That Work

"The technique is more important than I thought," says Bryda, who teaches at Hackett Middle School in Albany.

The change in her teaching was a direct result of her participation in an early study by the National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement (CELA) at UAlbany. Since 1987, CELA has been studying schools in a variety of communities to learn what works in classrooms where students perform well in English and how to improve studentsí English and literacy achievement in schools across America.

Teacher partners like Bryda have both contributed to and learned from the research, which examines all aspects of English and language arts teaching. The goal is to learn both what works and how best to incorporate what works into classrooms so that students achieve the literacy levels necessary for success in their studies, work, and life.

An array of CELA research studies focus on factors such as exemplary instruction, the role of school subjects, home and community in literacy, the role of technology in achievement, and professional development. Based on these studies, the center is developing a set of recommendations that will be useful to researchers, practitioners and policy makers in the national debate about how to ensure all students attain the highest levels of achievement.

Middle school teacher Sue Bryda Middle school teacher Sue Bryda
changed her teaching approach
as a result of her participation
in a CELA research study.

"We are finding that certain features of classroom instruction and professional development for teachers must be in place for successful results," says Judith Langer, professor of education, who co-directs CELA with Arthur Applebee, also a professor in the School of Education. To give just one example, schools that use standardized test taking as an opportunity to improve learning are more successful than schools that spend money and time on straight test preparation, or that simply "teach to the test."

"In the schools with greater success rates, teachers look at the goals of a high-stakes test and how the test is constructed. They examine how the test features relate to what students need to learn anyway, and they fine-tune their instructional programs to incorporate the important concepts covered in the tests," Langer explains. "The schools not beating the odds may spend a lot on extra help, but they tend to narrow their goal to test practice, where the major focus is getting students through the test."

Schools whose students beat the odds to attain unexpectedly high achievement also focus on generative learning. Teachers help students ponder how their knowledge can be used in new situations and across other subject areas, she said. In less successful schools, the goal is for students simply to get the right answer, which limits learning. The studies of Langer and her colleagues have identified additional features of effective instruction as well as the conditions of teaching that help students succeed in English.

Funded since its inception by the U.S. Department of Educationís Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), CELA recently expanded its work. In August 2000, OERI awarded the Center an additional $5.3 million for two years to study the effects of implementing its findings in new school settings. CELA will partner with middle schools to improve teachersí knowledge, skills, and understanding about student capabilities and provide strategies for teachers to act on this new knowledge in their classrooms. The schools selected serve a variety of communities, with an emphasis on those that serve poor, underperforming youth.

But CELAís impact reaches beyond those schools that directly participate in its research. Many others benefit from the results, notes Langer. Across the nation, states and school districts regularly incorporate CELAís findings into their curriculum, assessment, and teacher professional development programs.

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The Challenge of Attracting and Retaining High-Quality Teachers

Attracting and retaining high-quality teachers is a concern for all schools, but is particularly critical for low-performing ones. To help address the problem, UAlbany researchers have launched a comprehensive examination of the career paths of New York teachers and the reasons for career decisions they make along the way. The ultimate goal is to identify the most effective strategies for attracting and retaining more high-quality teachers.

"Thereís not going to be any silver bullet. Itís likely there are a lot of different things that can be done, and they all should be considered," says James Wyckoff, associate professor of Public Administration and Policy. Wyckoff is collaborating with Hamilton Lankford, associate professor of Economics, and several graduate students. The team is examining such questions as what influences college studentsí decisions to pursue education careers, where educators choose to teach, why they transfer between schools and districts, and why they decide to quit.

Last year, the researchers examined 30 years of state teaching records and in November 2000 issued a descriptive analysis of the teacher work force. "We took the pulse of teaching in New York State as a foundation for doing advanced work on how to improve the teaching force," Wyckoff said. The report found, for example, that the quality of teachers is much worse in urban areas, where teachers with no prior experience and with fewer qualifications make up an increasing proportion of new hires. Black and Latino students in urban areas are also more likely to have lower quality teachers than typical white or non-poor students.

"These studies are academically important, and at the same time the findings will be very relevant to current policy issues," Lankford says, noting that all states are wrestling with teacher quality and supply issues.

New grants from the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Rand Corporation, and the U.S. Department of Educationís Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), as well as continuing support from the New York State Department of Education, bring funding for these projects to nearly $1 million.

UAlbany researchers are collaborating on the teaching career path studies with Donald Boyd, director of the Fiscal Studies Program at the Rockefeller Institute, and Susanna Loeb, assistant professor of education at Stanford University.

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Contents: Research@UAlbany University at Albany