School Reform and Beyond
“I think there’s a lot of evidence out there that if kids don’t get a good strong start in elementary school they’re knocked off their trajectory and have a real hard time recovering. And the earlier you can intervene, the better.”
– University of Michigan research scientist Robin Jacob.
The need to improve the educational outcomes of students in poverty is urgent. In the United States the gaps in achievement among poor and advantaged students are substantial. For example, data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) show that upon entry into kindergarten, students in the lowest quintile of family income in the United States scored on average at about the 30th percentile on the ECLS reading achievement assessment, while students in the middle quintile scored at about 45th percentile, and students in the top quintile scored at about the 70th percentile. Other studies show that such gaps are present not only in reading, but also in other subjects, and that they persist into later years of schooling.
Education researchers, policy makers, and the public at large often see school improvement as the main strategy for improving the achievement of poor children. Along these lines, an entirely new thrust in reform efforts has emerged in the United States over the past twenty-five years or so. Where once it was taken for granted that students’ social and family backgrounds exercised powerful effects on students’ ultimate academic achievements, the nation now seems committed to developing educational policies and practices that leave no child behind in terms of academic performance. However, a closer look at the data on educational achievement in the United States, and at the research underlying many claims about effective instructional programs for students in poverty, reveals that we have a long way to go before realizing this goal. While the achievement of students from disadvantaged circumstances (at least as measured by our national indicators) has risen over the past twenty-five years, poor students’ achievements still lag substantially behind those of more advantaged students. Moreover, most of the school and instructional interventions that have been developed and touted in recent years as the primary means for improving the education of disadvantaged students have only small effects on poor students’ levels of academic achievement.
The School Reform and Beyond (SRB) project was conceived and initiated at the University of Michigan with the ambitious goal of tackling this vexing education achievement gap problem. Given the persistence of the social problem over time despite the federal government’s efforts to make closing of achievement gaps part of educational accountability, and despite many good efforts at curricular improvement and school reform, the SRB team decided to take a particularly creative approach.
SRB pursues an integrated, developmental model of intervention. Beginning early in life and with infant’s first teachers, SRB supports positive parenting by transforming pediatric and health services in ways that empower parents to promote their children’s wellness, cognitive and social-emotional growth, and subsequent academic success. SRB offers teachers research-tested tools for the classroom and the playground that motivate selfregulated and cooperative learning, beginning in pre-kindergarten, and that also enhance teachers’ effectiveness and student learning each hour of the day. And SRB builds a whole-school model of collaboration among teachers, spanning the gaps between pre-school and later graded schooling, creating an environment of continuous and collaborative improvement among teachers and cumulative learning for children.
Who We Are
SRB was successfully established as a collaborative research network based at the University of Michigan with additional research nodes forming at Georgetown, Harvard, and New York Universities. Partners to the SRB network were recruited, including faculty leaders from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the New York University School of Medicine, the University of Pittsburgh, plus the Success for All Foundation (SFA) in Baltimore, Maryland. Collectively, these scholars – representing the fields of economics, education, medicine, psychology, and public policy – offer a broad and comprehensive research base that stimulates creative thinking and contributes significantly to project planning and development.
“This could have an enormous impact on children, families, and probably on the way we view poverty and the ability to change children’s chances in life,” – University of Michigan psychology professor Fred Morrison.
The product created by the SRB team called SECURe (Social, Emotional, Cognitive Understanding and Regulation in education) enhances children’s regulation of cognitive, emotional and interpersonal skills through implementation of a comprehensive school-wide program of classroom-based lessons and school routines, with the ultimate goal of improving academic performance and developing a community of self-regulated learners. Through a year-long series of group experiences inside and outside the classroom, children learn to regulate their thinking (via Brain Games), emotions (through Stop-and-Stay-Cool) and interpersonal relations (via the Peace Path) and ultimately perform better in school.
SECURe is currently aligned with the SFA literacy curriculum, a widely adopted and research-proven model of cooperative learning. A key advantage of this approach is the fact that the intervention is integrated with the existing curriculum – so the teacher does not have to omit anything from a crowded lesson plan in order to teach self-regulation skills.
SRB programmatically rolled out its work with three interconnected strategies, developed in the following chronologic order:
The K-3 Initiative is designed to improve the self-regulation skills of students in grades K-3. A pre-pilot was conducted in Long Branch, New Jersey, and then the intervention was developed and piloted – first in the Atlanta Public School System, and then in the Alhambra (Phoenix area) School System.
The final round of data collection from the K-3 pilot study has concluded. In Alhambra, six control and treatment schools with 1,400 students were individually interviewed by 25 research assistants, plus 145 teachers completed assessment reports on over 3,000 students. Ongoing plans call for a large-scale efficacy trial, including 40 schools across several states, to evaluate the impact of SECURe across a broad and diverse population of elementary school children.
The pre-K Initiative is designed to promote self-regulation for pre-school children across social, emotional, and cognitive domains, based on the SECURe model. Preliminary work in Phoenix is generating an intervention for school-embedded pre-school programs that sets the foundation for attaining the developmental goals of selfregulated learning by kindergarten and first grade. A novel feature of this model lies in bridging seamlessly between pre-school and kindergarten and then onward so that children experience an effectively sequenced continuum of skill-building and the benefit of teacher teams working collaboratively from pre-K into graded schooling. The ultimate pre-K curriculum will further adapt the SECURe approach so that the unique instructional and learning challenges of special needs students in ordinary classrooms can be met efficiently and effectively.
The training of Early Childhood staff members is now completed, with positive initial feedback on the core structures, routines, and lessons for Pre-K. Full year Pre-K materials are presently being written and the pre-K intervention will be piloted in Head Start classrooms in Alhambra, Arizona starting in the fall of 2012.
The 0-3 Initiative is designed to address the same goal as the pre-K and K-3 initiatives, but to do so through the only service platform available to nearly all low-income infants and toddlers, the pediatric primary and preventive health care system. SRB 0-3 has identified two evidence-based interventions, VIP (Video Interaction Project) and FCU (Family Check-Up) and is re-engineering them to serve as universal and targeted strategies to be implemented at relatively low-cost via pediatric care practices.
Proposals are being submitted to conduct a rigorous efficacy trial of this integrated model and to identify strategies from the field of behavioral economics to supercharge this intervention. The vision of SRB 0-3 is to empower parents and pediatric care practitioners to create more effective partnerships that enhance early parenting and set very young children on a trajectory toward school readiness and academic achievement.
Where We’re Headed
No challenge has greater benefits to families and the nation’s future than providing sequenced experiences and environments, from birth onward, for success in school. SRB’s ultimate goal is to take to national scale a sustainable, efficient, and developmentally integrated set of evidence-based interventions that accelerate learning of all children and especially for those from low-income families and underserved communities.
With the aim of reaching that ultimate goal the SRB network plans to extend its current scope of work by adding complementary intervention components to complete its full model:
- Expanding upon the parent-oriented intervention of the 0-3 initiative to address a fuller range of parenting and home-based challenges of pre-school and school-aged children.
- Extending an integrated pre-K through Grade 3 whole school intervention upward to include Grades 4 and 5.
- Creating a stand-alone version of SECURe (independent of the SFA platform). That effort is now beginning. (One prospective partner is interested in expanding SECURE to higher grades, including 4-8, as well as perhaps to out of school programs.) The curriculum, training and operating procedures for a K-1 pilot are currently being developed; the goal is to have these ready by August 2012.
- Developing an intervention, Leading for Solutions, aimed at teachers and administrators to foster a learning community of continuous improvement in best practices, the use of consensual metrics to gauge success across classrooms of a school, and collaborative professional development.
- Creating materials and approaches for children with special needs.
Behind the Scenes
SRB began with support from CARSS. This leveraged a larger investment in the network over time. In particular, SRB has been sustained and enabled to expand by generous grants and awards from the following:
- The Spencer Foundation,
- The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation,
- The Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education,
- The Institute for Human Growth and Social Change, NYU,
- The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, plus
- Grants from two donors who wished to remain anonymous.
The SRB project has evolved to the point that it is now a launched and self-administered project, independent of CARSS’ support. Going forward the project leadership is seeking funding from foundations and government agencies for its various project-related initiatives.
CARSS is proud of what the SRB network has accomplished. We look forward to the ongoing achievements of the SRB network as further stages of the work unfold and make their contribution to solving the educational achievement gap problem!