Bridging The Gap

Benchmark School brings educational research into the classroom

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Joyce Ostertag and Susan Audley walk into a seminar room carrying articles from recent academic journals. For two hours, they lead 12 people in a lively discussion on educational research. The discussants analyze and critique the articles, compare them with other studies and their own research, and debate the relevance of the findings.

The scene is a familiar one at colleges, graduate schools, and think tanks. The participants in this free-wheeling seminar, however, are teachers and administrators at a school for students ages 5 to 15, the Benchmark School in Media, Pa. The weekly seminar is just one of the many ways in which the school is moving educational research out of the ivory tower and into the classroom.

Benchmark is the brainchild of Irene Gaskins, the school's founder and director. A former professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Gaskins has long believed that researchers who study how children learn are too isolated from classroom teachers trying to meet students' day-to-day needs. Twenty years ago, she decided to start a school that would bridge the gap.

The result: Benchmark, a private school that currently enrolls some 165 bright, specially selected underachievers with reading problems. “We're looking for students who are clinically interesting,” Gaskins says. The school has a staff of 35 full- and part-time teachers, plus aides. Moreover, all 12 Benchmark administrators, including Gaskins, teach. The average class has 11 students; most have one teacher and one aide.

The school brings research into the classroom in several ways, starting with its hiring policies: Gaskins says she looks for teachers who share her passion for research. Once they are on board, Benchmark's weekly research seminar, led by one or two staff members, keeps teachers on top of recent findings that can help them with their students. Says first-year teacher Colleen O'Hara: “The exposure to research is very informative, although sometimes it's overwhelming because there is so much information. I get so many teaching ideas.”

Benchmark also has a research manager, Betsy Cunicelli, who coordinates research projects done by the school staff, supervises data collection, and works with Gaskins on articles for academic journals.

But perhaps the most important way Benchmark bridges the teacher-researcher gap is through its close collaboration with prominent outside scholars. The school devotes half of the first Monday of each month to in-service training sessions for its staff. These are conducted by outside experts, including some of the most well known researchers on cognition and reading. “It's very exciting to meet researchers and find out they are real people,” says teacher Susan Audley.

Benchmark's teachers and administrators also work with outside experts on special projects that both benefit the school and enable the staff to contribute to the research. For example, in the mid1980s, the school's staff began searching for a better way to teach reading. “We'd tried a lot of published programs,” says Gaskins, “and they didn't work because these kids had seen all the programs before. So we began asking every in-service presenter for help.”

One visiting expert suggested that Gaskins contact Pat Cunningham, an education professor at Wake Forest University, who had developed a reading method that teaches students to decode words by analogy—that is, by associating a new word with a known, similarly spelled word. After talking with Cunningham and looking into her method, Gaskins invited her to help the school's teachers develop a pilot program based on her ideas. Cunningham accepted the invitation. Then, Gaskins asked Richard Anderson, a well-known researcher on reading at the University of Illinois, to analyze the pilot program and suggest improvements. The staff at Benchmark modified the program accordingly, and it became the basis for a schoolwide reading curriculum called the Word Identification and Vocabulary Development Program. Gaskins, Cunningham, Anderson, and the teachers at Benchmark co-wrote a journal article about the program, and it was featured in a series of videotapes produced by the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois.

Benchmark teachers followed a similar path to see if the way they were teaching their students learning strategies could be improved. These strategies, such as organizing information into categories, using mnemonics, and making predictions while reading, come naturally for most people but are difficult for many students with learning disabilities.

A 1982 study of 60 Benchmark students by Gaskins and researcher Jonathan Barron of the University of Pennsylvania found that teaching learning strategies to these students was indeed important. But it also revealed that students had an easier time acquiring these strategies when they worked with an individual mentor. Barron and Gaskins published the results of the study, and Benchmark set up a mentor program.

John Bruer, president of the McDonnell Foundation, which gives grants for educational research, points out that the school's involvement with outside researchers is a two-way street: It benefits the researcher as well as the school. “It makes the lab scientist see how things need to be modified to work in a real classroom situation,” Bruer says. Adds teacher Audley, “The [researchers] get excited to see their research model being tried out with real material, real students.”

McDonnell was impressed enough with the Benchmark approach to award the school a three-year, $343,000 grant in 1988 to develop an across-the-school curriculum to teach “metacognitive skills”—skills children must have in order to learn. The staff completed the project this year, and a book on the curriculum, written by Gaskins and Benchmark teacher Thorne Elliot, was recently published. The foundation has just awarded Benchmark a second three-year grant, for $355,000, to help the school continue its mission.

While the grants and the recognition from prominent researchers are important, the real test of Benchmark's approach is whether it helps students. The school's records indicate that it most definitely does. Benchmark has tracked all of its students since the school opened 20 years ago. Although most had failed repeatedly in mainstream classrooms before coming to Benchmark, the vast majority ended up graduating in the top half of their high school classes. “These kids enter at extreme risk of not even finishing school, and they instead go on to graduate from high school, and many go on to college,” says Michael Pressley, a professor and researcher at the University of Maryland who has worked with Benchmark's staff. “The record of success is unambiguous.”

Says Bruer of the McDonnell Foundation: “Places like Benchmark are exceedingly important resources. It's a model of what we'd like to see more of: highly professional, motivated teachers interacting with the national research community.”

Vol. 03, Issue 01, Pages 28-29

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