|Message From the Alliance Lead
As a former public school teacher and program administrator in two of the nation’s most complex urban school systems, I am so encouraged by the work that REL Midwest is doing through its research alliances and thrilled to serve as the Urban Research Alliance lead.
The Urban Research Alliance brings together researchers, content experts, and practitioners to explore topics of interest and need among member districts in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Our member districts focus on continuous school improvement through district-wide initiatives that support data-based decision making in areas such as early warning indicators for dropout prevention, social and emotional learning, multi-tiered systems of support, college and career readiness, and school climate, including alternatives to suspension and expulsion. We are very excited to tackle these complex issues and look forward to broadening our understanding and identifying more effective practices in the Midwest’s urban school districts.
As the urban landscape continues to shift and evolve, our charge is to always keep finding ways, through research and evidence, to continue to elevate teaching and learning for all students. –Nicol Christie
Improving School Climate: Strategies From the Cleveland Metropolitan School District
In June, REL Midwest’s Urban Research Alliance hosted a webinar covering specific strategies that schools and districts can use to establish a positive culture to help improve students’ learning experiences. Panelists looked specifically at examples from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD). The webinar featured CEO Eric Gordon and former principal Janet McDowell, both from CMSD, and David Osher, Ph.D., vice president and institute fellow at American Institutes for Research (AIR).
CMSD began examining its policies and programs concerning school climate, particularly student safety, after a school shooting in Cleveland in 2007. CMSD responded to this tragic event not only by implementing new metal detectors and surveillance cameras, but also by dedicating time to developing its “humanware”–the well-being of the people at each school in the district.
Dr. Osher and his team supported CMSD’s humanware development efforts by collecting and measuring the district’s school climate data. The researchers analyzed data from 2008 to 2013 to look at the extent to which changes in conditions for learning—safety; support, care, and connections; peer social and emotional competency; and challenge and engagement—explain and predict changes in schools’ performance. They found that conditions for learning are highly associated with academic outcomes in CMSD.
“While the conditions for learning data are important as a whole, the data that seem to be the biggest drivers are physical and emotional safety,” Osher added.
Gordon and McDowell discussed how Dr. Osher’s findings relate to their practices at the school and district levels. The district intentionally incorporated social and emotional learning skills into its curriculum and instructional strategy. CMSD also implemented assessments, including the AIR-created Conditions for Learning Survey , programming and interventions for students with risk factors, and a system-wide infrastructure and design to embed these practices.
“We redesigned our climate and culture work to put it on par, side-by-side, with our academic work,” Gordon said.
Both Gordon and McDowell cited safety as a priority for school climate work at the district and school levels, echoing Osher. McDowell shared that parents, students, and teachers listed safety as their top concern in a survey that she distributed when she first came to CMSD’s Wade Park Elementary School.
Gordon said, “When I came to Cleveland, safety was our students’ number one concern.”
“Two years ago, that dropped to number two,” he added. “Last year, it dropped to number three. And this year, it dropped off the top of the list, and we believe that’s all because of our social-emotional learning work.”
The archived webinar will soon be available on the Institute of Education Sciences’ YouTube channel. There, you will be able to see a recording of the live video feed and interactive discussion session. The presentation slides and related resources are available on REL Midwest’s website.
Project Highlight: Measuring Fidelity of Response to Intervention With RTI View
The Urban Research Alliance began developing RTI View, a tool to measure the implementation fidelity of response to intervention (RTI) in schools, in 2013 and is currently piloting the system with Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The research project and tool arose from alliance members’ uncertainty about whether their schools were implementing RTI as intended.
RTI View is a tool that school and district administrators can use to monitor their schools’ implementation of RTI and identify areas in need of improvement. The tool has two main components: a rubric for rating implementation and an electronic platform that aggregates ratings for RTI’s key components and provides actionable information based on the rubric ratings. This includes professional development options and resources for school staff related to 35 indicators.
The system is designed for users at various administrative levels. For instance, school administrators can see how their school’s ratings have improved or declined over time. Alternatively, regional superintendents can see aggregate information across schools to identify patterns of RTI implementation.
During the tool’s development, REL Midwest’s researchers worked closely with MPS and alliance members to develop a customized version of the fidelity monitoring rubric and electronic platform. The alliance determined that the tool would only be used if school and district staff saw the data as trustworthy and easy to use and interpret. As such, REL Midwest’s staff continuously gathered input on the system from teachers, school and district administrators, and district school improvement coaches.
“The process of gathering input has helped us develop a sense of trust among potential users of the system,” said Jim Lindsay, the lead researcher on the project.
He explained, “In this age of accountability, school staff members often run for cover when they hear ‘data-based decision making.’ But by continuously soliciting their input as we develop the system, we have more opportunities to show how the system is being developed to serve as a formative tool.”
Alliance member Deb Gurke, director of research and development at MPS, echoed Lindsay’s sentiment about the value of gathering input from people at the school level.
“The interview process was a valuable way to get the school staff perspective of the framework,” she said.
Meet the Alliance Member
Deb Gurke serves as the director of research and development at MPS and recently joined REL Midwest’s Urban Research Alliance.
Gurke’s involvement in public education issues begin in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she worked on a project with the local League of Women Voters chapter to help the local school district print communication materials in multiple languages for parents outlining the district’s various schooling opportunities. In addition, Gurke previously served as a local school board member in Stillwater, Minnesota.
Currently, Gurke leads evaluation and survey projects for MPS and also approves applications from external researchers interested in studying the district. She explains that the goal of this work is to help district staff not only better understand research, but also to get to the “why” and “how” behind these data. Gurke is excited by the opportunity to partner with organizations such as REL Midwest to develop meaningful research and address these underlying issues.
“Practitioners have great intentions, but they often don’t have enough time to tackle large research projects,” she said. “We benefit from having external researchers involved to initiate the work and keep the projects moving forward.”
Gurke acknowledged that staff turnover is one challenge for developing research-practice partnerships in urban school districts.
“Not only do urban districts have high mobility rates among students and teachers, but district staff also can change during the course of a research project,” she explained.
For Gurke, the ultimate benefit of a research-practice partnership is that the research product is driven by the issues and topics that are important to practitioners in the field.
“In education, there are a lot of conversations around making decisions based on research and evidence,” she said. “We want to continue to help practitioners get comfortable working with researchers so that we can produce work that will lead to better results.”
Meet the Researcher
Jim Lindsay, Ph.D., is a senior researcher at AIR, with more than 15 years of experience in research and evaluation.
Lindsay first became involved with the Urban Research Alliance in 2009 when it formed as the first of REL Midwest’s research alliances. He points to those early conversations between researchers and directors of research and evaluation in urban districts as creating “the foundation of our current REL work” for this and other alliances.
Presently, Lindsay’s work as lead researcher for the alliance is focused on developing the RTI fidelity monitoring system in collaboration with MPS. This project grew from a challenge identified among alliance members: Although districts were increasingly relying on RTI as a school improvement strategy, there were no research-based tools or systems in place to measure the implementation or outcomes of the RTI. (See Project Highlight: Measuring Fidelity of Response to Intervention With RTI View, above, for more information about this project.)
On this project, Lindsay shares “that with proper training, schools should be able to use the information generated through the dashboard system to improve RTI implementation.”
Lindsay’s work with the Urban Research Alliance has affected his view of the process for conducting education research. Lindsay says he has gained insight into the contextual challenges faced by research directors in urban districts as they attempt to use data, implement interventions, and garner buy-in from school staff. He also stresses the benefits for researchers of applying their research and collaborating with the schools they study.
“Research is a two-way street,” Lindsay said. “If our goal is to help education stakeholders use data more effectively, we need to listen to the views of those stakeholders on how they use data currently and work with them to find ways of viewing data in a way that is easy to interpret and act upon.”
Urban Education Resources and Events
- REL Midwest and its Urban Research Alliance recently hosted a webinar designed to increase awareness of the research that looks at the relationship between school climate and student- and school-level outcomes in CMSD. View the archived presentation slides.
- “Sailing to Success in Urban Education,” the 59th Annual Fall Conference of the Council of the Great City Schools, will be held October 7–11, 2015, in Long Beach, California.