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School of Education and SF Unified get in step

Raul Cuiriz at the CSET Teaching Studio
Raul Cuiriz at the CSET Teaching Studio
Partnership Director Laura Wentworth
Partnership Director Laura Wentworth
Heather Hough of CEPA
Heather Hough of CEPA

School of Education and SF Unified get in step

Stanford partners with San Francisco school district to improve practice and achievement

By Marguerite Rigoglioso

At Balboa High School in San Francisco, students in Raul Cuiriz’s history class are getting away from dull, dry history textbooks and digging into primary texts –– newspaper accounts, letters, eyewitness narratives, government documents. They’re analyzing and discussing this living material like historians. For these students, the new approach is making history stick: Last year, their state test scores were significantly improved.

For 10 days during each of the past two summers, the 28-year-old instructor has been immersed in the Stanford Humanities Teaching Studio, learning how to integrate pedagogical innovations into his classroom such as the “Reading Like a Historian” curriculum developed by Professor Sam Wineburg. The Teaching Studio, developed by Stanford’s Center to Support Education in Teaching (CSET) under the direction of Professor Pam Grossman and cosponsored by the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts, offers secondary English and history/social studies teachers the lessons and ongoing support they need to design inspired and effective instruction. The teachers work cohort style, which allows them to build professional communities and bring the information back to their school sites for synergistic sharing.

Forging a Formal Research Alliance

The CSET Teaching Studio is just one of two-dozen collaborations between the School of Education and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) in 2010-11. Applied research is nothing new at the School of Education, which has long eschewed the ivory tower in favor of analysis with real-world relevance and direct applicability. What’s new, since 2008, is a formalized partnership between Stanford and the district to allow for better coordination between the numerous professional development and research projects initiated by Stanford faculty and the real needs of San Francisco schools.

“In the past, Stanford faculty employed district data to answer broad questions about effective education policy and practice, but the work did not necessarily meet the needs of the district,” says Phil Halperin (BA ’85), president of the Silver Giving Foundation, which supports P-12 reform efforts in California. Moreover, findings from Stanford research often did not reach the eyes and ears of the district leaders or teachers, and consequently left a shallow footprint.

When, on Halperin’s suggestion, Dean Deborah Stipek shot out an email to find out how many faculty members were working on projects with SFUSD –– and received scores of individual responses back –– she and Halperin decided it was time to seek better alignment between the district’s strategic goals and research programs at Stanford. The formal partnership was born, and Laura Wentworth (PhD ’10), a doctoral student at the time who was working with the district, was hired as the first director.

“This is a unique collaboration between a school of education and a school district because it’s bringing two institutions together toward one vision,” says Wentworth. That vision is to promote innovative, practical research, and engage practitioners, policymakers, and academics in a thoughtful dialogue about research findings and implications for decision-making.

“We want to maintain the entrepreneurial spirit of Stanford faculty while making sure that the research is aligned with district priorities,” Wentworth says. “The questions the researchers address are the ones that the district needs answers to. The teamwork helps faculty produce research and publications that are accessible and meaningful for district leaders.”

“It’s particularly powerful now that everyone is looking at the same data analyses,” adds Halperin. Indeed, one of Wentworth’s jobs is to ensure the visibility of all research output by regularly disseminating it district wide and among Stanford faculty. “As a result, we’re no longer receiving duplicate research requests and the information is getting where it needs to go,” Wentworth notes.

Making a Difference in the Classroom

The ultimate goal of the collaboration is to advance student achievement –– and improving teacher quality is key to that goal. Indeed, research has shown that the achievement gap could be significantly narrowed if every child in the United States had a high-quality teacher for three years in a row. Finding ways to accomplish this goal is a top priority for educators and policymakers throughout the state of California.

In Raul Cuiriz’s history class at Balboa High School, the Stanford/SFUSD vision is hitting its mark, thanks to the teaching tools and techniques offered by the CSET Teaching Studio. Cuiriz’s use of primary documents, in particular, has emerged from his exposure to the “Reading like a Historian” curriculum offered as a part of the summer program. This innovative Stanford project designed to increase student achievement is the creation of Professor Sam Wineburg of the Stanford History Education Group. Each lesson revolves around a central historical question and features compelling primary documents modified for students with diverse reading skills and abilities.

“After having analyzed historical documents from the ‘Reading Like a Historian’ perspective, my students showed an improvement in state tests last year because the approach helps them recall and understand the material better,” says Cuiriz. “Even more important, it inspires them to become deeply engaged in class discussion and conversation with their peers about the material. They see more clearly how it’s relevant to their lives.”

The curriculum was also implemented elsewhere in the San Francisco Unified School District in 2008-09 with the help of Abby Reisman (PhD ’11), one of Wineburg’s advisees. Like Cuiriz, San Francisco teachers across the board who have been exposed to the new method have found that the innovative pedagogical method improves reading comprehension, historical thinking, transfer of history knowledge, and mastery of factual knowledge.

“Instructors who attend the Teaching Studio and learn about these teaching methods are getting great results with students,” affirms Amy Bloodgood, a teacher on special assignment for high school English language arts support with SFUSD. “It stimulates their own excitement about their curricula.” For Bloodgood, the new partnership between the district and Stanford also brings added value. “It means that, as a liaison, I’m regularly updated on professional development offerings being provided by Stanford. This is helping us in our efforts to develop a common core curriculum for high schools so that teachers can speak the same language,” she says.

A Multi-Pronged Approach

The priorities of SFUSD focus on three major goals: making social justice a reality through greater access to rigorous education for all students; engaging joyful learners through stimulating instruction; and keeping promises to students and families through greater accountability. The 24 Stanford research projects this past year have thus been aligned with those priorities. Among them are efforts to understand interracial classroom interactions, enhance the efficacy of mid-career principals, develop more effective curricula in areas such as math and literacy, and evaluate teacher performance.

“Our projects are aimed at three levels: improving teaching, improving leadership, and improving policy,” notes Dean Stipek. “A multilevel approach is important, because improvements made at only one level can be undone at the next level. For example, even the most effective teachers will have a difficult time providing good instruction in a poorly managed school. Similarly, innovative, reform-minded principals can have their work undercut by poorly informed district, state or federal policies. To ensure alignment across the levels, the Stanford/SFUSD partnership is coordinating the ongoing work of our faculty in the district.”

Assessing How Policy Affects Teacher Quality: Prop A

Analyses of the Quality Teacher and Education Act (QTEA), from its inception to its impact, is an example of a collaborative project that informs district-level policy. The goals are to understand how a new California state measure is impacting teacher effectiveness and to help the district figure out how it may implement that measure effectively. In June 2008, San Francisco voters passed QTEA, also known as Proposition A, authorizing SFUSD to collect $198 per parcel of taxable property over the next 20 years. Part of that money is being applied to teacher compensation programs, including extra pay for teachers in difficult-to-staff schools and difficult-to-fill subject areas. The funds will help address a long-standing problem: the exceedingly low salaries of San Francisco teachers and the negative effect that has had on teacher quality.

Doctoral student Heather Hough (BA ’02), Professor Susanna Loeb, and Professor (Research) David Plank at Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) have been collaborating with the district to document the passage of this policy. Their research has looked at what it took to induce the broader public to open its purse strings, and how the district and the teachers’ union consulted, negotiated, and compromised to determine how those funds were to be used.

In the first phase of the research, Hough identified a number of lessons for other districts interested in seeking additional funds to raise teacher salaries or introduce new systems of teacher compensation or support as a mean of improving teacher quality. “These include things like starting early to allow for bargaining time with all of the competing interests, being willing to compromise to pursue shared goals, and engaging the community early to build political and financial support,” she says. Nancy Waymack, SFUSD’s executive director of policy and operations observes, “The formal partnership with Stanford allows for much easier sharing of the information with coworkers and other districts that are eager to know how we helped get the measure passed.”

Hough is now leading the research team in conducting a three-year evaluation of Prop A’s impact, focusing on how QTEA is being used to improve the teacher workforce. Combining analysis of the district’s administrative data with original data collection, the team is looking specifically at the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers, the overall raising of teachers’ skill levels, and the strategic removal of less effective teachers.

Reflecting on the data, Hough notes, “In a very challenging policy climate, QTEA implementation is off to a good start, but there are definitely areas for improvement.” As to retention, the study has revealed that salary increases seem to have had a positive effect: In 2010, fewer teachers reported planning to leave within five years than in 2008. Of those who planned to leave, salary was less of a reason than in previous years. However, bonuses have so far not led to an increase in transfers to hard-to-staff schools.

When it comes to supporting and removing underperforming teachers, QTEA includes provisions aimed at changing the district’s Peer Assistance and Review program (PAR) by increasing teacher support and accountability. “There’s a general sense among stakeholders that changes in this regard may be the most meaningful aspect of Proposition A,” says Hough. Revisions to the program will offer easier entry for teachers: Based on analyses of the data, a decision was made to allow teachers with “needs improvement” ratings as well as “unsatisfactory” ratings to be referred, enabling more of them to get support. At the same time, the standard for successful completion after PAR has been raised, meaning that under-performing teachers may be moved to dismissal more easily. Furthermore, teachers who have successfully participated in PAR before will be moved to dismissal if referred again.

In the area of teacher development, Proposition A includes a program that allows release time for those identified as “master teachers” to support approximately 200 of their colleagues, particularly newer instructors. While the concept has a great deal of potential for improving teacher quality, so far it has been awkward in practice. “Because of problems with program rollout, the selection of master teachers was not ideal,” says Hough. “The culture in schools has sometimes not been welcoming of the master teacher role, and master teachers themselves have been struggling with what their new position entails. Many think that the presence of such identified individuals has not been particularly useful.”

Overall, then, the CEPA study is pointing to a few areas for course correction if SFUSD wants Prop A to result in the dramatic effects hoped for in raising the level of the teacher workforce. “This project has been a huge undertaking involving taxpayer funds that are connected to goals of increasing student achievement. The collaboration with Stanford has been indispensable in helping us to make sure dollars are put effectively toward advancing that goal,” says Nancy Waymack. “Having a respected external voice gives us unbiased expert weigh-in about how we’re doing. It allows for frank and important conversations among constituents that help us make sure plans are moving forward or to figure out what we need to revamp.  

Stanford is also stepping in with other types of support, as well. On the master teachers front, for example, because individuals identified for such roles typically have no training in guiding other teachers, CSET is planning a program that will help master teachers and their principals develop coaching skills.

“This is really important research that’s driving our decisions,” Waymack emphasizes, “and we certainly hope Stanford will be around for as many of the twenty years that QTEA will be in effect as possible.”

A Model for the Future

Building the skills and knowledge of high school teachers through summer short courses and ongoing support, and evaluating the impact of state policy on recruiting and retaining quality teachers –– these are just two of the many collaborations between Stanford School of Education and the San Francisco Unified School District. And all of this is just the beginning of what promises to be a long and productive alliance to unite research, policy, and practice that will have an influence far beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. Already, lessons learned about effective practices and policies in this partnership are being shared with districts throughout the country. The collaboration is playing a central role in Stanford’s efforts to contribute to improvements in U.S. public education.

“With the Stanford/SFUSD partnership, we’re also developing a powerful model for how universities and districts can work together,” says Stipek. “A university can provide the kind of knowledge and support that P-12 schools need, while university faculty and students can gain a deep understanding of the real-world challenges and opportunities that districts face. I don’t think Schools of Education can train teachers, school leaders and researchers effectively if they are not deeply involved in the real world of education. A sustained relationship with a district has many benefits. We have the time to build trust and to understand each other’s culture and strengths and limitations. I think that this type of collaboration is really the wave of future.”

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