School & District Management

R.I. District Focuses on Research-Based ‘Common Language’

By Debra Viadero — April 02, 2003 9 min read
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With its Italian neighborhoods, Latino grocers, and Lithuanian bakeries, this gritty New England city has a population that hails from all corners of the world and speaks a wide variety of languages.

Yet, despite its diversity, public educators here are beginning to speak in a single tongue: the language of cognitive science. From downtown district offices to aging neighborhood elementary schools to graffiti-sprayed secondary schools, phrases such as “socializing intelligence” and “accountable talk” are rolling off the lips of teachers, principals, and district administrators alike.

The common phrases are evidence that Providence schools are making headway in an unusual experiment to take seemingly arcane scientific findings, convert them into something that practitioners can use, permanently embed them in real schools, and ultimately explain why they might be working.

Many experts see this effort, which has researchers and K-12 educators working together, as a prime example of a growing movement to foster “usable” knowledge and research in education.

The work here is really a collaboration involving the 27,000-student school system, the noted cognitive psychologist Lauren B. Resnick, and the Institute for Learning. Ms. Resnick founded the institute eight years ago to act as a liaison between researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center and practitioners in the field.

The institute now works intensively with a dozen districts and has looser ties with at least eight others. The group at one time included New York City’s Community School District 2, which won national attention for the gains it made through a similar, eight-year-long improvement effort.

One of the institute’s first tasks, back in the mid- 1990s, was to synthesize 25 years of findings on how children learn and distill them into nine teaching and learning principles.

They include the “accountable talk” idea, which calls for students, among other steps, to take part actively and intelligently in classroom discussions much as scholars do, and the concept of “socializing intelligence,” which holds that people construct their understandings through interactions with others.

At bottom, the principles rest on a single belief: All children, when taught in such ways, can achieve at high levels.

Principals and ‘Nests’

That was what attracted Diana Lam, the superintendent hired in 1999 to try to turn around the Providence schools, to the Institute for Learning’s work. With more than 75 percent of its students qualifying for federally subsidized lunches and a longstanding reputation for stagnant academic achievement, her new district faced challenges as great as those in any city in the country.

She decided the nine principles would unify the district’s improvement efforts. “I came to the conclusion that, unless we really focused on instructional leadership, we would not be successful,” said Ms. Lam, who has since left to become the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning in the New York City schools.

In Providence, the institute departed from its usual script, however. Instead of asking key school leaders to come to Pittsburgh for intensive professional development, the institute brought most of its study sessions here.

The decision proved to be fortuitous, according to Ms. Resnick.

“There is a function from being an outsider that we’ve discovered is quite important,” she said. “You can move around the hierarchy and can press for action in ways that somebody can’t whose career is dependent on what happens at the next level up. But you have to be there to be able to do that.”

From the beginning, Ms. Resnick and Ms. Lam zeroed in on principals, seeing them as the linchpin for the instructional transformations that would take place in their buildings. They were the first layer in what Ms. Resnick has come to call a “nested learning community.”

“We say the work of the student is a window on the work of the teachers, and the work of the teacher is a window on the work of the principal, and the work of the principal is a window on the work of the superintendent,” said Judy A. Johnston, a resident fellow with the institute who worked with the principals here.

Along with Ms. Lam and other crucial district-level officials, principals began attending study sessions conducted by institute staff members one day a month.

For principals more used to spending their days overseeing boiler repairs, disciplining students, and answering to parents and teachers’ unions, the new responsibilities felt like a radical departure from practice. Besides attending the seminars, the building administrators were asked to set aside two hours day to focus on improving instruction. That meant reallocating administrative tasks to other employees and rethinking their own roles.

“This is very different for someone who doesn’t ever take time out of the building,” said Eileen Koshgarian, the principal of Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School on the northwest side and a district veteran of 32 years.

“For principals, there was no professional development at all before,” she said, “and if you were able to talk to other principals at all, it was based on friendships and networks that you had established on your own.”

Over three years, the circle of Providence educators taking part in institute-run training sessions has expanded. Now, “lead teams,” consisting of eight to 10 staff members from each school, go to the monthly seminars. Besides the principal, each team includes the assistant principal, teacher leaders, and newly designated “instructional” or “literacy” coaches.

The district created the coaching positions in each school as a way to ease some of the new burden on principals and to more directly involve teachers in the improvement efforts.

Chosen from the ranks of veteran teachers, the coaches work with their principals to coordinate the professional development that takes place in each school. They give before- and after-school classes to teachers, put together schoolwide professional-development days, and work with individual teachers in their classrooms.

“We’re all on the same page now,” said Beverly Loebenberg, the instructional coach at Roger Williams Middle School on the city’s south side. “The [learning] principles gave us the framework.”

Walking and Learning

To further help school principals, the Institute for Learning also borrowed and adapted a tool from New York’s District 2: the “walk-through.”

Renamed “learning walks” in Providence, the strategy revolves around walking tours through classrooms taken by principals and other educators. Through the visits, principals come to understand what the nine learning principles look like in practice, get comments from others on how those practices are shaping up in their buildings, and, in turn, give feedback to teachers.

But the institute and Providence school officials soon discovered that conducting learning walks constructively was a fine line to, well, walk.

What often happened was that principals either used them to show off their best teachers or, worse, turned them into an evaluative kind of activity that teachers and their union representatives perceived as threatening.

“Done badly,” Ms. Resnick said, “learning walks can be a recipe for disaster.”

To lessen the negative consequences, the Providence reformers focused the walks more sharply on curricular content, to include teachers who could deflect some undue criticism, and to better explain the concept.

One principal who has become skilled at the practice is Nancy Owen of New Feinstein High School, a 360- student school close to downtown. “It’s amazing that, as you walk through, you see classrooms are starting to look more alike,” she said.

One day last month, Ms. Owen led a small group of district administrators, principal coaches, and the institute’s Ms. Johnston through a learning walk looking at literacy and mathematics teaching in her building.

She began with a candid introduction, warning that the school was on a continuum in its teachers’ understanding of the principles. Some teachers, for example, have emergency teaching licenses; another class had been taught by a succession of substitutes.

“Certainly, when you bring district folks in, you want to shine,” Ms. Owen said, “but that doesn’t help you move forward.”

In each classroom, the visitors fanned out, asking students individually to explain their work. They scanned the walls, looking for evidence of current student work and reading the handwritten charts that are plastered like wallpaper all around schools here.

Illustrative of the institute principle that calls for making expectations clear, the charts might list grading guidelines, steps involved in essay writing or problem-solving, or the curriculum standard on which the class is working.

After five to 10 minutes, the group reconvened in the hallway.

“Well, what did you see in there?” Ms. Owen asked. Outside one class, a coach noted that a teacher was spending too much time lecturing at the front of the room. In another, a district official applauded the rigor of the mathematical problem students were working on.

A day or two later, Ms. Owen planned to synthesize all the comments in a letter to her faculty.

For their part, teachers and students at Feinstein seemed to have grown used to the intrusions.

“It can be disruptive if people are just coming in,” said Kate Hewitt, an English teacher whose classroom was visited by the group. “But, if you get feedback, it can be useful. It helps to have that many more pairs of eyes looking at what you do.”

The Test Ahead

By all accounts, it’s hard to judge how deeply the research findings have penetrated classrooms in Providence. As with most school improvement efforts, elementary schools have been quicker to embrace the changes than middle and high schools. Still, Ms. Resnick and Ms. Johnston note that the learning curve has been shorter here than it was in New York City.

“I see it at varying levels of implementation and varying levels of quality, which is exactly what I would expect,” said Melody A. Johnson, the district’s current superintendent. “It’s not something that somebody picks up and replicates. It’s something you have to develop within the system yourself.”

Superintendent Johnson, who was Ms. Lam’s deputy, has stayed on her predecessor’s course. Under her leadership, though, the principles of learning are becoming more closely intertwined with new curricular guidelines the district is drawing up to help teachers teach to district standards.

The district also is beginning to shoulder more of the Institute for Learning’s work. This year, district professional-development directors on their own have begun to conduct research-based seminars for the teachers who come to the professional-development days.

The biggest test for the district’s improvement agenda may be just around the corner.

Under the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, Providence schools, like those across the nation, will have to show that students’ standardized-test scores are improving, or risk being labeled as failing. While scores are generally on the upswing districtwide, all of Providence’s 10 middle schools, four of its 10 high schools, and one of its 25 elementary schools could fall into that category if test scores don’t improve this spring.

School-level educators are nervously waiting for the results from that round of tests, but Ms. Johnson, the superintendent, says she isn’t worried.

“We would be doing this work with or without No Child Left Behind,” she said. “Really deep, meaningful, systemic reform is a 10- to 15-year journey if it’s worth taking.”

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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