Keys to Success

By Debra Viadero — April 21, 2004 7 min read
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Researchers identify methods to help 'nonmainstream' pupils make academic gains.

After a lifetime spent working with Native Hawaiian schoolchildren in Hawaii, Zuni and Navajo Indian students in the Southwest, and Latino pupils in California, Roland G. Tharp has distilled some wisdom for teachers who face increasingly diverse classrooms.

With colleagues from the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, & Excellence, a federal research center at the University of California campus here, Tharp has identified five standards that he says mark effective instruction in classrooms with high concentrations of students from backgrounds outside the U.S. cultural mainstream. Now, after a decade spent perfecting and testing the standards and teaching others how to use them, the center is ready to roll them out.

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Read the accompanying story, “A Testing Ground.”

The standards evoke a classroom environment in which teachers and students are talking and working together to develop ideas and products, where complex thinking and language development is encouraged across the curriculum, and where teachers work to connect their lessons to students’ lives.

It’s an image that departs from the traditional model of the teacher-led classroom. It sounds a lot like the kinds of classrooms long favored by cognitive scientists and some progressive educators.

“Kids at risk—the ‘left behind’—are not having these kinds of experiences at home,” says Tharp, the center’s director. “They’re not having the close contact with adults, the modeling of language that goes on. This is what they need to catch up, because that’s what professional-class and middle-class families are doing all the time.”

The 73-year-old researcher and his colleagues are anxious to get the word out on their work because federal funding for the center is due to run out in December. Officials with the U.S. Department of Education have no plans to renew it.

Demographic imperatives also drive the center’s work. Experts predict that by 2030, children whose first language is not English will make up 40 percent of the enrollment in the nation’s schools. Yet survey after survey suggests that teachers feel ill-equipped to meet the needs of such students. With the federal No Child Left Behind Act pressing schools to show that children from every racial and ethnic group are progressing academically, that urgency is heightened.

For Tharp himself, the standards rollout caps 35 years of work that began in Hawaii’s famed Kamehameha laboratory-and-demonstration schools. The snowy-haired researcher was in his 40s then, and starting a second career in education research after working as a clinical psychologist. He was among a small army of educators, anthropologists, linguists, and psychologists recruited to go to Hawaii to figure out why Native Hawaiian children persistently underachieved in school and to fix the problem.

What the researchers saw there was a mismatch between the worlds of children of native origin and those of the adults who taught them. For example, the local society tended to divide itself according to age. Children ran in what the researchers called “companion bands,” rarely crossing paths with adults. That came to be a problem in classrooms where students had to take their cues from adults.

The researchers found that children learned more when classrooms were transformed so that students could spend much of their days working in peer groups.

“They took to it like fish to water,” Tharp recalls.

The Five Standards

Researchers from the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, & Excellence at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have identified the following five standards as critical to improving learning for students from diverse ethnic, cultural, linguistic, or economic backgrounds:

  • Teachers and students “producing” together, whether they are producing knowledge or some tangible product;
  • Developing students’ language and literacy competence in all subjects;
  • Connecting school and learning to students’ lives, or “contextualizing” knowledge;
  • Teaching complex thinking; and
  • Teaching through conversation rather than relying almost exclusively on lectures.

The switch to group-based learning was just one facet of a comprehensive program that eventually came to be known as the Kamehameha Elementary Education Project. The package seemed to succeed. A decade-long study involving more than 3,000 children showed that students in the Kamehameha-program classrooms consistently made bigger learning gains than their peers in more traditional schools.

But the program did not transport easily to one of Tharp’s next research destinations: a Navajo Indian reservation in Rough Rock, Ariz. Navajo children also lived in group-oriented societies, although their groups tended to revolve around their large, extended families. But they weren’t accustomed to working with opposite-sex peers.

What was needed, Tharp later came to believe, were effective strategies that could cut across all cultural boundaries, yet work particularly well for his “left behind” students. That was a turnaround from the scholarly thinking at the time. Most researchers looking at schools through the prism of culture in the 1970s and 1980s were tailoring their educational programs to the often-isolated communities in which they worked. The nation’s classrooms, on the other hand, were becoming increasingly multicultural and multilingual.

“If you have several different languages and races in the same classroom, there is no recourse but to provide a common culture in the classroom,” Tharp says. “That becomes the way children know each other.”

So Tharp and his research partner, Ronald Gallimore, set out to find the commonalities among the hundreds of sociocultural studies conducted by researchers in education. They spent five years analyzing research on Asian-American, Latino, African-American, Filipino, Appalachian, and dozens of other cultural groups.

The researchers sifted out only those studies with some research evidence attesting to their success and distilled from them a handful of deceptively simple characteristics that the most successful programs seemed to share. These became their five standards.

Tharp had the standards in hand in the mid-1990s, when he became the director of the research center here in Santa Cruz, known as CREDE. With much of a five-year, $3.9 million grant from the Education Department’s now-defunct office of educational research and improvement, the center built a systematic research program around them. Through randomized experiments, case studies, controlled comparisons, and other methods, the researchers tested the individual standards in a variety of schools and with different cultural groups.

The next step was to find a way to test the whole package."We could have taken all the different parts of the airplane, have them all tested separately, and then still ended up with a research-based educational program,” says R. William Doherty, the researcher heading up that effort. “But what we’ve been doing the last three-plus years is hypothesis testing, and so far, our hypotheses have all been supported.”

‘When you take these kids and put them in a class with high use of standards, not only are they maintaining, but they’re making gains,’

For its testing ground, the center chose Starlight Elementary School, a mostly Hispanic, predominantly poor K-5 school built on the site of the former Starlite drive-in movie theater in nearby Watsonville, Calif.

There, over a series of experiments conducted since 2000, the researchers have found that pupils whose teachers adhered most closely to the standards made larger-than-predicted gains, compared with their peers in more traditional classrooms.

That’s a departure from the usual pattern for English-language learners, says R. Soleste Hilberg, a co-author of many of those studies. Typically, such children lose ground as they move through school. “When you take these kids and put them in a class with high use of standards, not only are they maintaining, but they’re making gains,” she says.

Since the tests were in English, gains were greater in classes where English was the language of instruction. (Starlight also has bilingual classrooms.)

Subsequent studies at Starlight and another nearby elementary school showed that it seemed to make a difference if teachers had reorganized their classrooms to accommodate the standards. Such changes included using learning centers, for example, or small groups. Pupils’ test gains were even stronger when their classrooms reflected—and had been transformed by—the standards.

Doherty said ongoing, randomized studies the center is conducting at Starlight and other schools will show more definitively whether the good results are due to the standards or some other, unmeasured quality that the good teachers at the experimental schools share. He is betting on the former.

But teachers like Lucia Villarreal, a 30-year teaching veteran and a reading specialist at Starlight Elementary, don’t need further proof.

“A good teacher always has the students who didn’t quite make it, and you carry them in your heart 24 hours a day,” says Villarreal, who has spent most of her career in the classroom. “I find with the CREDE standards, I’ve been able to meet the needs of my students more so.”

Last year, she didn’t fail a single 3rd grader.

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

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