Celebrating 50 Years

CSOS at 50

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. We invite you to read through highlights below of Center’s 50 years.

Look Back, Look Around, Look Ahead

The Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS) at Johns Hopkins University is celebrating its 50th anniversary.  Founded in 1966 by James S. Coleman and Edward L. McDill under the aegis of the United States Office of Education, the Center’s 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 the center 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 Programs_

CSOS is also home to the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC)—a university-district partnerships 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 is Stocks in the Future (SIF) which teaches financial literacy skills to middle grades students.  These additions to CSOS all follow 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 the Center 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 the Center’s 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
Professors of Education
School of Education
Johns Hopkins University

The Path from Velvet Rope Lines to Diplomas Now and More

April 2017
By Dr. Robert Balfanz

What makes the Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS) a special place to work is its combination of two things that do not often occur in the same place:

  • A long-term and dedicated focus on applied research and development in search of answers to some of our nation’s most pressing educational problems, and
  • The ability to provide schools, districts and states with the implementation support needed to use the Center’s evidence-based tools, models, and strategies.

My introduction to the applied nature of the work done by CSOS, and the powerful insights achieved by combining rigorous research and evaluation with direct implementation support work in schools, began with helping to acquire velvet rope lines.

I joined the Center in 1996 immediately after Jim McPartland had worked with Baltimore at Patterson High School and Doug MacIver had worked with Philadelphia at Central East Middle School, respectively, to establish pilot whole-school reform efforts based on the most recent research.

It was these efforts that were the origin of the Talent Development High School and Middle Grade Models.  This occurred under the auspices of the federal Center for Research on Educating Students Placed a Risk (CRESPAR) and what would ultimately be a ten-year effort with Howard University to create enduring solutions to educating high-poverty students in high-needs schools.

Now, back to those velvet rope lines I mentioned above.

Patterson HS and Central East MS made significant and rapid improvements.  This created a demand to scale the new, still emerging, Talent Development models. In the spring, before I started at CSOS, Baltimore City Schools asked Jim McPartland to help scale the new Talent Development High School model with Career Academies to three more high-poverty neighborhood high schools.

Central to the model was dividing large comprehensive high schools into a separate 9th grade academy and then multiple 10th to 12th grade Career Academies. The goal of the ninth-grade academy was to combat the anonymity that students reported as a contributor to their disengagement.  Anonymity was endemic in large high schools organized on a departmental structure, which made it hard for teachers and students to get to know each other on a personal level.

The 9th grade academy was staffed by teachers who liked working with 9th graders. They were organized into teacher teams who shared common sets of students and were given daily common planning and collaborative work time to work as a team to provide their students with environment and supports they needed to succeed.  During the 9th grade, students would take a freshman seminar course (developed by CSOS), part of which included a career exploration unit, where students would take the Holland Inventory (another CSOS-developed tool) to help them understand what types of occupations aligned with their talents, interests, and motivations. Using this information, students would then select one of several upper-grade Career Academies to join.  This helped combat the apathy students also reported as a key driver of dropping out — not seeing the point or reason behind what they were studying and how it connected to adult success. One of the key learnings at Patterson HS was that for this all to work, the ninth-grade academy and the upper grade career academies had to be true “schools within schools” with their own dedicated administrators, teams of teachers, counselors, and separate parts of the building, with their own entrances and signage.

The challenge we quickly learned with the rapid scale-up was that the pressure to move fast (to improve the life chances of students in need) often leads to under-investing in the preparation needed to enable the reforms to take root and succeed.  For example, at Lake Clifton High School, there was not time or funding over the summer to create truly separate spaces with separate entrances, for the schools within schools.

Hence the velvet rope lines.

The thought was if we could at least get students going in the right direction (and not use their customary routes through the building, which would have those from one academy crossing through another) at the start of the year, we could buy time for the construction to be completed to create truly separate spaces.

But where to get velvet rope lines on short notice?

So began my introduction to the CSOS spirit of doing what it takes to help schools succeed, as Jim McPartland, Will Jordan, and I drove around bargaining with movie theaters to secure velvet rope lines.

Did it work? For a while — but more broadly, the school struggled to implement on the compressed timeline, and the reforms never took root as they did at Patterson HS.  The fundamental challenge was not traffic flow, but gaining the buy-in and support of the adults in the building.

Hence a valuable lesson was learned on the need for a full planning year, no matter how pressing student need, as long-term success was dependent on winning the hearts and minds of the adults in the building — which requires time, training, and participatory planning.

Spending significant time in the schools with which we were working to develop reforms  was not only essential to successful implementation, but also provided most of the insights that led to later research findings.  As we worked to help more schools implement the Center’s Talent Development Middle and High School models, a common pattern emerged in the high-needs secondary schools we visited and supported.  There would be wild and impassioned graduation ceremonies that typically involved a little over 100 students, but these were juxtaposed with ninth grades that would have four hundred students, and often as many of them in hallways as classrooms.

This led us to wonder how common the pyramid of many 9th graders and few 12th graders really was.

The result was one of the Center’s signature research findings. Nettie Legters and I documented in Locating the Dropout Crisis that there were, in fact, about 2000 high schools where the senior class was 40% or more smaller than the freshmen class. These high schools, where graduation was not the norm, almost always educated only low-income and minority students. They represented roughly 12% of the nation’s regular and vocational high schools that enrolled 300 or more students, but collectively they produced half of the nation’s dropouts.  Shockingly, at the time of this research in 2001, 42% of the nation’s African American students and nearly a third of its Latino students attended one of these schools.

CSOS’s Talent Development Middle and High School models showed that much better outcomes could be achieved in these schools by applying comprehensive evidence-based reform models with sufficient implementation support. These models, along with the research on Locating the Dropout Crisis, helped provide both the impetus for broader national efforts to reform these schools and the evidence that it could indeed be done.

The Center’s research also helped lead to federal efforts specifically targeted at supporting reforms in these schools — from comprehensive school reform demonstration grants, to small learning community grants, to (finally) school improvement grants during the Obama administration specifically targeted at high schools with graduation rates of 60% of less.  These efforts paid off: from 2001 to 2014 the number of low-graduation-rate high schools was cut in half, from 2000 to 1000, and the number of students attending these schools dropped by over one million students each year . The percent of African American and Latino students attending them dropped to less than half of what it had been.  This, in turn, contributed to the significant rise in national graduation rates, from 72% to 83%, which was primarily driven by gains among low-income and minority students.

Where to next?

The most exciting thing about working at the Center is that with its R and D focus and long term programmatic efforts, we always have one model in the field, one in the shop, and one in our heads.

The next evolution of the Talent Development model, for example, was Diplomas Now — which combined the Center’s signature whole-school reform models with enhanced student supports, provided by City Year and Communities In Schools, and an early warning and intervention system (another CSOS model and tool).

Diplomas Now was based on our finding that the adult capacity-building focus of the Talent Development models could help struggling schools improve considerably.  However, even with these improvements, too many students were being left behind. Our early warning indicator research showed that in high-poverty secondary schools there were often hundreds of students who were struggling to attend every day, focus in class, behave in school, and get their assignments done. It was clear that we needed to bring more person power into these schools to meet the scale and intensity levels of students’ needs, and that we needed to use an early warning system to help get the right supports to the right students at the right time.

The model went through a rapid prototype and design phase, and then we won a $30 million Investing in Innovation (i3) award to validate its impacts. This seven-year effort, which is concluding this year, is one of the largest and longest randomized field trials ever conducted in education, involving over 80 schools, 12 school districts, and 40,000 students.

Interim results showed we could “bend the river” and turn a student’s life course from heading towards dropping out of high school towards graduating.

In short, the model did what it was designed to do — help schools and increase the number of students who ended the 6th and 9th grades (the key transition years) with no early warning indicators (which research indicates could swing their odds of graduating successfully from 25% to 75%).

These advances brought more insights and more questions, and newer models yet.

Currently we are partnering with City Year to design and support  a 6th-to-12th grade public charter school in Denver: Compass Academy, which is based on an integrated academic and social-emotional competency based model we helped design.

One of the central design questions we are working to solve here is how to build students’ internal engines — their agency, self-management, learning, and leadership competencies — so that they have the wherewithal to succeed in post-secondary schooling and training.

Our design team also entered the XQ competition with an out-of-the-box model for communities like West Baltimore, which have experienced inter-generational concentrated poverty for generations.  The premise of our design was that in these locales, students need to not only graduate from high school with a strong pathway to post-secondary schooling or training, but also an avenue to wealth creation.  Hence, we worked on a design where student coursework would be organized around hands-on experiences with all aspects of home and business ownership; including construction, design, accounting, real estate, marketing, environmental inspection, and law, with the notion that students would graduate with a diploma, a post-secondary pathway, and share in home or business ownership.

This design did not ultimately win, but it provided a lasting insight.  The low-graduation-rate high schools which remain are found almost exclusively in communities that are economically and socially isolated from the 21st century economy.

Secondary school improvements in these communities cannot only be centered around helping more students graduate; instead, these high schools (and the middle schools that feed them) need to be redesigned to become the engines of economic development and social integration for the entire community — places that serve as business incubators and maker spaces, and provide apprenticeships and inter-generational skill building activities.

One of the greatest assets these communities have is their young people.  Thus they will need to play a central role in their communities’ growth.  It is to this work and the designs, tools, and strategies it will require that we are now turning our applied attention for R and D and implementation support.

BERC and the Promise of Research-Practice Partnerships

By Dr. Faith Connolly

The Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) is a special example of a Research Practice Partnership—one of many currently developing across the country. Our partnership began in the mid-90s when the late Sam Stringfield, a CSOS faculty member, was on the Baltimore City School Board. As part of that relationship, data and research-practice sharing began between the district research office and Sam and his research team.

In 2006, Stephen B. Plank, Martha Abele Mac Iver, and Bob Balfanz initiated a more formal process for a research-practice partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools. With technical assistance provided by John Easton from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and others, BERC was launched and began its work. One unique feature of BERC is that it partners two universities, Johns Hopkins and Morgan State, along with Baltimore City Public Schools. A more detailed story of our history can be found here.

Ten years later, building on its applied research perspective to develop deep understanding of children and what sets them up to be successful, BERC has expanded its relationships and research agenda. While continuing to conduct applied programmatic research, we have created data collaboratives with members from government organizations such as the Baltimore City Health Department, quasi-government organizations such as The Family League of Baltimore, and publicly-funded service providers such as Head Start, home visiting programs, and the Baltimore City Public Schools. This has allowed us to describe student trajectories from birth through entry into Baltimore City kindergarten. This collaborative also provided an opportunity to examine the impact of not being social and behaviorally ready for kindergarten on later success in elementary school. We were also able to investigate children’s participation in early education programs and readiness for kindergarten in academics and attendance. Each of these studies has been used by members in the collaborative to modify prioritization of enrollment to create a seamless transfer for families from one program to the next. There’s still much to do, but collaborative members continue to ask the next important questions to better understand how to serve families in Baltimore.

Recently, Baltimore’s Promise has reached out to BERC to create a new data collaborative to further describe and investigate programs such as out-of-school time, youth development, and career success, to inform more programs in Baltimore City as well as provide rigorous evaluations of interventions and new programming as it is developed by Baltimore’s Promise and partners through the city.

A new focus for BERC researchers is the potential impact of Improvement Science on urban schools. Some of our partners work in Early Head Start, Head Start pre-K and elementary classrooms on literacy instruction and others in high schools to improve attendance and course grades. In summer 2015, we invited the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
to provide a 3-day workshop to learn about Improvement Science. About 50 BERC researchers and partners attended, including principals and school staff, as well as teams from our partner organizations. Since then Improvement Science practices have been introduced to about ten schools and we hope to see these approaches escalate over time. A recent IES video of some of the work we’re doing with Baltimore high schools describes our work to date.

Moving forward, BERC plans to expand the work in thinking about and developing data collaboratives as well as how to best scale the use of Improvement Science to improve the educational and life outcomes of children in Baltimore.

A BERC Research-Practice Question: Are High School Graduates Ready for College?

by Dr. Rachel E. Durham

The Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS) has faculty working in programs focused on school improvement at all stages of the educational trajectory, from early childhood to young adulthood. Perhaps not coincidentally, the structure of many CSOS projects mirrors federal and state accountability expectations—e.g., all four-year olds should be enrolled in quality pre-K programs; all kindergarteners should arrive ready to learn; there should be quality teachers in all 1st through 12th grade classrooms, and so on.

However, a relative newcomer to the accountability horizon is a focus on college readiness and access to higher education. In the CSOS at 50 Blog in May, my colleague Faith Connolly shared information on many projects BERC has underway in our research-practice partnership with the Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools).  My appointment at CSOS is with BERC and a large part of my research focuses on ways to improve college access among City Schools graduates.

When our first data-sharing agreement with City Schools was approved in 2007, BERC wasn’t yet aware of the vast data on college outcomes that City Schools already held. That fall, the district’s Chief of Accountability asked BERC if we would look over Baltimore’s data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC). Of course, we jumped at the opportunity. For years, only anecdotal accounts circulated about high school graduates’ success in being accepted to elite colleges – Harvard, Yale, MIT – yet, with the exception of a few intrepid high school leaders, virtually no one was following up with these students to ascertain whether they enrolled, whether they persisted, and whether they completed a degree from any college.

Thus, after my first examination of the NSC data, I found that just under 50 percent of City Schools graduates were enrolling in any college the next fall, District leaders were surprised, as enrollment had always been assumed to be much higher, just based on students’ stated intentions for the year immediately after graduation from high school.

The initial NSC results were met with questions: “What exactly is this NSC data source, and should we believe it?” “What did BERC do to the data, and should we trust you?”  These are fair questions, so the next step for BERC and the district was to sit down together and try to develop greater clarity about where the data came from, how they were recorded and analyzed by the NSC and myself, and what a reasonable expectation for college enrollment should even be.  After a few more analyses with the following year’s data, as well as the next year and the next, greater trust was achieved.

Finally in 2011, BERC published its first public report on City Schools’ graduates’ college enrollment and degree completion. BERC published another report in 2013, another in 2015, and a fourth report last year.  With each new report, BERC researchers are better able to prepare findings in ways that identify leverage points that district leaders, counselors, and teachers can use to improve their students’ success the next year.

For example, in BERC’s latest report in 2016, we explored another new data source, which includes students’ reports about applications to colleges, their acceptances, and their financial aid awards.  This meant that we could help high schools target activities where they were most needed, e.g., how many students apply to more than one college?  Do students who were accepted actually enroll? Who does not, and if not, how can high schools follow up to remove the barriers that prevented students from showing up on campus the next fall?  How can high school staff take proactive steps to help the next group of graduates to follow through on plans to attend college? We’ve come a long way from simply reporting how many students enrolled in college.  Now, we can help district leaders and others better understand the relationship between graduates’ aspirations and their outcomes.

Just like Talent Development’s efforts to improve graduation rates by identifying ninth grade on-track indicators, BERC hopes to identify on-track indicators of college success. In 2014, for example, BERC published a report detailing the alignment (or lack of alignment) between high schools’ definitions of “college-ready” and colleges’ definitions. We found that among our Baltimore graduates who do enroll in college, many arrive only to face additional hurdles. Without a high enough SAT score, students must sit for placement tests that determine whether they qualify to take courses that earn college credit. If they do not qualify, they must first take and pass a number of developmental (remedial) courses. Critically, we also found that the SAT score cut-offs and placement test qualifying scores differ from one Maryland college to the next, which makes the enrollment process potentially confusing and discouraging. And, while developmental courses are costly, they do not earn students credits towards a degree.  Future BERC work is now being planned to share data across City Schools and several popular colleges so that we can help the district understand how to better ensure students can easily overcome such barriers and arrive at college fully prepared to succeed.

Such is the beauty of research-practice partnership work. Doing research is great fun by itself, but conducting research for the benefit of my city and the local community is particularly rewarding and part of what makes CSOS special.


Reading Research at CSOS: Connections to the Past and a View of the Future

By Dr. Marcia Davis

The 50th anniversary of CSOS provides the opportunity to examine how my current research on reading motivation and achievement connects to and was made possible by foundational work at the Center as well as contemplating future directions for reading research at CSOS.

In looking over a list of hundreds of research reports and papers by Center faculty over the years, I noticed many reports on reading published by John T. Guthrie. For example, while he was at CSOS, John Guthrie published the paper, Motivational Effects of Feedback in Reading (http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED042590.pdf). In this study, Dr. Guthrie examined the effects of immediate and delayed feedback on learning and perseverance.

John is currently a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. His early work as assistant professor of education and project director at the CSOS from 1968 to 1970 was an early start to his career focused on reading motivation. Not only was John an active member of the CSOS family back in the 60s, he was also my advisor at the University of Maryland.

I feel that my current work on reading comprehension and motivation is linked to John’s early work at the Center in the late 60s. Of course, there are new and important extensions as study builds on study and new questions are asked and answered.  As you can see from the examples below, my colleagues and I are focused on students from high poverty neighborhoods who, with the right supports and greater access to books and reading strategies, can and will achieve.

Adolescent Literacy: I came to the Center as a postdoc in 2006 to work with Dr. James McPartland. My main responsibility was to conduct components of a research project, Supporting Teachers to Close Adolescent Literacy Gaps. This was a cluster randomized trial to evaluate methods of guiding teachers to improve adolescent literacy instruction. The student population of interest was ninth graders who entered high school at least one year behind in reading skills, were disengaged from school, and were on the path to dropping out of school. I was very excited to work on this project with Dr. McPartland since my dissertation, which I had just completed at the time, was on reading comprehension of ninth grade students.

Although there were many studies examining literacy coaching for elementary school teachers, I was surprised to find that this was the only study to examine literacy coaching at the high school level. The results indicated positive effects on teachers’ uses of recommended literacy practices such as modeling reading and student team discussions. In addition, we found a positive effect on students’ reading comprehension.


Content Area Reading: Based on our earlier findings on literacy coaching for high school English teachers, we decided that we would expand literacy coaching to other high school content areas such as math, social studies, and science in addition to English. If students are having trouble reading in any of these content areas, they will do poorly in these classes because reading is a necessary skill for success I all subjects. However, many teachers in these content areas do not see teaching reading as their responsibility, nor do they have experience in reading instruction.

Dr. McPartland and I wrote a second grant proposal, Engagement of High School Students in Content Area Reading, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The rationale of the project was to address the serious content literacy challenges of struggling high school readers, who often fail their core academic subjects and drop out. Our assumption was that by providing content-area teachers with instructional tools and practical support to better integrate reading assistance into their regular instructional activities, more students would increase their content literacy skills and stay in school. We found that not only did students increase in their use of reading strategies such as summarizing and finding the main idea in content area reading over only a few months, but this increase was found for all four content areas.


Reading Motivation: A year or so after completing my postdoc, I was offered a position as an assistant research scientist at CSOS. During that time, I joined a team of research scientists and professors from University of Kansas and Northern Illinois to write a research proposal to the U.S. Department of Education on reading motivation. The goal of our project, Development and Validation of Online Adaptive Reading Motivation Measures (ARMM), was to develop a computer-adaptive measure of adolescent reading motivation. We received the grant and developed the measure over the next five years. This measure is the first computer-adaptive measure of reading motivation and was developed for grades five through twelve. Students are measured on intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, social motivation, reading avoidance, self-efficacy for reading, and reading autonomy. Our findings indicated that the ARMM is highly correlated to reading behavior, engagement, and achievement. Since the measure is computer-adaptive, it is relatively quick to administer. Although more adolescent reading motivation measures are being developed, none have spanned that many years, measure that many constructs, or used a computer-adaptive format.



School Libraries: CSOS became part of the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University and I became an assistant professor of education.  Along with teaching in the Educational Doctoral program, I joined a team evaluating The Baltimore Elementary and Middle School Library Project funded by The Weinberg Foundation. The library project is a multi-year, collaborative effort to design, build, equip, and staff new or renovated elementary/middle school libraries in high-poverty neighborhoods. Not only did The Weinberg Foundation build the libraries and provide new books, but they also provided updated technology, flexible book shelving, electronic readers, computers, a parent center, and library clerk to help with library upkeep. In comparison to students in other schools in Baltimore that improved their libraries without The Weinberg Foundation contribution, students in the library schools reported significantly more reading enjoyment and teachers reported more collaboration with the librarian. Teachers in the library schools reported that their students were four times more likely than those in the comparison schools to use the library for research. Across all schools, students mentioned that they would like even more books such as those about favorite topics such as sports or cooking, and those in favorite book series such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid. We also learned that many students were not able to afford lost book fees.  Therefore, not all students were able to check out books every week or even every month. Something to work on in the future.

3rd Year Report-Years 1-3: http://hjweinbergfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2017/01/Library-Report-Web-Jan31.pdf

There are many questions that remain to fully understand reading motivation and its links to student learning and success in school. For example, with better measures of adolescent reading motivation, especially those that span fifth to twelfth grade, we can now study longitudinal changes in reading motivation from late elementary grades to high school graduation. Further, with an adolescent reading motivation measure we can study motivation changes that occur during adolescent literacy interventions such as literacy coaching and content area reading strategy instruction. Finally, findings from the library evaluation indicate that students in poor urban districts have a need and love for books, but those books are not making it home with many students. Students in more affluent neighborhoods, who can pay missing book fees are more likely to take home books weekly, if not more often. We need to study effective ways to help students in poor communities take home books to read for pleasure.

Research on reading comprehension and motivation is a field of study where research really can be useful in practice.  At CSOS we will continue to conduct important studies to help improve students’ reading skills at all grade levels, provide access to books, and improve their success in school.


Did You Do Your Homework?

Joyce L. Epstein, Ph.D.
August 28, 2017

Did you do your homework?  This is one of the most common questions that parents1 ask children every day.  Parents, teachers, and even students agree that homework is important.  Countless research studies confirm that students who do their homework do better in school, have higher achievement, progress through the grades, compared to similar students who do not do their homework.  Studies also report that many parents, students, and even teachers say that the quality of homework is poor, uninteresting, or just busy work.  These contrasting realities—homework is important and homework needs to improve—both true—guide our research and design of homework.

Did you do your homework?  This question also applies to researchers who aim to design interventions to improve school practice.  Many years ago, my colleagues and I set a research agenda to improve school policies and practices of parental involvement.  Prior to 1980, most studies simply asked, “Are families important?”  Scores of studies—including the historic 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity Report (also called the Coleman Report, led by James S. Coleman, one of the founders of CSOS)—concluded that families are significant influences on student achievement and success in school.  The early studies revealed an important inequality in schools: only some parents were engaged in their children’s education and only some children benefited from this support.  Others were at a serious disadvantage.

A New Agenda

In the 1980s, I posed a new question.  Building on the well-confirmed results from prior studies, I asked: IF families are so important, HOW can schools enable all families and community partners to become involved in ways that help all students do their best in school?  My colleagues and I began to do our homework to learn everything we could about policies and practices of parent involvement, which we renamed school, family, and community partnerships.  We followed the CSOS hallmark of conducting programmatic research to move from theory development and basic research to new designs, field tests, and dissemination on family and community engagement.

I developed the theory of overlapping spheres of influence that asserts that home, school, and community are three important contexts for children’s learning and development (i.e., the external structure of the model), and that positive, goal-linked communications and collaborations among key people (e.g., teachers and parents in the internal structure of the model) will increase student success in school.  Within the model’s areas of overlap, we identified a framework of six type of involvement (parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision-making, and collaborating with the community) that help schools at all levels organize and improve their programs of partnerships.

In this framework, homework is part of Type 4-Learning at Home.  Homework, we learned, needed serious attention in research and in re-design.  Two main questions emerged that needed attention to improve the homework process and correct important inequities so that more students succeed in school:

  • IF homework improves student achievement over time, THEN how can teachers design homework that motivates students at all grade and ability levels to take the time they need to complete their assignments?
  • IF parental involvement contributes to students’ homework completion and success in school, THEN how can teachers design homework that enables all parents to easily remain engaged with their children on homework at all grade levels?

In our studies of homework, we learned that parents’ most common question was: “How can I help my child on homework?”  Parents wanted to help their children, but most said that they did not know how to assist at every grade level, in every subject, with children of different ability levels.  In an extensive literature review, we identified ten purposes of homework (e.g., practice, personal development, parent-teacher communication, parent-child interactions, peer relations, policy compliance, and others.   Each purpose requires a different design of homework. Two purposes, parent-teacher communication and parent-child interaction connected to our broader agenda on school, family, and community partnerships.  We turned our attention to these purposes of homework to design an intervention that would meet parents’ requests and increase student success in the elementary and middle grades.

What is TIPS?

Many teachers and curriculum leaders in schools, districts, and state departments of education worked with me over the years to develop and test the Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS) interactive homework process.  TIPS activities guide students to show a parent or family partner something interesting that they are learning in class.  This enables all parents to learn about their students’ work and progress without parents thinking that they should know how to “teach” school subjects—something most parents cannot do and do not wish to do.

One section of every TIPS activity guides students to talk with a parent about how the focal math, science, or language arts skill is used in everyday life.  This application is stressed in Common Core and other state standards, but is, typically, difficult for teachers to build into homework assignments.  TIPS activities also include a Home-to-School Communications section for parents to comment on their interactions with their children and ask questions of teachers.

For example, in TIPS Science in the middle grades, one activity guides students to conduct an experiment with a parent as science-assistant to measure the viscosity of common liquids used at home.  They also conduct a discussion on whether the flow of some liquids influences a parent to purchase certain brands in the supermarket (e.g., ketchup, hand lotion, salad dressing, dish washing liquid, etc.)

In TIPS Math in the elementary grades, one activity guides students to demonstrate how they are learning to identify fractional parts and to have a discussion with a parent on when they use fractions in everyday activities at home.

Research on TIPS

Three longitudinal studies were conducted by Dr. Frances Van Voorhis on the effects of TIPS math in the elementary grades, and TIPS science and language arts in the middle grades.2  Compared to matched non-TIPS classes, students in TIPS classes had parents who were significantly more engaged with them on homework.  Students and parents in TIPS classes had more positive attitudes and emotions about homework. Significantly more TIPS parents than controls reported feeling happy and less frustrated when working with their students on homework.  By contrast, parents of students in non-TIPS classroom noted that they “need more information” from the teacher to be able to help their student at home, whereas this information is “built in” to the TIPS assignments.  The studies also showed that more students in TIPS classrooms completed their homework, and improved achievement test scores or report card grades compared to similar students in control classes who were assigned “homework as usual.”

TIPS for Use in Practice

There are, now, over 600 prototype TIPS activitiesin math (grades K-5, 6-8), science (grades 3, 6-8), and language arts (grades K-3, 6-8) for teachers to use to improve the homework process.  Why are these products “prototypes?”  TIPS is not a “curriculum” because (a) homework must match teachers’ class lessons or it will confuse children and parents and (b) educators do not like “canned” programs.  One size cannot fit all.  On the TIPS CDs, activities are provided in two formats.  Teachers whose lessons match the TIPS activities may use the PDF format.  Teachers who need to change concepts, vocabulary, or procedures may use the WORD versions.  See TIPS resources or contact NNPS with your questions or to conduct a TIPS study in your schools (www.partnershipschools.org).

Looking Ahead

As our programmatic work on school, family, and community partnerships continues to expand, we will to continue studies of the effects of TIPS on students, parents, and teachers to improve the homework process and student success in school.


1    In all of our work, we use the word “parent” to mean anyone who is responsible for a child’s learning and development, and who has connections with teachers (e.g., parent, grandparent, older sibling, other family partner).
2    New activities for TIPS Early Literacy K-3 and TIPS Math in the Middle Grades (Grades 6-8) are ready for research in case and control classrooms.


Working in One’s Own Backyard

Dr. Jeffrey Grigg
September 28, 2017

In graduate school, I worked as the liaison for a multi-year federal research study at my neighborhood school.  I knew walking to work would be great; what I didn’t know was that—especially after I became a parent—it would reorient my priorities as a researcher.  The job required brief visits to the school to drop off or pick up materials and check in on things, occasionally on short notice, and sometimes I would bring the baby with me.  She always got a great reaction from the school’s staff, but she also changed how I reacted to the school itself.  As I carried her through the halls of the school, I realized that the school was not just any school, but could be her school someday, and that these teachers were not just any teachers, they could someday be her teachers.  Consequently, I was not just a researcher, but also a potential future parent of a child who attended the school.  My future, her future, and the school’s future were potentially intertwined.

I also realized that I had a second reason to pay attention to the relationship with the school.  Many of my peers also lived in the neighborhood and would have liked to walk to work too, and their future opportunities relied on how positive this experience was for the school.  In fact, my future opportunities relied on the relationship. The study was intended to extend over multiple years, but the school’s voluntary participation was negotiated one year at a time.  Happily, the school remained engaged for the full term of the study and continued to work with researchers.  Could we have gotten the data we needed in just a year?  Perhaps, but to collect data in the second or third year, we had to prioritize the relationship and make sure the school’s needs were being met.  In other words, my personal connection heightened the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with the school, and the long-term goals of current and future research projects made it in our interest to do so.

Why is this relevant?  A research-practice-partnership (RPP) like the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) prioritizes the relationship between the researchers and the practitioners.  The most important letter in the acronym is the second P, for Partnership.  The terms of my engagement as a researcher at my neighborhood school have, if anything, been heightened, since we aspire to conduct research agendas over many years, not just two or three, with the same set of partners.  BERC and similar organizations play the long game: our goal is to discover deeper answers to critical research questions in order to improve the lives of children, and this form of understanding can only be achieved over time and with repeated effort.  Ideally, these repeated attempts—going back to the same well—will make the results of the research more useful and yield better understandings of social and educational processes.  Of course, this long-term commitment is not unique to BERC, even at CSOS.  Most of CSOS engages in over many years with a core set of schools (see, for example: the National Network of Partnership SchoolsTalent Development Secondary, or Stocks in the Future).

Why might a school district or other local agency commit to an RPP, in Baltimore or elsewhere around the country?  For one, participating in an RPP can offer a partner a customized investigation of a pressing problem using local data and state-of-the-art approaches, relatively quickly in the form of a technical report or brief.  Moreover, the long-term interests of the researchers in an RPP are aligned and intertwined with those of its partners. The appeal of an RPP from a researcher’s viewpoint is to embark on a vein of research—an agenda that gets ever deeper towards the root of a problem.  Each project yields more questions, reveals a new way of approaching the question, and suggests ever more tantalizing investigations.  In the context of a long-term commitment, such things are possible.  In order to follow through on said long-term commitment, the relationship between researchers and practitioners must be deliberately cultivated.

Prioritizing the relationship is not without its risks.  A researcher’s credibility is precious, and one might risk becoming so sympathetic with the research partner as to lose objectivity.  It is in no one’s interest for this to happen, since the researcher’s independence benefits all parties.  Furthermore, CSOS faculty have to “publish or perish.” Just as our livelihood depends on preserving the research-practice relationship, so does it depend on producing peer-reviewed academic articles.  Homegrown evidence that meets the standards of peer-review can have tremendous value for local partners, but it is up to the researcher to translate technical reports or briefs into academic publications and it can be difficult to find the time to pursue that additional step.

For the partnership to benefit all parties over the long haul, all parties must to get what they need.  At BERC, we try to develop our research questions by consensus.  As Steve Jobs famously noted, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want,” but by the same token academic researchers don’t always know which questions to ask.  The best set of questions combines practical wisdom with academic inquiry.  Some of the best moments in an RPP are the lucky ones when what was an “academic” question becomes urgently “practical.”  It happens more often than one might think, as in Rachel Durham’s ongoing study of the postsecondary outcomes of Baltimore’s graduates (see: A BERC Research-Practice Question: Are High School Graduates Ready for College?).  If the researchers can venture a bit afield and scout ahead, such serendipity has a greater chance of happening.  As with all scouting missions, they don’t all bear fruit, but they pay off frequently enough to encourage the effort.  And the scout must always remember to come home.

As BERC celebrates its first ten years, it has much to be proud of and has proven that it can sustain positive relationships with districts and other partners over the long term.  This is a credit to its Executive Director, Faith Connolly.  Moreover, BERC has is currently engaged in some of the most ambitious initiatives in its history (see: BERC and the Promise of Research-Practice Partnerships).  This is the great promise of an RPP: to engage in exciting, relevant, and sustained work in order to improve the lives of children.  To do so, the relationship comes first, followed by the research.


Going Back to the Basics

by Dr. Richard Lofton
October 30, 2017

Over fifty years ago, James Coleman and Edward McDill established the Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS). They were eager to delve deeper into the findings of the Equality of Educational Opportunity (EEO) Report (also called the “Coleman Report”), which indicated that students’ social and economic backgrounds had more impact on their academic achievement than the actual school they attended. Since then, CSOS researchers have aimed to conduct rigorous social scientific research on the social organization of schools to understand the educational structures and processes that would enable all students to succeed in school.  Researchers learned that not only did schools’ tangible and intangible resources affect academic success (addressed in the 1954 Brown v. Board ruling), but also students’ actual experience in classrooms, homes, and communities.

Although school is often looked upon as the great equalizer, many African American students still encounter unequal educational experiences. In many predominately-Black schools, students do not have adequate resources to meet their educational needs (NCES, 2015). Many students in racially diverse schools still confront academic tracking, which places them in less challenging classes and prevents them from gaining skills needed for upward mobility.

Despite disparate treatment, many African American students have remained committed to education.  Graduation rates continue to rise.  In 2015, 75% of African American students graduated from high school, a 6.8% increase from 2011-12 (Grad Nation). College graduation rates also continue to increase.  And, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) remain at the forefront of preparing many students to compete successfully in the global economy.

The complex picture sets important challenges.  Unequal educational experiences have not deterred all African Americans from higher learning. Yet even fifty years after the Coleman Report and the founding of CSOS, social scientific research still is needed to identify current-day struggles in homes, schools, and communities that affect students’ academic performance.  As important, researchers must find solutions to these problems by designing, testing, and scaling up interventions that will better meet all students’ developmental needs.

My research agenda ties directly into the seminal work of the CSOS founders by theorizing and researching the everyday lived experiences of African American students and their families.  In some studies, I use ethnographic methods to explore the impact of neighborhood inequalities, intergenerational educational experiences, and the unequal distribution of resources on students’ academic performance. My theoretical work extends the conceptual framework of Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus by centering on the experiences and voices of African American students and their parents.  I want to understand how students and parents make sense of the systemic inequalities they face at home, at school, and in the community.  Also, I explore how these inequalities are linked to students’ agency, logic, and actions—giving rise to what I refer to as the Black Habitus

One study that I co-lead, the Student Success Mentor Initiative, is a national randomized control trial that aims to promote meaningful relationships between school-based mentors and chronically-absent students. My research indicates that access to school resources is extremely important, but still not enough to ensure that students and parents who have experienced generations of unequal treatment can overcome hurdles to good attendance.  Mentors can help foster a school and community environment where students and family members feel that they belong. They can also validate a student’s cultural knowledge and experience. The Student Success Mentor Initiative moves away from the use of courts and punishments to address chronic absenteeism by highlighting the potential impact of a mentor’s relationship with students and their families to combat the problem.  The Student Success Mentor Initiative is currently being implemented in thirty-three school districts throughout the United States.

Besides researching educational policies and interventions, I also work with a Design Team known as the D-Unit that includes researchers, theorists and former practitioners.  D-Unit members work with schools, districts, social agencies, and states to identify and design reforms that meet students’ developmental, social, and emotional needs. This is primarily accomplished by building on the Talent Development model to construct educational pathways that foster academic success.

In addition, I enjoy the opportunity to learn from and teach Ph.D. students in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. Teaching brings a sense of joy to my academic life. In my teaching, I explore critical theories and sociological concepts to help young scholars grapple with the educational experiences of students, families, and communities.  We examine the role of federal and state educational policies on students’ academic success.  In my qualitative seminar, I also present and discuss methods that enable researchers to gather detailed information on social actors in schools and discover the lived-experiences of students and families.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of CSOS, my colleagues and I remain committed to the ideal of ensuring that all students reach their academic potential and achieve adult success. The studies of Coleman and the researchers who followed have provided crucial insights into the importance of out-of-school time in students’ educational experience.  My research, theorizing, and teaching goes “back to the basics” by unpacking the social and economic background of today’s students, investigating systemic inequalities in their schools and communities, and acknowledging their logic, actions, and agency.  I apply this knowledge by designing and implementing policies and practices that attempt to improve students’ academic outcomes and adult success.


Continuous Improvement at CSOS: Connecting Family Engagement to Early Warning and Intervention Systems

by Dr. Martha Abele Mac Iver
November 29, 2017

CSOS has been “learning to improve” as a continuous improvement organization over the past five decades.  We learned from our public health colleagues about the importance of preventing problems like high rates of high school dropout rather than simply reacting to the problems after they occurred.  Like the tale told frequently by public health researchers, we did not simply try to rescue drowning students who were floating downriver from the bridge.  We hiked upstream to the bridge, found the holes in the bridge where students were falling through, learned about best paving tools and materials, and began repairing the bridge.

CSOS colleagues have worked together to develop early warning systems to alert schools to when students showed one of the signs of not graduating on time from high school.  We specified the ABCs of early warning systems–Attendance, Behavior, and Course performance. Now, over half the public high schools in the country are using some sort of early warning system.  Together with others, CSOS colleagues have developed and tested many kinds of organizational structures, instructional practices, and other interventions to help struggling students to get back on track to graduation, and many of these innovations have been adopted by schools across the country.

Building on earlier research on school transitions by CSOS faculty Joyce Epstein and Douglas Mac Iver in the 1980s and 1990s, our work on Early Warning Indicators has focused on key transition points–particularly the transition to middle school in grade 6 and to high school in grade 9. As Tony Bryk and his colleagues point out, these transitions are like the shift change at the hospital when patients are particularly at risk, and “students may fall through the cracks as they move from one school to another.”  Ninth grade is a particularly critical transition – a “make or break year” as the Chicago Consortium has characterized it.

At CSOS, we noticed that just as students are making the critical transition from middle to high school, family involvement in their education declines precipitously.  Although there had been much research on each of these issues, the connection of these two challenges at the transition point from middle to high school had been largely ignored in education research and in secondary school policy and practice.  That is, at this critical juncture in their lives when students need age-appropriate family guidance and support, schools’ efforts to engage families decline.  Schools and families were missing opportunities for partnership activities that could significantly improve students’ chances of success in high school.  We decided to focus on how to repair this hole in the proverbial bridge.

We starting by collecting information on current practices of family engagement at critical transition points and reporting findings in the High School Journal.  The new knowledge grew into a Continuous Improvement in Education research proposal to the Institute for Education Sciences that was funded in 2015.  Together with colleagues Joyce Epstein, Douglas Mac Iver, and Steven Sheldon, I leveraged an ongoing partnership with Seattle Public Schools, a member of the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS), to partner with us in improving their family engagement during the transition to high school.   We reached out to include our School of Education faculty colleague, Eric Rice, to serve as the ethnographer for our work.

Together with Seattle Public Schools, we have launched a continuous improvement initiative: Engaging Families in High School Success.  The continuous improvement process operates at several levels.  In partnership with Seattle district leaders, we are seeking to improve the guidance and support given to middle and high schools to work on engaging families during this crucial transition.   We are working with the district to place more emphasis on the importance of family engagement as a way of helping more students pass their ninth grade courses and move—on time—to the tenth grade.  At the school level, we are seeking to help school teams engage in cycles of inquiry around their family engagement work.  We are trying to equip school teams to evaluate how they plan family engagement activities to focus more sharply on improving the key ninth grade student outcomes of attendance and course performance.  We hope to learn how the knowledge gained from the exploratory work with Seattle Public Schools can be useful in other districts in NNPS so that more districts can work with schools to improve family engagement at the secondary level, particularly during the critical transition from middle to high school.

Now, almost halfway through our third year of this work with Seattle, we have learned a great deal as a team.  There have been many challenges.  As commonly occurs in school improvement projects, we have seen considerable turnover among district and school partners over the past three years.  We are continually building new bridges of partnership within the district and at schools.  Not all schools have been willing to undertake this work or continue it after their first attempts.  Even among our partnering schools, some school leaders do not see how they can devote the needed human capital resources to engage in a systematic and regular cycle of inquiry process to continually improve goal-linked family engagement efforts.

But there are 22 middle and high schools that are continuing to engage in this work with us.  Most of these schools have tried new ways of engaging families and providing information and support during the critical transition to high school.  New partnerships between sending middle and receiving high schools have been forged.  School teams have reflected on their work and identified how they need to improve.  School leaders are becoming more focused on how to link family engagement activities to improve specific student outcomes.   Our CSOS team of researchers has begun to systematically analyze how schools are implementing the cycle of inquiry process and what they are learning from it.

Uniting our family engagement research to our work on early warning systems is just one way that CSOS is engaged in continuous improvement.  In many projects, we continue “learning to improve” how to equip schools to improve results for students.  We will keep identifying holes on the bridge that need attention and new paving strategies.    And we will keep building bridges between research programs to unify the work of many CSOS projects into a coherent whole – a comprehensive approach to improving student outcomes.


Developing Partnerships through Evidence

By Dr. Steven B. Sheldon
December 2017

I joined CSOS on January 3, 2000, fresh out of graduate school, excited for the opportunity to work with leading scholars in education reform and improvement, and thankful that Y2K ended up being much ado about nothing.  In my eighteen years at CSOS and Johns Hopkins University, I have had the good fortune to work with outstanding colleagues on the topic of school, family, and community partnerships.  Through my work with the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at CSOS, I have strived to conduct research that would help improve practice, and to listen to practitioners to understand where further research is needed.

Since its start in 1995, NNPS has worked with a few thousand schools and districts, helping educators and administrators learn how to develop and enact programmatic approaches to school, family, and community partnerships.  In 2006, Joyce Epstein and I wrote a chapter on some of the core principles that have guided our work with schools and districts, as well as some of the lessons learned along the way. In that chapter (Moving forward: Ideas for research on school, family and community partnerships), we included two key ideas that demonstrate the overall approaches that NNPS and CSOS have for school improvement. First, our work is about equity and helping all students experience academic success.  Second, research and evidence matter in how we approach school improvement. Today, perhaps, these two ideas are more important than ever.

In the past 10 years, awareness of the need for greater equity in our educational system has increased as we have become more open about the vast diversity in students’ race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and other factors.  School, family, and community partnerships are essential if we want to embrace the diversity in our communities and help schools prepare every student for a successful future.  To do this, I believe, we need to ask what it means to create “partnerships” in our school systems.

In many schools and districts, even in some of those working with NNPS, educators are operating with an “old” vision of school and family relationships where families serve the needs of the school.  In too many places, families are contacted only when their child has a problem or when the school needs community support.  Educators, too often, take a reactive approach to school and family relationships.  This is not the NNPS partnership model of school, family, and community relationships.

The work of many sites with NNPS shows that being proactive and organized—intentional—about working with families and community partners is both possible and productive for families and students.  A partnership approach to school and family relationships means that educators come to know and help support the families at their schools as partners in their children’s education and development.  This openness to families and family diversity comes when schools “interrupt the taken-for-granted” (D. Pushor, 2010, Are schools doing enough to understand families?). Pushor described how we can reimagine common family involvement practices such as back-to-school night by moving away from established practices where teachers talk to families about classroom protocols, and, instead, enabling family members to share with teachers insights about their children. With this simple change, families and educators can begin to collaborate as partners to support the education of their children.  This approach fosters partnership and equity. Many district leaders and schools in NNPS are, in fact, redesigning activities so that they no longer take parents and other family members for granted.  See their reports in annual books of Promising Partnership Practices.

The other key element of work at CSOS and NNPS is the commitment to research and discovering evidence of best practice.  The desire to help schools evaluate their partnership work and improve practice parallels federal policy calling for the use of research- and evidence-based practices. Federal education policy, presently through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), requires school systems to use evidence-based programs to improve instruction and reduce persistent achievement and opportunity gaps between groups of students. Current federal guidelines specify that states, districts, and schools consider the methods and results of research when deciding how to spend federal funds.  Research studies on the results of NNPS approaches meet the criteria of “evidence-based” research for improving programs of family and community engagement and improving academic and behavioral results for students. The studies demonstrate the value – and necessity – of partnerships for student success.  These studies also identify some of the key social structures and dynamics (e.g., teamwork and principal support) that enable partnerships to be successful.

Looking forward, CSOS and NNPS are challenged with the task of helping more school districts and their schools implement processes to continually improve and respond to the changing nature of our society and its families. Our challenge is to empower educators—teachers, principals, district leaders, state officials— to reject the “taken-for-granted” approach to partnerships and replace it with strong and thoughtful leadership of effective and equitable partnership programs. My colleagues and I will continue to address this challenge through our continuing work with the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.


Semi Self-Contained Learning Communities in Grade 6: Bringing New Evidence to Bear on Middle Grades Education

By Douglas J. Mac Iver, PhD
with Robert W. Dodd, EdD candidate in JHU’s School of Education
January 30, 2018

Since CSOS’s founding, one of its enduring stated goals has been “to produce useful information on how changes in the social organization of schools can influence a broad range of important student outcomes.” When I joined its middle grades research program in August 1988, CSOS was one of the U.S. Department of Education’s national research centers, the Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools (CREMS).  One important line of research in that program used national and state data to conduct quasi-experimental studies of the relative advantages and disadvantages of a variety of alternative organizational approaches that educators were implementing as they attempted to create desirable learning environments for early adolescents so that  more students would make a smooth and successful transition into the middle grades.

This research indicated that strategic semidepartmentalization – a plan under which willing teachers with broad interests, training, and experience are encouraged to use interdisciplinary instruction to teach more than one content area to sixth-graders – was a particularly promising approach.  This plan gives these core interdisciplinary teachers the opportunity to work with the same smaller group of students across several periods each day; helps students synthesize their learning and skills coherently across content areas; and facilitates closer, mutually supportive interpersonal relationships among students and between students and the teacher.  For example, Henry Jay Becker’s research indicated that semi-departmentalization in sixth grade was “a benefit or at least not detrimental for learning in most subjects for most groups of students,” and that “in middle school settings, having fewer teachers is most clearly associated with greater achievement (in English, reading, science and social studies) for students from low and low-middle social backgrounds” and thus helped close achievement gaps between students from different socio-economic groups. However, because of the inherent limitations associated with evidence from quasi-experimental research, Becker called for “more rigorous analyses” of the impacts of semi-departmentalization “by means of controlled field experiments”.

The participation of CSOS’s faculty in JHU’s Doctor of Education program gives us the welcome opportunity to help prepare the next generation of practitioner-scholars to become transformational leaders in the districts, schools, or other educational environments where they work in the U.S. or internationally.  In his applied dissertation research in this program, Robert Dodd, a consulting principal in a Maryland district, heeded Becker’s call to design, implement, and rigorously-evaluate an alternative to departmentalization in sixth-grade of middle school.  Project SUCCESS (Student Unified Curriculum Combining English, Digital Literacy, Science, and Social Studies) is an innovative and student-centered approach to middle school instruction. Because students in Project SUCCESS spend half of each school day with one teacher and one intact peer group, the number of class transitions and disparate peer arrangements students experience in the first year of middle school are significantly reduced. Instead, students in Project SUCCESS receive interdisciplinary instruction from one teacher who has more time to build relationships and identify and meet each student’s learning needs. Moreover, Project SUCCESS fosters strong peer relationships during a critical time of early adolescent identity formation. As such, semi self-contained instruction in Project SUCCESS serves as a protective factor against the adverse effects of the elementary to middle school transition.

Dodd conducted a randomized controlled trial in two middle schools during 2016-2017 to evaluate the impacts of Project SUCCESS on students’ engagement, achievement, and perceptions of the classroom environment. That is, in collaboration with each school’s principal, he randomly assigned 22% of the incoming students in each school to Project SUCCESS(treatment) and 78% of the students to business-as-usual departmentalization (control) in the spring of grade 5. Each school had two Project Success Teachers who each taught four subjects to the section of students assigned to them.  Across the two schools, 87 students were assigned to Project SUCCESS and 313 students were assigned to the departmentalized control sections.  Equivalence testing showed that there were no significant differences in prior achievement between students in the two conditions. Surveys were administered to students in both Project SUCCESS and the control group to measure school engagement and their perceptions of the classroom environment. In addition, differences in achievement between students in Project SUCCESS and students in the departmentalized control group were analyzed using MAP-R (Measures of Academic Progress in Reading) scores and cumulative grade point average.

As Dodd hypothesized, the results from linear regression analyses indicate that Project SUCCESS produced large statistically significant positive impacts on students’ literacy development in grade 6. Specifically, students in Project SUCCESS had scale scores that were 4 points higher than students in departmentalization on the full-scale MAP-R measure and also significantly higher scores on the three related subscales: informational text (4.1 points higher); literary text (4.8 points higher); and foundational vocabulary (3.4 points higher).

As Dodd also hypothesized, Project SUCCESS greatly reduced (to non-significance) the achievement gap between students who qualify for free- and reduced-meals (FARMS) and students of higher-socio-economic status.  Specifically, the gap between FARMS and Non-FARMS students was 2 points lower among Project SUCCESS students than those assigned to a departmentalized, business-as-usual schedule.  Thus, Dodd’s rigorous experiment replicated the results Becker found using less rigorous methods three decades ago.

Project Success also helped students to feel socially engaged at school with their peers (significantly more likely to report that “interacting with peers is an important part of school for me”).  Similarly, Project Success students were also more likely to perceive their school as positive, equitable place where teachers focused on helping all students learn. That is, Project Success students were less likely than the other students to indicate that their school had a negative “performance goal” structure where teachers treat students who get good grades better than other students, pay too much attention to grades and not enough to helping students learn, care only about the smart kids, and encourage students to compete against each other for grades.


We are “The New Kids on the Block!”

By Rebecca Lange-Thernes

 Stocks in the Future is honored to be a part of the CSOS at 50 blog project to celebrate so many years of success in education research and innovation. Stocks in the Future (SIF) is a relatively “new” program, being two years short our twentieth anniversary.  Have some fun with me as I create a little parallel between Stocks in the Future and the songs of New Kids on the Block. Remember their great hit Hang Tough? “Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh….We’re going a put you in a trance with a funky song!”  At SIF, we like to think as ourselves as “putting you in a trance finance strong!”

The Right Stuff

“First time was a great time, Second time was a blast, Third time I fell in love…” NKOTB 1988.

SIF Brief History

In 2000, Pat Bernstein approached Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS) with the idea of creating a program linking student attendance and academic performance with financial education to improve student success in school. A three year curriculum for middle schoolers in underserved areas was developed to teach investment fundamentals.  The program included incentives for good attendance and academic improvements in school, which enabled students to make real investments in stocks. The students accumulate their stock investments and can gain control of the funds when they graduate from high school.

The pilot stage showed a high level of interest that produced desired results and encouraged the program’s transition to an important supplemental subject in the middle grades. An increasing number of students made actual stock purchases, which indicated that students were meeting goals for improving attendance and grades.  Teachers recognized the educational benefits of Stocks in the Future (SIF), and there was important simultaneous learning among families.

Data Driven Program

Like all research and development programs at CSOS, we depend on data to drive SIF. The first formal study conducted by our colleague Dr. Douglas Mac Iver was presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Montreal in 2005. Results showed that SIF reversed 5th graders tendency for poor attendance. SIF middle school students attended school 10 days more than the control group.  Further, SIF 7th graders scored 31% higher and SIF 6th grades scored 18% higher on the JHU Short Achievement Test.

Fast forward to 2016. The Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) published its study of SIF indicating that 7th grade financial vocabulary scores grew 15%; 7th grade math scores grew 7%; 8th grade math scores grew 15%; and 8th grade reading comprehension scores grew 10%. Also, 6th grade students’ financial self-efficacy increased by 6.7% from a base of 64.7%, and 85.9% of SIF classrooms were rated as overwhelmingly orderly, which allowed students to get the most out of the curriculum. We continue to collect and analyze data each year to monitor results of SIF for students. This gives us a road map to see what we’re doing right and where we need to make improvements.

501c3 Status and Action in Schools

What makes us unique at CSOS is that SIF operates as an independent nonprofit. This year, SIF is working in 18 schools with 900 students.  We are guided by more than 60 volunteers who serve on our Board and on three committees—Program, Marketing, and Finance. Others serve as guest presenters in our students’ classrooms, train the teachers of SIF classrooms, and/or work at fundraiser events. This great group of finance professionals working alongside the education community has allowed people with different mindsets and backgrounds to come together with a common vision: Develop more successful middle school students who are gaining financial literacy skills with real-world benefits.

Step by Step

Step one! We can have lots of fun, Step two! There’s so much we can do!”  NKOTB 1998

Strategic Planning

With the finance and education communities working together and using research to guide action, SIF has conducted some pretty innovative programmatic work during our latest strategic planning cycle. This began in the fall of 2014 when the SIF Curriculum Task Force Committee was formed with the goal of aligning the SIF curriculum with Common Core State Standards in Language Arts, Math, Social Studies, and Technology. We also strengthened math concepts in every lesson and developed a crosswalk between the Maryland State Department of Education’s Financial Literacy Mandate with SIF resources.

The Committee recommended that we edit and update the SIF curriculum. This resulted in adding more basic financial education concepts along with more information to make our students stronger Mutual Fund Consumers. We’re happy to say that we’ve accomplished this recommendation plus more.  This includes The Capstone Project, written by volunteers at T Rowe Price, which guides students to design their own mutual fund package.  We’ve held an SIF 8th Grade Rally each year at Enoch Pratt Free Library to recognize with certificates and prizes all students who completed the SIF program and who were high earners in their stock portfolios.  See photos at www.sifonline.org.

Hangin’ Tough

“Get loose everybody ‘cause we’re gonna do our thing…”   NKOTB 1988

As we head from one strategic planning cycle into another, I’d like to introduce three Areas of Concentration for the future.

  1. Technology
    SIF’s internal website for record keeping is 19 Years old. The site holds all of our data and SIF student portfolios, which operate in real time. The design is outdated and needs to be merged with the program’s official site: www.sifonline.org.We also plan to develop narrated PowerPoints to help teachers become more successful facilitators of SIF class sessions.
  2. Mentoring
    We will explore ways to continue relationship-building with SIF students after middle school. We aim to partner with existing mentoring programs in the area. This would help students build additional financial literacy skills through HS, and increase the number of students who gain control of their accumulated funds at graduation.  See the alumni from SIF discussing their experiences:

    <iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hwx3iea9LhU” frameborder=”0″ allow=”accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture” allowfullscreen></iframe>

  1. Scaling Up
    SIF will be looking beyond Baltimore City Schools to work in other schools in other cities.

SIF has come a long way! We have nearly completed our first strategic plan, upgraded our website, improved the curriculum, expanded our donor base, and completed two studies that indicate that SIF students improve their attendance and other school outcomes. Our next strategic plan includes additional software upgrades, scaling up the operation into other locations, and engaging with our donors.

“You get the lights and I’ll get the camera. Let’s get to the action!”  NKOTB 2008


R, D, and D at CSOS

By James M. McPartland, Ph.D.1

CSOS is an R, D, and D Center. Alone 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.

Research Following a Structural-Functional Model

For fifty years, research at CSOS has sought to conceptually identify and empirically verify the links between three broad categories of variables: structural or manipulable factors; intermediate social processes; and student development outcomes (Figure 1).

Student development outcomes are the learning and personal growth variables of individual students that are the ultimate goals of the educational processes of schools. Academic achievement—gaining the knowledge and thinking skills of the major school subjects—is the obvious primary outcome of organized education. In CSOS’s work, thinking skills beyond the accumulation of facts and protocols are emphasized. These include comprehension strategies in reading, problem-solving abilities in mathematics, reasoning with evidence in science, and critical assessments in social sciences and humanities.

But CSOS seeks to understand how student development during school years can extend beyond traditional academic outcomes. Especially important in our work is the student quest to appreciate and strengthen one’s own career interests and goals for adulthood. Other character development outcomes also are of interest in some Center research, such as a sense of responsibility and fate control.

The most proximate influences within schools on student outcomes are the social processes that set up the relationships, expectations, and motivational incentives in the learning environment. These may be considered intangible features of a student’s school experiences, because, often, they are not easy to measure or directly address with policy changes. They include peer group climates, teacher expectations, adult-student relationships, and school norms for serious work.

The trick is how to get a handle on these seemingly intangible but powerful components of the social learning environment. Over the years, the CSOS strategy has been to search for organizational or structural factors of schools that can be directly manipulated and will, in turn, enhance the positive aspects of the intermediate school learning environment.

Examples include the size of schools or subunits within the school, the organization and demography of teacher-student learning groups, grading criteria and reward incentives, the role of choice and initiative in learning activities, family involvement in all aspects of education, and the connection of curriculum to career goals and competencies. The Center’s title, “Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS),” reflects this pursuit of the links between purposeful organizational changes, intermediate powerful social influences, and major student outcomes, as the keys to school improvement.

CSOS Development Activities

CSOS uses the theories and new knowledge about structural-functional links in education to actually design and evaluate new organizational forms and practical innovations for schools and classrooms. At times these have included individual components of better school environments, such as student-team-learning or school-family-community partnerships.  But CSOS has also pursued new models of comprehensive school improvement, that cover innovations in organization forms, classroom innovations in organization forms, classroom relationships, curriculum choices, and instructional activities. The CSOS Talent Development Model for middle and high school grades is a prime example of the development of comprehensive reforms (see Figure 2). It takes years of field trials, evaluations, and refinements to produce the final detailed recommendations for effective changes through comprehensive reforms.

The back-and-forth of refining developmental interventions following scientific evaluations of each step is CSOS’s way of arriving at better theories of the key causal links in education reform.

Dissemination Processes at CSOS

After a school reform package has been developed and positively evaluated for desirable effects, it is time to spread the innovation to interested and needy schools as far and wide as possible. CSOS discovered that we had to undertake this dissemination process ourselves, since other venues such as professional publishing outlets or regional laboratories proved unable or unwilling to do the job.

Among CSOS innovations is a program on school-family-community partnerships.  This R, D, and D program uses a national network of school and district personnel and contracts along with handbooks, compendia of promising practices, and national training institutes to accomplish goals for widespread dissemination.

A more expensive and elaborate dissemination process was needed for the complex Talent Development Model, with extensive, dedicated Center staff, substantial pricing arrangements, and dedicated on-site coordinators. Indeed, it was necessary for Talent Development dissemination to institute a full-fledged business model for financial viability, plus an elaborate planning process at each participating school that often required a full year before actual implementation of all the intended changes.

The R, D, and D Legacy

Because funding opportunities change over time for each aspect of the R, D, and D operations, CSOS has faced and will continue to address different challenges to maintain its legacy of covering each core component of school improvement. Avoiding distractions to serve as a job shop for convenience funding will be important for faculty to continue the CSOS pursuit of its own ideas and models of scientifically-based education reform.



Dr. McPartland was Director of CSOS for many years.  He developed the initial Talent Development Model (see a story in the April blog by Robert Balfanz).  Dr. McPartland also inspired and supported the development of other R, D, and D efforts by CSOS faculty throughout his tenure to strengthen the legacy of the Center.