School & District Management

Real-World Problems Inspire R&D Solutions Geared to Classroom

By Debra Viadero — October 09, 2007 7 min read
Boston University graduate student Erica Joseffy sets up laptops and earphones used to test reading at Patrick F. Gavin Middle School.
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Catherine E. Snow, a Harvard University education researcher, tells a story about a vocabulary curriculum for Spanish-speaking students that she tested a decade ago in a public school.

Satisfied that the results had been a great success, she left the teaching materials with the school and returned a year later to ask teachers how the program was going.

“ ‘Oh, that project is over,’ ” Ms. Snow said the teachers replied. “It wasn’t something researchers were doing for them. It was something researchers were doing to them.”

Producing work that educators actually want to use is the raison d’être for an ambitious national research-and-development program known as the Strategic Education Research Partnership, or SERP.

Inspired by a series of reports from the National Research Council from 2001 to 2003, the nonprofit partnership was created as a vehicle to improve educational research through studies aimed at solving practical problems.

At its start in 2003, the project’s “grand vision” called for raising up to $700 million for a 15-year effort enlisting states to support and set an agenda for large-scale, sustained collaborations involving practitioners and researchers.

Four years later, SERP’s founders have fallen far short of that initial fundraising target. The organization’s current annual operating budget is closer to $1.3 million, its directors say. But the SERP vision of research as a collaborative enterprise, grounded in practice, is quietly soldiering on.

Schools as Partners

This year, with support from private foundations, as well as volunteer and in-kind contributions from researchers and practitioners, dozens of nationally known researchers are working under the SERP banner in schools in Boston, San Francisco, Evanston, Ill., and a handful of other districts across the country. (The foundations include the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, which also supports coverage of education research in Education Week.)

“It’s a completely different way of doing business,” said Ms. Snow, who is helping to lead the national network. “We aren’t using schools like test tubes for our ideas. We’re using schools like partners in developing questions.”

The idea for a national infrastructure to promote and guide usable research in education was the brainchild of Bruce A. Alberts, a biochemist and a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, a private, congressionally chartered group that advises the federal government.

His model was highway research. As in education, studies in that field were once badly underused and underfunded. The field of research got a second life, though, after a national scientific panel crafted a 10-year strategy for improving it in the 1980s.

Sixth grader Nadige Aime Baskin takes a reading test at Boston’s Patrick F. Gavin Middle School as part of a research-and-development project sponsored by the national Strategic Education Research Partnership, or SERP.

Early on, SERP attracted a few high-profile champions, including then-Govs. Mark R. Warner of Virginia and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. Even so, states balked at ponying up to join the effort.

“This kind of work that is focused on how you meet the challenges of daily practice is a bit too distant from what’s pressing on states,” said M. Suzanne Donovan, the executive director of the SERP Institute, the partnership’s Washington-based headquarters. “School districts are really the ones who feel that the problem is pressing.”

The first test case was in Boston, where the district’s superintendent at the time, Thomas W. Payzant, had been a member of the national panel that developed the original SERP idea. On Mr. Payzant’s recommendation, the research group in 2005 set its sights on improving middle school literacy in the 57,00-student district. “We had huge numbers of students coming into 9th grade with literacy skills—and also math skills—that were several years behind where they needed to be,” said Mr. Payzant, now a professor of practice at Harvard University’s graduate school of education. “Plus, there are good university people here in the Boston area, at Harvard and Boston University and Wheelock College, who were interested in literacy as well.”

To address that issue, the researchers devised diagnostic tests to help middle schools pinpoint students’ strengths and weaknesses in reading and writing.

“Most existing measures give an overall comprehension score, and what we’ve been finding is that students have multiple difficulties,” said John P. Sabatini, a senior research scientist for the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service who is developing the new test with scholars from Boston University.

Boston teachers also told researchers that students coming into the city’s middle schools were stumbling on academic language not normally taught at that level.

“For example, if you tell kids ‘photosynthesis is a process of conversion of solar energy,’ they don’t know what ‘process’ and ‘conversion’ means,” said Ms. Snow, who also created a practicum at Harvard to draw young scholars into the SERP work.

The researchers proposed a program called Word Generation, which introduces students to vocabulary through texts on such topics as stem-cell research and athletes’ salaries. They learn five words a week in daily 15-minute lessons spread across the curriculum among multiple teachers.

Julie Bertram, a Boston University project manager, helps 6th grader Randolph Alvarez Abreu during a diagnostic reading test at Patrick F. Gavin Middle School in Boston, where scholars with the Strategic Education Research Partnership are working.

Two middle schools pilot-tested the program last year, and teachers provided weekly feedback to the researchers. This year, six schools will road-test the program.

“That’s the beauty of the researcher-practitioner piece,” said Kathleen Murphy, a literacy coach at one of the schools, the 550-student Rogers Middle School in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood. “The researchers develop the program, and they have the expertise and knowledge, but we’re the ones who see where the roadblocks are in the practical application.”

With another Harvard researcher, Richard F. Elmore, the vocabulary lessons are being piggybacked with schoolwide surveys intended to measure schools’ “internal coherence”—in other words, the degree to which staff members trust one another, share a vision, and take responsibility for student learning, and the staff’s capacity to respond to pressure for improvement. The idea is to find out whether changes such as Word Generation have more sticking power in schools with high scores for internal coherence.

“The SERP group really listens to the questions the district wants answered, and not the questions that researchers think would be interesting to answer,” said Ellen C. Guiney, the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, an independent group that promotes school improvement efforts in the city. “And it combines research with the implementation of the proposed solution.”

Work in California, Illinois

In the 55,000-student San Francisco public schools, where the SERP work is just getting under way, the focus in on middle school math and science. Researchers from those disciplines and scholars on teaching English-language learners are trying to come up with a program for teaching academic language to ELLs and testing ways to help students with word problems in math.

“If the district hadn’t pushed us in this direction, the language people and the math and science people would never have been collaborating,” said Philip Daro, the University of California, Berkeley, researcher who is leading the SERP work in San Francisco schools.

The 3,000-student Evanston district in Illinois comes into the partnership as part of the Minority Student Achievement Network, a national collaboration of suburban districts working to narrow achievement gaps among their diverse student populations. The other districts in the network that are working with SERP are in Arlington, Va.; Madison, Wis.; and Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Laura A. Cooper, the assistant superintendent for public instruction for Evanston Township High School, said the partnership there focuses on students about to enter 9th grade but who have not yet taken algebra. In particular, researchers are exploring the role that motivational and social issues play in students’ success in math.

“We have a lot of students walking into high school who say, ‘I can’t do math,’ ” Ms. Cooper said. Where SERP still comes up short, said Frederick A. “Fritz” Mosher, a senior consultant to the Center for Policy Research in Education, a consortium based at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is in establishing a large-scale structure to produce research that will stand the test of time.

“The question is how you get stuff funded over time and at a scale to give you sufficient evidence that you’ve got a real solution to the problem,” said Mr. Mosher, who is based at Teachers College, Columbia University, and is not part of the SERP effort.

Ms. Donovan said that goal may be years away, given current funding levels. In the meantime, use of some of the partnership products generated in Boston is spreading to other field sites.

“I’m happy we’re small,” Mr. Daro added. “We’re still figuring out how to do this, and the last thing we should do is try to have everything in dozens of sites all of a sudden.”

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


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