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University of Delaware thought leaders in English language arts, mathematics and education policy are working to improve the quality of instruction for the nation’s underrepresented middle and high school students.
University of Delaware thought leaders in English language arts, mathematics and education policy are working to improve the quality of instruction for the nation’s underrepresented middle and high school students.

Improving student learning

Photo by Jessica Eastburn

Gates Foundation funds help UD researchers work to aid underrepresented students

Shaping minds is a big responsibility, one that teachers in classrooms across America embrace every day.

With the introduction of Common Core or state standards in math, science and English, teachers are tasked with delivering rigorous material in ways that students can easily understand, retain and explain.

This can be difficult when teaching students from traditionally marginalized groups who have not been exposed to this level of rigor. And when standards—and professional development resources—vary so widely across the nation, sometimes even between schools in the same district.

Now, with a $1.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, University of Delaware Professor Laura Desimone and a team of thought leaders in English language arts, mathematics and education policy are working to improve the quality of instruction for the nation’s underrepresented middle and high school students.

Prof. Laura Desimone
Prof. Laura Desimone

Desimone, director of research in UD’s College of Education and Human Development, and her team will work with 12 professional learning partnerships across the country as they design instruction that is better suited to student bodies that are mostly black or Latinx. Each partnership team is composed of a school district serving at least 50% minority students and a professional development team with expertise in supporting teachers to improve curriculum-aligned instruction. 

As the research arm of the project, Desimone and her team are leading work to study the implementation and success of the 12 partnerships, both individually and as a whole. The UD-led research team aims to provide useful feedback to the partnership teams as they refine and improve their efforts to support teachers.

According to Desimone, better instruction on rigorous content, combined with classroom approaches that are respectful and value a student’s own experiences and perspectives, can make learning more meaningful and relevant for students.

“When we ask teachers to use more rigorous content in their classrooms, we have to provide them with support and resources for doing this and for doing it in a way that meets the needs of all the students in their classroom,” Desimone said. “Students come to the classroom with different backgrounds, ideas and ways of looking at the world. We need to support teachers in developing culturally responsive practices that meet students where they are, in ways that respect and value their cultural differences.”

Making a difference

The number of students age 16 to 24 who drop out of high school is disproportionately from minority groups, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics. Moreover, data from the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment showed that 15-year-old African American and Hispanic students scored lower in reading and math than the U.S. average among their peers.

The UD-led work will focus on understanding the different approaches teachers are taking to teach rigorous content and the kinds of professional learning and support teachers are being offered to achieve their goals.

In the classroom, this might mean offering multiple ways to solve word problems in mathematics, instead of modeling just one approach. It can also mean revising instructional materials to better represent students’ cultural group.

From a policy perspective, this could mean day-to-day district policies for what students need to learn or what professional learning teachers are required to take. Important considerations include whether a policy or program is clear, specific and consistent with other things teachers are asked to do, and whether teachers agree with the approach taken in the professional learning—whether they think it will help their students learn. 

If they don’t, Desimone said, teachers will inherently be less likely to use it.

“No matter how great your professional learning, there are things that can facilitate or create barriers to whether it works,” Desimone said. “This includes things like whether a particular school has an engaged leader, parent involvement, a supportive culture, and whether teachers have a shared vision about what instruction should look like and what the student challenges are.”

The UD research team has developed a core survey to understand each partnership project’s current processes, successes and challenges. They plan to administer the survey to all 12 partnerships at multiple points over the three-year grant, beginning in January 2020, to capture data about teacher growth over time. 

Additionally, the research team plans to develop a web-based repository to showcase what different school districts are doing, how teachers across the different partnerships are changing their confidence, beliefs and everyday practice, and what impact these efforts have on the most disadvantaged students. In this way, the different approaches to professional learning can serve as a model for other schools.

“Our schools are not serving our students very well on average, especially our disadvantaged students,” Desimone said. “We must support teachers in building their knowledge and skills to better serve our students, toward the ultimate goal of student engagement and learning.” 

About the research team

The UD research team brings deep expertise and experience in using data to inform improvements in leadership, curriculum and instruction, all within the context of special populations. 

Desimone, professor and director of research for the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), has over 20 years of expertise in understanding how state, district and school-level policy can better promote changes in teaching that lead to improved student achievement and close the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Much of Desimone’s work has focused on school reform initiatives, standards-based reform and teacher quality initiatives, including teacher professional development, early career support and ongoing mentoring. Her work has been supported by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.

Collaborators on the project include co-principal investigator (PI) and project co-director Kirsten Hill, a UD research affiliate who leads her own evaluation firm in New Orleans, Louisiana; co-PIs Horatio Blackman, a researcher with UD’s Center for Research in Education and Social Policy, who specializes in school improvement and school climate; Mellissa Gordon, CEHD associate professor and expert in adolescent development; and Joshua Wilson, an assistant professor in the School of Education who studies literacy. Others involved in the project include Erica Litke, a senior researcher from the School of Education, who has a background in teaching and learning in mathematics, and graduate students Hillary May and Justine Yego. Henry May, director of UD’s Center for Research in Education and Social Policy and Andrew Porter, University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus, serve as consultants on the project.

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