Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Fascinating Research Articles

OK, I never thought I would use the words "fascinating", "research" and "articles" together in the same sentence, let alone as the title for a blog post... but it's happening today!  

I'll admit it, I think reading research based journal articles and textbooks is the most boring, mind numbing way to spend my time.  Some nights, I would rather stab blunt pencils in to my eyes than read another word of another article that's devoted to some form of educational research.  Some nights, I have even needed to use blunt pencils in order to keep my eyes open just so I can get through one.  

Reading journals consists of putting myself through reading pages and pages of data, charts, fancy long words and confusing jargon.  If I manage to stumble through the cited sources, statistics, and data and come out with a slightest sense of what the article is about, I feel like I accomplished a big feat.  Cause, let's face it, journal articles aren't exactly written for reading pleasure.  

But, being an educator, a student, and a life-long learner requires doing my share of research.  It's inevitable.  My professional development requires reading and researching a topic, my college classes require reading and researching topics, and if I want to find the best ways to reach my students I have to read and research.  

As much as I am not a fan of doing those things, I did stumble across a research project that actually had me enthusiastically reading, and dare I say enjoying, what I actually found out.

As a part of my current issues in education class, I have to do a few research projects.  Two are with a partner, and one is by myself.  The first partnered project I participated in covered religion in schools.  We researched, we put together a paper and a PowerPoint, and we shared what we found out with the class.  I won't say it was exciting or all that mind-blowing.  This time around, however, we picked a subject I had no idea would lead me to be so interested and surprised by what I found.

This time around, my partner and I chose the topic of Closing the Achievement Gap.  It's a very common issue for educators and administrators.  I'd say it's probably one of the most prevalent parts of education today.  Achievement gaps are strongly associated with kids from non-English speaking and low-income households.  Study after study has shown that kids from minority groups and low-income backgrounds are far more likely to have academic difficulties than kids from English speaking and middle to high income households.  That is something I didn't have to research to know.  In fact, it's something that's taught to teachers while they're learning how to become teachers.  

The reasons for lower achieving students from minority and income challenged households has always been explained to me as being a direct cause of the obstacles these students have to overcome.  Learning a new language, struggling to meet basic needs before meeting academic needs, and limited support at home are all factors in to why students are thought to be lower achieving compared to the students who have solid financial and parental support at home.  

But, looking in to this issue further for my research project gave me information I did not know about, and left me completely stunned and shocked.  

Vast studies and research has shown that students who struggle academically, for whatever reason, has been strongly linked to the way teachers teach those students.  Not the limited English skills, not the poverty scale, and not the lack of parental support.

The research I performed for this project has shown me that many teachers and administrators opt for remedial level studies and direct instruction when teaching students who are considered "at risk".  They take away higher order thinking skills, and "dumb down" the content in order to fill academic gaps and raise achievement and confidence.  While many teachers and administrators believe it's best to lower curriculum standards and expectations in order to best suit the needs of at-risk students, vast research shows that the complete opposite has been proven to be true.  What do I mean by the complete opposite?

One study that I read followed under performing schools for a period of eight years.  The schools were made up of high minority and high poverty students.  The years prior to the study had shown that the schools were graduating students with a middle-school education at best, and many of the elementary students were 2-3 grade levels behind.  The school's approach to help raise academics was to implement tutoring services, interventions, and remedial level courses in order to "bridge the gaps" and supposedly help students feel more confident about their abilities.  

When the study came along, it was funded and overseen by a team of educators that were experienced in writing curriculum for gifted and talented students.  It required teachers and administrators to completely change their approach to how they taught, the curriculum model they used, and drastically increase the expectations they had for the students.

The approach was simply put:  Replace the remedial studies and direct instruction for inquiry-based, challenging, higher leveled curriculum.  The schools had to adopt project based studies, open-ended discovery questioning, and high order thinking skills.  A challenge many educators in the schools thought to be impossible with the "level" of students they were teaching.

But, do you know what happened?  I bet you can guess, huh?  The schools that participated in the study not only raised their academic levels, but started seeing a higher number of students going off to and completing college, staying in school, and performing at levels comparable to schools from a higher income/lower minority bracket.  The achievement gap became almost non-existent in those schools.  

In terms of standardized testing skills, the students from the schools went from a majority of below basic to basic scores to a majority of proficient scores, with a much higher percentage of advanced level students.  

Reading all the information and data was absolutely fascinating.  And, after I read one study, I started looking for more.  And, what I quickly discovered is that there is a solid trend in schools that have a lower achievement gap.  Schools that adopt a higher level of expectations and a more challenging curriculum for ALL students were far more successful than the schools that opted for remedial "gap filling" instruction.

After all that research, I have to say it makes a lot of sense.  I am a firm believer in the fact that students will perform to the expectations set before them.  Give students low expectations, they will meet them.  Give students high expectations, and they will meet them.  Assuming that certain students are only capable of performing at a certain level cuts off their ability to grow, and also cuts off their motivation.  They often become bored and less motivated to try.  Make them reach for the stars, and they may struggle but they will find success in their abilities to overcome the "impossible" and will be better prepared for the world that awaits them outside of school.  

In order for at-risk students to perform at the same levels of non-risk students, there has to be consistency and equality in curriculum delivery.  I'm not saying completely doing away with remediation, direct instruction, and interventions... but the at-risk students need to at least be put on the same playing field.  All the studies I read showed that at-risk students were more than capable of performing critical thinking skills, flourished by being challenged with project-based inquiry, and excelled at applying their learning to real-world situations.

One study I read covered a school that took part in a school wide research project.  Each grade level was given a country of the world to study.  The students learned about the country's culture, geography, and educational views and practices.  The students were then challenged to compare and contrast the country's way of life to their own.  The project involved reading, science, math, and social studies.  Students from that country were able to take a lead role in the project, providing their own input to their way of life before coming to America.  It was absolutely fascinating to read about the projects, level of inquiry involved, and the success and enjoyment the students had with the project.

The whole research project has given me a lot to think about, and a lot to share in tonight's class.  I'm curious to hear the thoughts of the other teachers in my class.  It's also given me a lot to think about in terms of my own teaching style and how I want to move forward.

But, right now, I have to think about getting my kids up and ready for school.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone!!


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