School & District Management

District-Scholar Partnerships Yield New Insights

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 18, 2011 6 min read
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A set of in-depth partnerships between researchers and the nation’s large school systems are bearing fruit, both in new studies and greater insights into how districts and researchers can work together.

The Senior Urban Education Research Fellowship program released two reports from the second of three rounds of studies this month in Washington at the annual legislative conference of its sponsor, the Council of the Great City Schools. Researchers in Boston and San Francisco are developing tools and interventions to help middle and high school teachers, particularly those in science, social studies, and other content areas, incorporate academic vocabulary into their teaching.

One report describes efforts by the Washington-based Strategic Education Research Partnership, or SERP, to develop Word Generation, a series of 15-minute daily academic-vocabulary lessons and activities that could be incorporated into different courses, with the 56,300-student Boston district. With the CGCS grant, Catherine E. Snow, the head field researcher for SERP and an education professor at Harvard University, and Harvard postdoctoral fellow Joshua F. Lawrence were able to dig into data on effectiveness for different student groups.

The researchers found that students in the Word Generation schools outperformed students in comparison schools on end-of-year tests of academic vocabulary. Moreover, English-language learners in participating schools outperformed English-proficient peers at the control schools.

The second report, on the 56,000-student San Francisco district, discusses the efforts of science teacher Lisa Ernst and six other teachers who have been working with Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University, and others from SERP to develop WordSift, an online search tool that allows students and teachers to connect academic words or paragraphs to related words, videos, and sample text explaining the concepts. “Content teachers tend not to think of themselves as responsible for the literacy development of their students, so if you ask them to think of vocabulary, they will suggest actual [subject-matter] content words like ‘osmosis,’ ” Mr. Hakuta said. “But there’s another class of words and aspects of language that cuts across content, academic language such as ‘analyze’ or ‘explain,’ which doesn’t usually show up in everyday conversation but is a very regular part of academic vocabulary.”

Research has shown that academic language is critical for students’ ability to understand and communicate academic content, particularly in upper grades.

Mr. Hakuta said the tool now gets between 500 and 2,300 users a day, and he has started evaluation trials.

Side Benefit

“I think [regarding] the development [of WordSift] itself, many of the teachers saw it as professional development and said it was the best PD they’d ever had, because they got to co-develop it,” Mr. Hakuta said. “It wasn’t intended as professional development for the teachers, but they saw it as that.”

Yet that has been a goal of the partnership project, according to Amanda Rose Horwitz, the research manager for the Council of the Great City Schools.

“I feel urban districts often feel poked and prodded; they feel like the subjects and not partners in the studies,” Ms. Horwitz said. “At the same time, researchers are just throwing themselves up against these walls. Large urban districts can be amazing bureaucracies sometimes, and it can be a real challenge.”

The Washington-based council, which represents the 66 largest school districts in the country and 15 percent of K-12 public students, launched the research fellowship in 2006, with support from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The fellowships provided up to $150,000 each for 18 months for research staff and supplies in nine school systems. The CGCS grants are intended to support the development and continuation of long-term partnerships like those already begun by SERP, an initiative originally launched by the National Academies, and the Value-Added Research Center, or VARC, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In each city, the district sets research priorities, and scientists and district administrators develop a portfolio of research projects together. For example, Geoffrey D. Borman, a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, paired with St. Paul, Minn., schools for the council’s next round of studies. In exchange for evaluating professional learning communities in the schools—a top district priority—Mr. Borman will have district support to implement and study a series of writing exercises intended to combat stereotype threat in minority students.

As the researchers and districts work on their studies in each partnership, the council has been culling best practices in how to develop such research partnerships, which have become a top priority for the IES.

“We find these really viable research partnerships are really popping up in a lot of different places,” Ms. Horwitz said. “The people we try to select are researchers who have demonstrated a real commitment to working with districts and meeting their needs, not just treating them as test subjects.”

Inside Perspective

Mr. Hakuta of the San Francisco project said working in an ongoing partnership gives him a different research perspective.

“Typically, if I go to a district, I might have a problem in mind that I want to address, and I might shop it around,” he said. “I might be trying to look for answers to problems they don’t have. Being close at hand like this is important. I clearly have a lot more conversations with different people throughout the district.”

In Milwaukee, the site of one of the earlier partnerships, researchers from the University of Wisconsin’s VARC center have “embedded” two researchers in the district’s research office. While both are university researchers, one works two days a week and one five days a week on campus.

Deb Lindsey, the Milwaukee school district’s director of research and evaluation, said the partnership has saved the 82,400-student district money by providing experienced researchers with access to the university’s resources. Yet, more importantly, she said, it has given the school system researchers “driven by a genuine interest in helping the district learn and improve.”

“These are not people coming for a master’s thesis; it’s not a publish-or-perish situation,” Ms. Lindsey said. “The ideas are co-developed; they don’t say, ‘I see you have a problem there, and this is how I think we should study it, or this is how you should fix it.”

In the process, the team has developed several program evaluations and a districtwide early-warning data system to spot students at risk of dropping out of school, according to Bradley Carl, a VARC researcher embedded in Milwaukee public schools. The district continued the partnership after the Great City Schools grant ran out, and the team is now piloting an expanded warning system to identify students who may graduate but have more difficulty attending and completing college, he said.

Robert H. Meyer, VARC’s director, said: “Normally, the people who would be good at the technical risk system wouldn’t be good at the reporting portion, or might not be good at developing interventions, or evaluation. If you weren’t in embedded research, you might try to do one of those portions and then hope that someone else picks up the other parts.”

The success of the project has led Mr. Meyer, a research professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to expand the embedded-researcher program in partnerships in Atlanta, Chicago, Hillsborough County, Fla., Minneapolis, New York City, and Tulsa, Okla. “We can learn a tremendous amount from deep embedding with the district that then presents policy problems and puzzles that are incredibly intellectually interesting and relevant to solve,” Mr. Meyer said.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as District-Scholar Partnerships Yield New Insights

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