Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
School & District Management

Urban Study Partnerships Start to Yield Research Results

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 29, 2011 6 min read

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 associated with Washington-based Strategic Education Research Partnership or SERP are developing tools and interventions in Boston and San Francisco 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 in the 56,300-student Boston district to develop Word Generation, a series of 15-minute daily academic-vocabulary lessons and activities that could be incorporated into different courses. 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 dug 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.

Online Search Tool

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.

“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.”

Looking Long-Term

The Washington-based council, which represents the 66 largest school districts in the country and 15 percent of K-12 public school 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 the 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 test 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.

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.”

Burrowing In

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 encounter problems 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.

Related Tags:
School Districts Partnerships Research

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Urban Study Partnerships Start to Yield Research Results

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Join experts from Samsung and Boxlight to learn how to make learning more interactive from anywhere.
Content provided by Samsung
Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
The 4 Biggest Challenges of MTSS During Remote Learning: How Districts Are Adapting
Leaders share ways they have overcome the biggest obstacles of adapting a MTSS or RTI framework in a hybrid or remote learning environment.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Superintendent, Dublin Unified School District
Dublin, California (US)
Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates
Superintendent, Dublin Unified School District
Dublin, California (US)
Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates
ASSISTANT SUPERINTENDENT, HUMAN RESOURCES
Larkspur, California
Tamalpais Union High School District
Special Education Teachers
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13

Read Next

School & District Management ‘Spying’ on Teachers? District Accused of Scouring for Staff Flouting COVID-19 Safety
A Fla. district used social media posts of teachers partying, traveling, & maskless to undercut their union's argument for working remotely.
Scott Travis
4 min read
Image shows close up of a line art eye with a group of people silhouetted in the reflection of the pupil.
Collage by Gina Tomko/Education Week (Images: filo/DigitalVision Vectors + Getty)
School & District Management Opinion Parents Berating Teachers? Making Decisions Without the Data? Advice for Principals
A year marred by COVID-19 has created new challenges for principals. Here are some answers.
6 min read
Principal Advice SOC
Getty and Vanessa Solis/Education Week
School & District Management Student Mental Health and Learning Loss Continue to Worry Principals
Months into the pandemic, elementary principals say they still want training in crucial areas to help students who are struggling.
3 min read
Student sitting alone with empty chairs around her.
Maria Casinos/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion A Road Map for Education Research in a Crisis
Here are five basic principles for a responsible and timely research agenda during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robin J. Lake
4 min read
Two opposing sides reaching out to work together
J.R. Bee for Education Week