Category Voices
Author By James M. McPartland, PhD

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.

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.

*McPartland, PhD was Director of CSOS for many years. He developed the initial Talent Development Model (see a story in the April blog by Robert Balfanz). 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.

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