Founded in 1966 by James S. Coleman and Edward L. McDill under the aegis of the United States Office of Education, the Center for Social Organization of Schools celebrated its 50th year in 2016.

CSOS is considered an R, D, and D center. The leader among institutions aiming to understand and/or improve the functioning of schools for optimum student learning, our center takes responsibility for all three interlocking steps to make schools work better.

“R” is for the research that uses scientific methods to study how major variables are related to school effects or to evaluate the impact of planned interventions. The first “D” is for the development of new forms or practices intended to strengthen the positive outcomes of schools. The second “D” is for the dissemination of specific school improvements that have proven effective to schools and districts across the nation.

Each component has been pursued in special ways by CSOS to contribute to the national agenda for improving schools.

Look Back, Look Around, Look Ahead

Since its founding, CSOS’ enduring mission is to conduct groundbreaking scientific research that leads to evidence-based school reforms and the dissemination of proven programs for the improvement of the most-needy schools in America.

In the early years, CSOS focused largely on the effects of desegregation on schools, teachers, and students. The first center report by James S. Coleman (Race Relations and Social Change, Report #1, 1967) identified CSOS as a research center that would conduct rigorous research on issues that affect the quality of schools for all students. Over time, under the successive leadership of McDill, John Holland, and James McPartland, CSOS broadened its focus and became one of the nation’s leading incubators of innovations in education.

From the mid-1970s onward, CSOS developed theories, conducted studies, refined processes, validated results, and broadly disseminated a host of evidence-based practices, programs, and tools that assist educators in closing opportunity gaps and meeting students’ needs. A few of the enduring innovations developed at CSOS include:

  • James Coleman and colleagues’ designs and studies of academic games and simulations for use in classrooms.
  • John Holland’s development of the Self-Directed Search and his and colleagues’ validated assessments of vocational personality types, work environments, person-job congruence, and other tools to assist counselors in guiding adolescents’ and adults’ educational and vocational planning.
  • David DeVries and Bob Slavin’s studies of cooperative learning methods (such as Teams-Games-Tournaments), and Slavin’s programmatic research, development, and dissemination of Success for All—a comprehensive reading and school reform design. Now, Success for All is one of the most studied and most implemented approaches for school improvement in the elementary grades.
  • Hank Becker’s research and guidelines on microcomputers in the classroom.
  • Joyce Epstein and colleagues’ programmatic research, development, and dissemination of the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS), which assists schools, districts, and states to strengthen and sustain goal-linked programs of school, family, and community partnerships for student success in school. Presently, over 60 districts and more than 600 schools in the U.S. and some partners in other countries implement NNPS for more effective and more equitable programs of family and community engagement focused on students’ academic and behavioral outcomes.
  • James McPartland, Douglas Mac Iver, Robert Balfanz, and colleagues’ programmatic studies and expansion of Talent Development Secondary’s (TDS) school improvement models for grades 6-12. TDS provides evidence-based components, tools, and services to the most challenged secondary schools serving the most vulnerable students in the country. TDS’s on-site staff helps these schools build on four pillars of student success: (1) Teacher teams and small learning communities; (2) Specialized curriculum and coaching; (3) Tiered student supports; and (4) A can-do climate for students and staff. This work has extended to the Everyone Graduates Center led by Balfanz and colleagues. Their development of early warning and intervention systems to identify and support middle and high school students at risk of dropping out is helping to increase the number of students who graduate from high school on time. This also includes the research-based TDS Diplomas Now turnaround model—an innovative partnership with City Year and Communities in School that significantly increases the percentage of students who complete 6th and 9th grade without any early warning indicators by providing levels of support that meet the academic and non-academic needs of students. Another recent addition is My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentors Initiative, a data-driven model in 30 districts that leverages existing and scalable school-linked resources to serve our nation’s highest need students.

The CSOS hallmark continues to be programmatic research, where one study raises new questions for the next. When many studies confirm effective structures and processes, the work moves on to the development and field testing of approaches that may be feasible for broad dissemination. This kind of work on evidence-based reform requires researchers’ dedication and determination to work with policy leaders, educators, and the public. CSOS faculty and staff have been building this bridge from research-to-policy-and-practice for 50 years and counting.

CSOS is also home to the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) — a university-district partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools to analyze data and report findings on long- and short term strategies to improve the educational and life outcomes of Baltimore’s children. The Early Learning program focuses on improving school readiness for preschoolers in Head Start programs. This team is studying how to close the vocabulary gap between groups of children by the time they enter kindergarten. A new program at CSOS was Stocks in the Future (SIF) which taught financial literacy skills to middle grades students. These additions to CSOS all followed a programmatic path from research and development to dissemination for improving educational practice.

Over 50 years, many researchers and staff contributed to CSOS programs and projects. We value every one. CSOS reports, publications, and products have influenced countless researchers, graduate students, policy leaders, and educators in this and other countries. To honor the history of CSOS and to frame its future, we are celebrating CSOS at 50 with a series of monthly blog posts throughout this calendar year from the current CSOS faculty: Robert Balfanz, Faith Connolly, Marcy Davis, Rachel Durham, Joyce Epstein, Jeffrey Griggs, Richard Lofton, Douglas Mac Iver, Martha Mac Iver, and Steven Sheldon. Each one will look back, look around, and look ahead to discuss how their work links to CSOS history and how it will extend and refresh CSOS commitment to conducting research, development, and dissemination that will improve the education of all students.

Douglas J. Mac Iver, Ph.D.
Joyce L. Epstein, Ph.D.
Robert Balfanz, Ph.D.

Co-Directors CSOS during the 50th year
Professors of Education
School of Education
Johns Hopkins University