insights into what practices and conditions enable at-risk children to succeed despite their disadvantaged circumstances. The district’s reported graduation rate for 2008 was 62.7 percent.
“My contribution was to assert that this work had to have a practical implication that is in line with some of our own findings in the district, and that it would help answer the questions that bedevil us and most urban districts,” Mr. Alonso said in an interview.
Though the consortium works closely with the district and Mr. Alonso will influence the research agenda, researchers will have autonomy over their projects and what the results reveal, Mr. Plank said. Every study will be published, he said.
Benjamin Feldman, the research evaluation and accountability officer for the Baltimore district, said district experts will participate in writing final reports and system leaders will have 30 days to comment on findings before the consortium publicly releases them.
“In urban education, the news is often daunting, so you have to be prepared to have an unblinking look,” Mr. Feldman said.
One issue, he said, was ensuring that researchers have access to data and classrooms without compromising student privacy. Mr. Feldman said he has also pushed for the consortium to include researchers at other regional institutions.
“The more competition there is within the consortium, the more sustainable and self-policing it will be,” he said. “We all want it to outlast all of us and truly be an organization that speaks for the whole city and its children.”
Baltimore joins two other city-based research collaborations. The Chicago research group, formed in 1990, is the granddaddy of such organizations. Last year, an effort was launched in New York City, and Mr. Plank said he has spoken with university researchers in Seattle and Newark who’ve expressed interest in doing something similar.
Focus on Progress
Among the questions that consortium researchers will seek to answer: What school and classroom practices equip students to stay on track and transition smoothly from elementary to middle school, and from middle to high school? Why do so many Baltimore students fall behind, and what can be done to get them back on track?
Mr. Plank said researchers will use existing student data from the district, and conduct new research that uses a variety of methods, such as classroom observations, principal interviews, teacher surveys, and focus groups.
For example, researchers are already at work comparing two cohorts of Baltimore 1st graders—one group from 1999-2000 and a second group from 2003-04. They are analyzing test-score trajectories over time and identifying both school-related factors, such as teacher qualifications, and individual factors, like attendance and demographics, to single out the students who remain on grade level or above through the 6th grade.
“For the kids we identify as high achieving in the 1st grade, we want to see what the conditions are in the 3rd grade when they should really be reading, and again when they are in middle school and need to be engaged in much higher-order thinking,” Mr. Plank said.
Other projects the consortium has identified include tracking 6th graders who show signs of early dropout risk, such as poor attendance and behavior problems, and characteristics of schools and students associated with lower risk.
Researchers will also follow students who are 6th graders in 2008-09 as they move into the 7th and 8th grades to gather data that will identify the practices that keep students on track. Similar projects for high school students and students who dropped out are also planned.
A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as Baltimore Project Eyes How to Keep Students on Track