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2006Research Conference | June 15–16

This conference highlighted the work of invited speakers, independent researchers who have received grant funds from the Institute of Education Sciences, and trainees supported through predoctoral training grants and postdoctoral fellowships. The presentations are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Education or the Institute of Education Sciences.
Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill
400 New Jersey Avenue, N.W.
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Remarks to the IES Research Conference

by Michael Casserly, Executive Director Council of the Great City Schools

Thank you for that kind introduction. Thank you Russ for your outstanding leadership of IES and the research community. And thank you for the invitation to speak with you today about a topic that is so vital to the organization that I am privileged to lead. That topic, of course, is research and practice and how we can bring these areas closer together.

For those of you who may not know us, the Council of the Great City Schools is a coalition of the nation's largest urban public school systems. Our member districts range in size from about 1.1 million students to approximately 30,000 students. Our districts enroll about 30 percent of the nation's poor students, students of color, and English language learners. And our districts are the places where much of the debate about education reform in America converges.

The Council's members play a unique role in educational research in that we are practitioners; we are consumers of research; and we also are producers of research. For example, each year in our "Beating the Odds" series, the Council publishes the state test scores of our member districts. This closely watched series shows student achievement trends city-by-city, grade-by-grade, and by race, poverty status, language proficiency, and disability.

The Council also initiated the Trial Urban District Assessment, a project of NAEP that allows 11 cities so far to be oversampled so that it is easy to see how students in these particular cities are doing academically. We sought to obtain these city-identifiable results for three reasons-

  1. As a coalition of urban school systems, we wanted to make it crystal clear that we were fully committed to the highest academic standards for our children and we wanted to be more transparent about our results.
  2. We wanted to compare results of our school districts across state lines with other school districts facing many of the same challenges in ways that the current 50-state assessment system does not allow.
  3. Finally, we wanted a mechanism to gauge our progress and evaluate our reforms so that we could tell what was working and what wasn't.

We have been backing up our desire to be more transparent with research into why some big city school systems improve faster than others and how we translate that knowledge into technical assistance for urban school systems that need help.

This work is giving us important clues about the systemic levers that we need to pull in order to accelerate academic performance. I am telling you about this work today for what some might consider a self-serving reason, but here it is: Because negative perceptions about urban schools are still so pervasive, people often forget how serious urban school systems are about improving achievement. We need to remind people about our strong commitment.

I don't have to tell anyone in this room that urban public education is under more pressure to improve than any other institution-public or private-in the nation. Urban public schools are being told to produce results, or get out of the way. They are being told to improve, or see the public go somewhere else. They are being told to be accountable for what they do, or let someone else do it. Some of the criticism is justified. Some of it is not. Either way, the court of public opinion and, indeed, history itself are challenging our urban school systems to improve achievement for all students to levels that no nation has ever asked of its schools.

Many groups might have folded under the pressure, giving up in the face of mounting criticism or entrenched cynicism. But urban school systems across the country are doing what a lot of people didn't think they were capable of doing. They are rising to the occasion and focusing on instruction with a vigor that many people might find surprising. Student achievement is increasing. Achievement gaps are showing some signs of narrowing. Management and operations are improving. And public confidence shows signs of renewal. The gains have not stopped the criticism or muted the pressure, but the preliminary trend lines suggest that urban education is on the right track.

Urban school systems cannot do this job alone, however. If we are going to meet our challenges, we need better research; we need different kinds of research; we need more capacity to conduct research; we need more effective ways of disseminating research. And we need all of this now.

Earlier this year, we asked our member districts what questions they most needed answered as they worked to improve. The responses fell into six broad categories: student achievement, teacher quality and professional development, high school reform, funding and the use of resources, leadership and governance, and choice and supplemental services. The questions they raised in these areas were telling. Consider these examples:

  • What are the common instructional practices of the faster-improving urban school districts and how do these practices differ from those in urban school districts that are showing slower gains?
  • Why did the urban school districts participating in TUDA not show faster gains in reading achievement when that's where we have put much of our energy? Are the state tests and NAEP measuring fundamentally different things? Do urban districts' reading strategies need to be broadened so that students can improve faster on both measures of achievement? Or did our efforts to improve reading simply show up in our math scores instead?
  • What's more effective in urban districts: a standardized curriculum or a prescriptive one? Or do you need both in tandem?
  • What kinds of professional development have the greatest effects on student achievement?
  • What are the most effective strategies for teaching reading to adolescents who are substantially below grade level?
  • How do we raise the rigor of our high school courses when our students are so far behind?
  • What is the best way to leverage the massive amounts of new data being produced by NCLB to improve accountability and boost achievement?
  • What is the most cost-effective way to spend and allocate district resources to boost performance?

Many of these questions and hundreds of others are strategic in nature and relate to the progress or performance of whole school systems-not variables, subgroups, programs, or individual schools, the focus of most education research. One would be hard-pressed, in fact, to find much education research on how to guide systemic reform in urban schools. One might have better luck looking outside the field of education-like big business, municipal government, or the military-for research on how large institutions or systems reform and improve.

The second set of questions raised by our member districts was more tactical in nature. These questions dealt with implementation and practice, issues that have attracted scant attention from many education researchers. Here are some examples from that set of questions:

  • What is the most effective way to deploy reading coaches in the schools?
  • What is the most effective way to differentiate professional development when the district has limited release days?
  • What are the most effective ways to conduct "walk-through" procedures? Do walk throughs even matter-and under what conditions?
  • What intervention strategies are proving to be the most effective at raising student achievement?

Unfortunately, many researchers seem to think that exploring questions like these are not worth their time. Yet, for practitioners, these questions reflect "make-or-break" issues that they wish the research community would spend more time on . . . because such issues are critical to raising academic achievement.

Practitioners also know that they can't depend on the school systems themselves to generate a sufficient quantity of research. For a long time, the research community has been hurt by the waning capacity of big city school systems to conduct their own research and evaluations. Some of this problem is due to budget cuts over the years; some is due to the increasing dominance of the states over education; and some is due to suspicions about our own objectivity. Whatever the cause, the result has been that the research units of many urban school systems now handle little more than test administration, leaving much of the hard research to universities, laboratories, or think tanks that may not have the same imperatives as the school systems themselves have.

I'd like to turn briefly now to a related but often-overlooked issue, and that is, the dissemination of educational research. The current (sorry) state of affairs is that many practitioners don't know where to find good research; many practitioners don't know if they can trust the research that they can find; and many practitioners don't always know how to use research, period. Typically, practitioners learn from each other. Doing this may be the best way to pick up information on those smaller tactical questions, such as how to use reading coaches in classrooms. But this approach-one practitioner learning from another practitioner- is also a good way to spread bad practices. More fundamentally, it is the wrong way to solve larger strategic and systemic problems that are plaguing urban school districts.

To begin addressing some of these larger issues, the Council has begun working with Russ Whitehurst and IES, who are stepping up to the plate and beginning to tie the research and practitioner communities together in a way that should help both over the long run.

We have started by exploring a possible fellowship for senior researchers who are interested in working directly in urban schools on problems of common interest to both. We are working on establishing an urban education advisory group that will include senior researchers and urban school practitioners to sharpen some of the most important questions in urban education and help lay out a more convincing urban school research agenda nationally.

We are also talking about bringing IES staff, Council research staff, and urban research directors together on a more regular basis to share information about IES initiatives, research, and evaluation efforts, and to bring research issues from the field to the IES table for consideration. This effort would be designed to improve communications and better disseminate information.

We are discussing the viability to setting up more cross-district research. For instance, IES and the Council might be interested in having cities vary their approaches to high school reform and seeing how these varying approaches affect-or do not affect- student outcomes.

We may also be looking at possible new secondary analysis of federal databases and collecting new data on the instructional practices of urban school districts to see what is shaping our academic trend lines. With the urban NAEP, such research is more possible than ever.

We are exploring potential efforts to build research, testing, and data analysis capacity in large urban school systems through technical assistance and professional development on disaggregation and analysis of data, interpretation and use of data to improve instruction and increase student achievement, and data management.

And we are thinking through better ways to strengthen urban research consortia.

These are just a few of the ideas that we are considering as we seek to bring the worlds of education practice and education research closer together, and, of course, we are open to others.

The grand bargain here is pretty simple: We-the nation's large urban school districts- increase our outreach to the research community and, in return, we get better research on issues that are most important to us and that help us raise achievement and close achievement gaps. And, in the process, the research community enjoys the satisfaction that comes from applying its expertise and experience to one of the most pressing issues facing this nation: improving our urban schools. We understand-as I'm sure that you do-that this is a long-term proposition. We'll start with baby steps and probably stumble along the way. What we won't do is move backwards. That, I promise you. And I hope that we will have your support as we set out on this noble and necessary journey.

Thank you, and thank you, again, for inviting me today.