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"An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people."
– Thomas Jefferson
Each of the SERP areas of work can be traced back to a district-defined problem of practice. When a partnership with a school district is established, SERP agrees to recruit researchers in whatever area the district identifies as its highest priority—with the proviso that the problem must be shared by other school districts.
The district chooses the grade span and subject area(s) for focus. Once an interdisciplinary team of researchers is recruited for the project, the problem definition is refined in a collaborative process that draws both on the expertise of the researchers and the knowledge and goals of district practitioners.
SERP deliberately builds on existing knowledge, programs, and tools. But districts rarely nominate a focal problem for which a solution currently exists. A central feature of the partnership work is therefore the design of new programs, tools, and practices. SERP design processes use research knowledge to design for students, teachers, and administrators as end users of the products—prototyping and improving in response to observations of practice and user feedback. All SERP products are explicitly designed for scale.
SERP follows the contours of a problem over time. The solution to one problem often exposes another problem such as the absence of instructional capacity, the need for actionable data, or an organizational barrier to improvement. To the extent that funding permits, the newly exposed problems become the focus for the next phase of work.
Addressing a concern raised by Boston Public Schools (BPS) in 2005, SERP has been focused for nearly a decade on ways to support the development of academic language— also known as "the language of school." SERP's collaboration with BPS led to the development of a simple interdisciplinary instructional intervention for middle schools to better prepare students for high school texts. The program, Word Generation, was developed in collaboration with faculty from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and is now used by schools in all fifty states and more than fifty countries. Word Generation has been extended downward to 4th and 5th grades and content units for middle grades social studies and science have been developed. An assessment of academic language knowledge has been developed and validated by HGSE faculty.
Lead Researcher: Catherine Snow, Harvard Graduate School of Education
At the start of the SERP partnership, Boston Public Schools leaders expressed a frustration with middle grades reading assessments: available assessments could either be administered to an entire class with results reported that were inadequately detailed, or detail could be provided with a one-on-one assessment that was resource prohibitive. SERP collaborated with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to develop the RISE (Reading Inventory and Scholastic Evaluation) assessment. The RISE is designed to be administered in under 60 minutes and to provide detailed profiles not typically available with class-administered standardized tests.
Lead Researcher: John Sabatini, Educational Testing Service
RISE scores identified a substantial number of middle school students (1/4 to 1/3 in some schools) who still struggle with basic reading skills. The Strategic Adolescent Reading Intervention (STARI) was designed in collaboration with Boston area districts to allow students to meet credit requirements for English courses at the same time that it provides specialized and comprehensive remediation. Materials are highly engaging and appeal to the emerging capacity of adolescents to think deeply about important social issues.
Lead Researcher: Lowry Hemphill, Wheelock College
A grant awarded to SERP by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) as part of the Reading for Understanding Initiative has allowed a SERP team that includes researchers from Harvard University, Wheelock College, Stanford University, and Boston University, to develop measurement instruments and conduct research on the development of perspective taking, critical reasoning, and academic language for students in grades 4-8, and to study the independent contribution of each factor to reading comprehension. Working with practitioners in districts from Massachusetts, Maryland, and California, the team developed or extended instructional programs and programs of professional development. The team is evaluating the programs’ impact on the hypothesized contributors for a population of students in grades 4-8.
Co-investigators: Suzanne Donovan, SERP; Catherine Snow, James Kim, Stephanie Jones, Robert Selman, Paola Uccelli, Kurt Fischer, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Jonathan Osborne, Stanford University; Lowry Hemphill, Wheelock College
As part of the Catalyzing Comprehension through Discussion and Debate (CCDD) project, SERP has developed social studies and science curriculum that is related to content typically covered in middle school. The curriculum provides opportunities to develop the literacy skills associated with content-area instruction. All materials are especially dynamic and engaging, in the tradition of Word Generation.
Lead Researcher: Catherine Snow
Team members from the Boston Field Site were joined by collaborators from the University of Michigan to construct and pilot a set of instruments for eliciting teacher and student perceptions of literacy roles, attitudes, and practices in and out of school—the Content-area Literacy Survey (CALS).
Lead Researchers: Catherine Snow, Harvard University; Elizabeth Moje, University of Michigan
Addressing the problem the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) put forth, SERP set out to increase achievement in Algebra 1, especially for minority students. Research suggests that the simple instructional technique of having students study examples of problem solutions and explain targeted correct or incorrect steps in the example improves students’ conceptual knowledge without sacrificing procedural skill. SERP’s collaboration with faculty from Temple University, Carnegie Mellon University and University of Rochester led to the development of AlgebraByExample, a bank of 42 assignments interleaving worked examples to analyze and explain with problems to solve.
Lead Researcher: Julie Booth, Temple University
Responding to the problem posed by the San Francisco Unified School District regarding the decline in mathematics performance in the middle grades, SERP-recruited researchers identified the culture of mathematics classrooms as a major contributor to the problem. Both teachers and students were focused on getting the right answers to problems rather than on understanding the mathematics. The team of co-developers explored approaches to shifting the culture via small but powerful changes in the tasks given to students. These changes were consolidated into a tool-kit for sense-making in mathematics.
Lead Researchers: Alan Schoenfeld, U.C. Berkeley; Phil Daro, SERP
When classroom teachers successfully shift the focus of the classroom toward student reasoning, students often reveal that they are using below grade-level mathematics to solve problems. The instructional challenge is one of drawing out students’ thinking, comparing problem solving strategies, and moving all students to the grade level mathematics. But few teachers have the preparation to teach in this way. SERP has developed lessons for diagnostic teaching to support teachers to make the shift in instructional practice and classroom assessment practices. The companion supports for the lessons allow teachers to build their own content knowledge and capacity for diagnostic teaching.
SERP teams heard from principals, coaches, and other leaders that a handy tool was needed to help focus principals’ observations in math classrooms on the implementation of the CCSS mathematical practices. The “5x8 Card” was the result. As a product of user-based design, the 5x8 Card targets the intersection of the principal’s experience observing in classrooms with the underlying principles of the CCSS-M practice standards. Detailed empathy and user experience work led to design specifications: brevity; 5 x 8 inch format; concrete, catalytic ideas that excite action rather than covering all components of instruction comprehensively. Principals have embraced the 5x8 card, but its success created a demand from teachers, teacher leaders, and coaches for a tool to support teachers to make the shifts principals were advocating. SERP responded with the development of the “Deck behind the 5x8 Card.”
Lead Researcher: Phil Daro, SERP
The Common Core State Standards in Mathematics specify content to be taught to eighth grade that is not aligned with a typical Algebra 1 course. In districts that have moved Algebra 1 to eighth grade, the standards come into conflict with what has become the symbol of a rigorous mathematics course pathway. SERP collaborated with the math leadership teams in San Francisco Unified School District and Oakland Unified School District to generate course pathways that preserve the CCSS-M focus on eighth grade math content, but allow students to compress courses in order to complete as many math courses as were possible when eighth grade Algebra 1 was the norm. The course pathway proposals and their presentation to the school boards in the two districts model effective negotiation of the concerns of parents for college preparatory instruction and the knowledge of mathematics specialists regarding critical middle school mathematics that should not be skipped in the interest of acceleration.
Lead Researcher: Phil Daro, SERP
SERP is working with the Berkeley Evaluation and Assessment Research (BEAR) Center to develop an empirically-grounded understanding of how student learning of content and reasoning develops along a trajectory from naïve to scientifically accurate in middle school physical science. In addition to a set of core physical science concepts, the progressions target students’ abilities to reason and argue in a scientific context. The team members are exploring new ground in their attempt to operationalize scientific reasoning such that it can be readily assessed in a quantitative or semi-quantitative manner validly and reliably.
Lead Researchers: Mark Wilson, U.C. Berkeley; Jonathan Osborne, Stanford University, Paul Black, Kings College, London
In collaboration with faculty from Stanford University, SERP is co-designing a professional development model with 4-8th grade science teachers that attends to issues related to literacy development within science teaching. Along with a focus on catalyzing comprehension through discussion and debate, the team aims to broaden the conception of a science pedagogy to include more meaningful engagement with text and participation in scientific argumentation.
Lead Researcher: Jonathan Osborne, Stanford University
SERP is working with faculty from Stanford University and with the San Francisco Unified School District to investigate the association between the type of instructional pathway ELL students follow and their subsequent academic outcomes and English proficiency. The project has primarily investigated the relative impacts (or associations) of four types of ELL instructional pathways (bilingual, dual immersion, English immersion, and newcomer pathways). In addition, the project has explored a number of related questions regarding how, why, for whom, and under what conditions different ELL instructional programs are effective.
Lead Researcher: Sean Reardon, Stanford University
SERP and CREATE (Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners) partnered to develop additional resources to support English learners with academic language development. The resource, called Advancing Academic Language for All! (AALA), can be used to support all students who struggle with academic language. AALA promotes greater participation for students using Word Generation Series 3 by providing word study, discussion starters, and background information. Results show that AALA students show significant gains in vocabulary acquisition.
Researchers: Colleen Reutebuch and Vanessa Cortez, University of Texas
Beginning in 2007, SERP has collaborated with faculty and doctoral students from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and leaders from the Boston Public Schools to develop an assessment of schools’ internal coherence, and protocols to build coherence in the interest of improving instruction and sustaining reforms.
The Internal Coherence Assessment and Protocol (ICAP) is designed to provide school leadership, and potentially system-level supervisors, with a structured body of information about a school’s capacity on each of the three dimensions of Internal Coherence: leadership focused on the support for instructional practice; whole school and team-level organizational structures and processes; and individual and collective efficacy beliefs. ICAP data profiles are designed to locate schools’ existing capacity on a developmental rubric along the various dimensions of the model. Professional development activities are suggested as next steps for each school guided by the provisional causal order underlying the work.
Lead researcher: Richard Elmore, Harvard Graduate School of Education
About SERP's Areas of Work
English Language Learners
Strategic Education Research Partnership
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