National Center Aims to Boost Student English Achievement

Judith Langer

The University has been awarded a $12.5 million federal grant to establish a national center dedicated to improving student learning and achievement in English.

School of Education faculty members Judith Langer and Arthur Applebee, nationally renowned scholars in the field of education, will be the directors of the new center — which is one of just two being funded by the U.S. by the Department of Education. The other national center will focus on achievement in math and science.

"This is a tremendous tribute to the outstanding research done by Professors Langer and Applebee and their colleagues here. The University is honored to play a leadership role in boosting student achievement across the nation," said V.P. for Research and Dean of Graduate Studies Jeanne Gullahorn.

The new center, known as the National Research and Development Center on Improving Student Learning and Achievement in English, will be based at Albany. Serving as partners in the work of the center will be the universities of Wisconsin-Madison, Washington, and Oklahoma.

The center’s mission will be "the specification of those features of curriculum and instruction essential to student achievement in English, including skills with oral and written language and literature," explains their grant proposal. "Our scope includes not only K-12 instruction in English, but also those cross-disciplinary and other subject offerings where, increasingly, English skills are addressed."

Says Langer, "We’re going to be looking for the best practices — the best bets — in the field. Our focus throughout will be on those pedagogical approaches that foster literate thinking and high literacy.

"High literacy is the ability to use language to extend meanings and knowledge about ideas and experiences," she says. "It is the behavior that comes about when people use their literacy skills to think, rethink, and reformulate their knowledge; it fosters the kinds of reflective and analytic abilities that are found in the most successful lifetime learners.

"In short, we propose to identify the essential components of effective curriculum, instruction and assessment so that teachers, schools and communities might prepare all their students to enter the 21st Century ready to meet the complex demands of our changing global society."

Researchers will conduct a total of 18 different studies organized around four main areas of inquiry: the nature and effects of English and language arts instruction and the integrated curriculum, primarily in grades 1 to 4; English and cross-discipline courses as the context for achieving high literacy, grades 5 to 12; the role of technology in the teaching and learning of English; and the training and professional development of teachers.

Langer will conduct a study entitled "Understanding Exemplary Instruction" that falls within the second area of inquiry.

"We’ll have recommended to us outstanding programs. We’ll see what happens in those classrooms but we won’t stop there. We’ll look at what materials are used, and examine aspects like the feedback to parents and the entire professional context within which teachers hone their professional skills."

Arthur Applebee

Another study entitled "Discourse Environment and Student Achievement" will look at outstanding programs "at a finer level," says Langer. Researchers will look at "how students and teachers talk to each other, the kinds of questions a teacher asks, the answers given," she adds.

In each area of inquiry, says Langer, "our goal is to come up with a selection of best practices. Our research is designed to provide definitive information not only about ‘what works,’ but also about the ‘trade-offs’ and ‘costs’ of thought-provoking, inquiry-based English instruction to the range of students who populate the nation’s schools."

Student achievement in English and language arts is mediocre at best, said Langer. "The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has tested reading and writing achievement regularly since 1970, suggests that achievement has returned to 1970 levels after dropping during the 1970s. On the most recent assessment, on average only 38 percent of the nation’s 12th graders were able to provide adequate written responses to passages they were asked to read and only 12 percent provided elaborated responses on age-appropriate writing tasks," said Langer, who with Applebee helps design the national assessment.

The new center’s No. 1 goal is to change that. Besides identifying the best practices for boosting student achievement, it will work with teachers to develop the most effective practices for all students.

Langer says the center will have a series of publications, a World Wide Web site, and conferences to widely disseminate what collaborating teachers and the researchers learn through their studies.

Langer and Applebee and their colleague Alan Purves previously directed the University’s National Research Center on Literature Teaching and Learning, which focused on the role literature can play in helping students learn.

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