Learning from Experience

Glenn Matsumura

Laura Alvarez used to look around her Melrose Elementary School classroom in Oakland, Calif., and beam. All her fifth graders were from immigrant Mexican and Central American families, and she was committed to helping a new generation of students excel.

But after four years of teaching, Alvarez hit an administrative wall. “The district told us, acting on what No Child Left Behind lays out, that if we didn't improve our scores, we were going to get shut down,” she says. According to state tests, Alvarez's students were on the bottom rung of English language learners, described as “below basic” and “far below basic.”

“In the past, we'd always helped the kids who needed [it] the most, but suddenly the most important thing was getting kids into the 'advanced' and 'proficient' categories,” Alvarez says. “It was kind of Machiavellian, but [the school] put resources with kids who were the most likely to push up the scores. I really was frustrated, because what I had learned from my students and from my own research contradicted what I was being forced to do.”

Alvarez took a year of maternity leave for the birth of her son, Joaquin, and ended up making a choice that surprised her. “I decided to go back to graduate school and learn more about language acquisition and what these children need, and more about policy,” she says. “As a teacher, I didn't have a ton of credibility—the district didn't trust me, and the state didn't trust me. And I thought maybe if I had a PhD . . .”

As a second-year doctoral student in educational linguistics at the Stanford University School of Education (SUSE, pronounced “Susie”), Alvarez now finds her teaching experience is a valued commodity. She draws on it as she helps Professor Guadalupe Valdes develop new methods of assessing language acquisition. And many of the questions she wants to ask in her own research projects were birthed in her transitional bilingual classes in Oakland.

“I would love to be able to go back and teach while I collect my data, try an intervention or try a curriculum,” Alvarez adds. “I actually think teachers may, in some ways, be learning more than researchers because they're in the field, doing the work. But the knowledge teachers generate doesn't get codified and published.”

Like most of the 184 education students enrolled in 17 different doctoral programs, Alvarez wants to strike a balance in her coursework between research and teaching, between theory and practice. Another 135 students are enrolled in 11 master's degree programs, and 87 are pursuing teaching credentials in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP). (See Sidebar.) This year, six undergraduates completed honors theses in education.

In some ways, says David Labaree, associate dean for student affairs, the master's programs are among the school's “biggest contributions to education,” because the 200-plus students who graduate each June from the yearlong programs “go out and change the world.” The author of The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004), a volume that traces the history of teacher education in the United States, Labaree notes that MA degree holders work on state senate committees of education, run charter school management companies, supervise curriculum development programs and serve as school superintendents and administrators. And many return to classrooms, to continue teaching.

Still, the focus at SUSE is on turning out phds. During the five or six years doctoral candidates spend on the Farm, they are expected to become “research productive,” writing refereed articles for academic journals, publishing books and generating grants. “Stanford attracts really good students and they become senior researchers and scholars in the field, as well as practitioners,” says Dean Deborah Stipek. “Our research—on district reform, or on school design—is informed not by other researchers, which is the way most research works, but by what we're seeing out in the field. Our scholarship is grounded in reality.”

“I have admired the Stanford School of Education for more than 50 years,” says Patricia Graham, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Its greatest strength, I believe, has been its support of fine research by many individuals, both faculty and students.” There currently are 37 tenured faculty.

Graham also served as president of the Spencer Foundation, which has awarded grants of more than $250 million since 1971 to improve education worldwide. She says SUSE has had the resources, “both fiscal and intellectual,” to apply the expertise of the social sciences to solve educational problems. “The effort to prepare effective practitioners—particularly ones to serve in low-income neighborhoods—as well as traditional researchers and policy makers, simultaneously within one school of education, is not easy and is prone to many difficulties.” But, Graham adds, “Few institutions have a better chance of doing [this] than Stanford.”

When Stipek was appointed dean in 2000, she became the first woman to hold the position. A developmental psychologist, she was a specialist in early childhood development, achievement and motivation, and classroom instruction. She had written Motivation to Learn: From Theory to Practice (Prentice Hall, 1988). Her theories on education were tested hourly in her job as director of a university lab school for 400-plus wriggly, unpredictable children. “Deborah had feet in both worlds,” says education professor Milbrey McLaughlin, who co-chaired the search committee that nominated Stipek. “She was principal of the university school at ucla, and she also had award-winning books in child development. She was 'bilingual.'”

As a practitioner, Stipek has overseen the expansion of STEP and the establishment of two charter schools operated by the nonprofit Stanford Schools Corporation within the Ravenswood City School District. In addition to providing K-12 education in an underserved community, East Palo Academy—Elementary School and High School—is designed to implement knowledge derived from SUSE research. They also are a lab for teacher preparation. At the high school, most of the teachers are STEP graduates.

“We are practicing what we preach,” Stipek says. “We're putting ourselves out there and saying, 'We think we know how to do this well,' and in a very public, visible way, we're going to test ourselves. It's really scary.”

An estimated 1 million children—about 2 percent of the U.S. student population—attend more than 3,500 charter schools, mostly elementary, in 40 states. The schools are financed by state monies and cannot charge tuition. Students are accepted by a lottery system. Proponents say charter schools give parents a choice and, because they're not unionized, encourage teachers to be more creative.

Charter schools that serve low-income students “have missionaries, not teachers,” Stipek told hundreds of educators and state officials who gathered on campus last December for a forum on education hosted by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. “They take kids to SATs, help them get clothes for internships, work late nights and they're going to burn out—so it's not the solution.”

But Stipek went on to argue that charter schools are a viable alternative to public schools. By running the two schools, SUSE has the opportunity “to learn, at a deep level, about issues in public education, like school finance and attracting and retaining teachers.” Because they challenge the way education is done, Stipek suggested, charter schools can test strategies for improving education nationwide. “But it's been a humbling experience,” she added. “I no longer pontificate.”

Stanford recently launched a $125 million initiative to improve K-12 education, and SUSE has been recruiting faculty who specialize in science education, technology and international studies. One recent hire is Aki Murata, an assistant professor in elementary mathematics education who joined the faculty in 2004. In addition to teaching on campus, Murata is regularly out in the community, checking in with former STEP students teaching at local schools.

As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Murata says she often heard education professors complain that the “brilliant projects” they conceived did not work in classrooms because teachers were not smart enough. “I listened to that kind of talk, and I took it personally,” she recalls. But at Stanford, she finds that faculty are “really serious about what goes on in classrooms” because they themselves are spending time in schools. “It's not that we are in an ivory tower, doing theoretical things. We need policies and theory to inform the practice, but the practices should inform policy and theory, too.”

Stipek says the renewed emphasis on practice represents a “major shift” at suse. “At least one-third of our faculty teach in the teacher-education program,” she notes. “It's no longer at the periphery. It's at the center.” At the same time, Stipek has presided over the establishment of an alphabet soup of research entities, including the Institute for Research on Educational Policy and Practice (IREPP), the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning (SCIL), the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute (SELI) and Stressed Out Students (SOS). Additional community outreach programs are housed in the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, the Stanford Center on Adolescence, and the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

The School Redesign Network (SRN), launched in 2000, is a jewel in SUSE's research crown. Drawing on studies showing that large, impersonal, factory-model schools don't meet the needs of today's diverse student bodies, SRN has identified features of small, effective schools that have been adopted by districts nationwide.

Pascal Forgione Jr., superintendent of the Austin, Texas, independent school district, invited teams of SRN faculty led by principal investigator Linda Darling-Hammond into his 11 high schools, including three of what he calls the “neediest” in the United States. Some 60 percent of the 82,000 students in his district live below the poverty line, Forgione says, and the racial breakdown is 58 percent Hispanic, 28 percent Anglo, 12 percent African-American and 2 percent Asian—“like the rest of America will look in 30 years.”

Over two years, Forgione, MA '73, PhD '77, his faculty and the Stanford teams imagined possibilities. “We took the outcomes we wanted to achieve—college readiness, high school completion, literacy and reading comprehension—reviewed the literature and built a set of criteria for small learning communities.” The result? A customized plan for each high school, with an emphasis on professional development.

“Teachers are now taking lesson plans, like the Boston Massacre plan that the University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Learning developed, and visiting one another while they teach,” Forgione says. “Then they come together and say, 'How come you got kids engaged for the whole period when I lost them halfway through? How come I didn't get the powerful questions?'”

Austin teachers are once again “turned on” to their profession, the superintendent says, and he credits Darling-Hammond's blending of research and practice: “She 'gets it,' and she can tell you how to [succeed] in the classroom.”

Refreshingly unassuming and candid, Stipek at times seems almost surprised to find herself in the dean's chair. “I still wonder about it,” she says, laughing. “I go, 'What was I thinking?'” In fact, a lot of laughter emanates from her office and ricochets down the hallways of the cavernous Cubberley Building. But when Stipek reflects on what too often passes for educating children today, she is as serious as state receivership.

“What's really sad is that if you go into low-income communities and you sit in a kindergarten class, you will see kids who aren't engaged or interested,” she says. “Half of them will drop out by the time they're 10, and those who finish will have, at best, seventh- or eighth-grade-level skills. And that's the national picture. You look at that and say, 'It doesn't have to be this way. Why are we letting this happen? We know how to do this better.'”

Morghan Velez Young had a similar sense of frustration as a high school student. “I was in trouble a lot, because of drugs and my own mischief,” she recalls. “But sending me to detention did nothing. I only wondered, 'Couldn't I be treated differently?'” By the time she finished secondary school, in an alternative school, Velez Young had come to her own conclusion: “This could be better.”

Velez Young watched two of her brothers go in and out of incarceration. Now, as a second-year student in the anthropology of education PhD program, she wants to improve the “bad practices” in the juvenile justice system. How she approaches that challenge largely will be determined by the hands-on research she does, so Velez Young volunteers about 10 hours a week with The Beat Within, leading writing workshops for teenage boys at two Bay Area juvenile justice facilities.

“I want my research to be about how we can make addressing and preventing juvenile delinquency less painful for everybody—taxpayers, juvenile delinquents, victims,” she says.

Two other doctoral candidates are traveling California back roads from Fresno to Arcata, to interview families in homeless shelters and principals in portable trailers. They are collecting data about the alternative-education options that serve 14 percent of the state's school-age population.

“We're talking with people in Child Protective Services, juvenile justice and mental health,” says Devon Williamson, a first-year student in administration and policy analysis. “It's just so surprising—an entire system that nobody really knows about, where students can get lost, with nobody held accountable.”

Williamson was an architecture major at Yale and has a master's degree in city planning from UC-Berkeley. She'd like to work at the intersection between local government and public schools—perhaps at a site like the Center of Community Life that is planned for Emeryville, Calif., where affordable housing will be located near a new medical clinic. But to do that, she says, she needs to know “a lot more about education policy and ways that services can be coordinated around and through schools.”

Grace Atukpawu, a second-year doctoral student in the psychological studies in education program, brings a master's degree in social work and firsthand experience to the study of alternative education. As a social worker in Los Angeles County, Atukpawu, '01, investigated child abuse and neglect. She became an advocate for children in the foster care system, particularly those preparing for the leap from group homes to independent living—more than half of whom end up homeless within a short time of leaving the system.

“There's a lot of stigma, a lot of misconceptions” about kids in the alternative-education system, Atukpawu says. “Some people say that if you're not in a regular high school, there's something wrong with you, but that's not the case. There are all kinds of [reasons] kids could need a more structured, smaller, family-type environment to really learn.”

Atukpawu hopes to teach at a university, but she also wants to help provide direct services to youth, perhaps as a consultant to a nonprofit program. “I don't want to write a dissertation that will just sit on a shelf somewhere. I want it to be applied to some community, and be of meaning and use.”

Although Williamson and Atukpawu are housed in separate doctoral programs and have different career goals, McLaughlin says they approach the alternative-education study from a similar, “methodologically rigorous” viewpoint. “What distinguishes Stanford from other schools [of education] is that it requires an academic minor or focus. You've really got to want to do research here.”

A specialist in community-school collaboration who is founding director of the Gardner Center, McLaughlin won the highest honor of the American Educational Research Association in April, joining seven other suse recipients. Research is McLaughlin's holy grail, and she approaches the possibility of new protocols and quantitative data analysis with contagious enthusiasm.

“I've studied school reform for a thousand years, and I'd never been in a continuation high school,” McLaughlin says about the exploratory trip she took with Williamson and Atukpawu to Humboldt County. “I'd sort of heard about them, and thought they were for thugs and druggies. But it turns out that a lot of kids who are there are really vulnerable—basically good kids who made some bad choices. It's an absolutely wide-open policy area—there's literally no research on it.”

McLaughlin pauses to describe the “train wreck” that continually recurs in alternative education, where “mental health doesn't work, parole doesn't work, Child Protective Services doesn't work.” But she's convinced that the new study, funded by the James Irvine Foundation, will point to answers, and that's her take-away message for students. “I think working on these sets of questions has the potential to shine a light on some of these institutions,” she says. “So, yeah, I wish I were 35 and starting over.”

Former Oakland teachers Alvarez and Sarah Capitelli are restarting their careers by using the challenges they encountered in their classrooms to drive their doctoral research. “After six years of teaching, I felt I had run out of options,” says Capitelli, a third-year student in educational linguistics. In the wake of Proposition 227 in 2000, which mandated English-only instruction in California public schools, Capitelli says she had “so many questions every day about how to best meet the needs of my students,” all of whom spoke only Spanish.

Alvarez and Capitelli now work as research assistants for suse professor Guadalupe Valdes, a specialist in language acquisition. Last year they helped her launch a program for volunteers working with young children struggling to learn English in Menlo Park schools.

On a recent afternoon, 5-year-old Esmerelda and her new best friend, Naomi Lavori, were acting out a page from the book Good Night, Gorilla, which they'd been reading in a room at the Belle Haven Library. Esmerelda suddenly jumped up, grabbed a banana that Lavori had attached to a long orange string, and tiptoed dramatically out of the room.

“You're the zookeeper,” Lavori reminded her reading buddy, as she helped the youngster retell the story in her own words. “You have to turn on . . .”

“A light,” Esmerelda chimed in.

“Yes,” Lavori said, affirming that she understood the story. “But it's not just a light. It's a . . .”

Flashlight,” Esmerelda crowed, clearly pleased to remember yet another new English word.

Alvarez and Capitelli have been working for several months with Lavori, a grandmother who spends two afternoons a week at the library, providing an English-only space for the kindergartener, who lives in a Spanish-only world. “With adult volunteers, the big difference is that they have raised children and grandchildren, and talked with them—they have no problems managing children,” Valdes says. “We're looking at the quality of the volunteer's language that seems to add to language growth.”

Valdes spent the summer finishing several chapters for a textbook that will be published by Teachers College Press. Capitelli is listed as a co-author of the manuscript, currently titled Documenting Growth in Children's English Language Development: Theoretical and Methodological Challenges. And Alvarez, Valdes says, “has done a wonderful analysis of the kind of language that volunteers use that seems to be best for children.”

Once those influences are identified and analyzed, Valdes suggests that it will be easier to encourage them in other teachers and volunteers. If so, Alvarez and Capitelli may well see the day when the classrooms that sparked their questions about what children need benefit from their answers.