As a reading specialist at Henry Elementary in Irving Park, Trish Meegan wondered if students who struggled with timed, standardized tests could read faster if they learned how to monitor their own speed. To find out, Meegan gathered a group of Henry teachers to design a research study and test her hypothesis.
Meegan and her colleagues were doing “action research,” a process that turns teachers into researchers as they formulate a question, collect data and then evaluate the results in their own classrooms. Meegan was guided by the Chicago Foundation for Education, which promotes action research as a way to improve instruction and to inform district policy.
Since 2001, the foundation has awarded $1,000 grants to five to 10 Chicago teachers annually to study a range of topics including student-led discussions, conflict resolution and dramatizing stories to improve reading comprehension.
The idea is for teachers to become more analytical in the classroom and more authoritative in school- and district-level decision-making. “We’re trying to give teachers a voice in policy making,” says Jordan Blackburn, the foundation’s director of development and programs.
Towards that end, the foundation formed an advisory group of teacher researchers to meet quarterly with Lisa Scruggs, a senior policy advisor to Arne Duncan. Scruggs helps them publicize their research—one meeting led to a follow-up with the CPS literacy chief—and seeks their opinion on district policies that affect teachers. The group is “a great source of ideas,” Scruggs says.
Action research has caught hold in several large school districts and even helped shape policy, according to Teachers Network, a nationwide, New York- based non-profit that promotes action research. The Chicago Foundation for Education is one of the network’s 12 Leadership Institute affiliates.
The network’s Leadership Institute began organizing teachers to influence policy in response to the 1989 education summit between the U.S. president and the nation’s governors. Educators were not invited to attend.
While Chicago’s action research has yet to alter policy, it has made a difference in classrooms, teachers say. At Henry Elementary, Meegan’s research helped her colleagues analyze and refine a strategy to help kids read faster.
Students were asked to count the words they read in a minute, and then to test themselves on comprehension. Meegan charted their progress.
Motivated by the measurable goal, one boy who had disliked reading suddenly “always had a book at his desk,” Meegan recalls. “He went from 30 words to about 80 words a minute.”
The research also spurred teachers to examine why some students failed to improve, says Meegan, now an assistant principal at Coonley Elementary in North Center. For example, teachers are investigating whether bilingual students struggled with unknown words.
Action research lacks the scientific rigor of academic research. For instance, teachers typically do not use a control group, which would allow them to compare their students’ progress to a similar group not exposed to the same teaching strategy. Still, teachers find it helps them better monitor their own teaching. “It does make you more reflective as you look at what you do and what the consequences are,” says Janet Caluris, a 3rd-grade teacher at Peterson Elementary in North Park.
Action research also helps teachers adapt academic research to their classrooms. For instance, Caluris had read that if students learned to summarize, predict, clarify and question the material, their comprehension would improve. She modeled the techniques, but her students neglected to use them. Then she had an idea, which altered the course of her research. She had her class invent characters such as Sammy Summarizer and Pam Predictor who would help them as they read. Inventing characters got kids interested in using the strategies, she says.
Within several months her class had averaged an 11 percent gain in comprehension on their reading unit tests, while her special education students jumped 28 percent, she reports.
Improvement the goal
Caluris and the other grant-winners learned to design action research through a series of workshops lead by Sue Hansen, an associate professor of education at National-Louis University. Hansen explained a variety of methods to collect data, such as tests, surveys, observations and samples of student work.
She also helped them select an appropriate research question. Some teachers are looking to prove that a particular strategy works, Hansen says, but she encourages them to be more flexible, and even to change their research question or strategy mid-study, as Caluris did. “The purpose of action research is not to prove, but to improve,” Hansen explains.
Librarian Toby Rajput’s research also took an unexpected turn. Rajput wanted to motivate students to read more and studied the effect of a program where kids selected books for a children’s book award. Sixth graders at National Teachers Academy who joined her book club read and voted on eligible books and then prepared oral presentations.
The program worked. Analyzing her data—including student surveys, library book checkout records and videotapes of the club meetings—Rajput found the 6th-graders highly engaged and spontaneously discussing their reading with other book club members. But she also discovered that very few of them thought of reading as fun.
When surveyed on why they read books, “only one kid said something about enjoyment,” says Rajput, now an area library media specialist.
Listening to her students, Rajput also discovered “a negative culture about reading and being a good student,” she says, that prevented them from expressing enthusiasm for books and wanting to read more. What engaged students was not merely the book program, she decided, it was the small-group setting that allowed them to express themselves without fear of ridicule. In the end, Rajput recommended that classroom teachers co-teach some library classes with the librarian to allow for small group discussions.
Teacher research catches on
Kenneth Zeichner, a University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor, is a proponent of action research who has studied its use nationwide.
While action research is accepted as professional development, Zeichner thinks that it also should be taken seriously as research by colleges of education “so the knowledge base in the field is not just what academics like me are producing.”
However, his is a minority view, says Zeichner.
“This movement has always had a problem of legitimacy. I find it’s seen as second-class research.”
Mark Reckase, a professor of measurement and quantitative methods at Michigan State University, says most academic researchers aren’t openly critical of action research; they just don’t know much about it. “It doesn’t fall within the normal scheme of how they do things,” he says.
Action research has caught hold in some school districts around the country. The Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia began supporting action research around 1980. Since then, the program has grown to 24 school sites with several hundred teachers participating each year.
Teachers who want to research a question—often a whole grade level or school—pick a group leader who receives training from the school district. Participating teachers are released from their classrooms for a few days each year.
Madison, Wis., also has a long history of promoting action research. Since 1990, teachers have met in small, mixed-school groups to formulate research questions and carry out yearlong projects. At the end, they produce a report that the district distributes to its schools.
Some action research has influenced district decision making. In Fairfax County, for instance, teachers researched efforts to prepare teacher leaders, and then used their data to help develop a master’s degree/certificate program in teacher leadership, according to Teachers Network Leadership Institute, which funded the research.
And in New York City, network teachers are helping determine how to use newly allocated funds to improve classroom instruction.
Evidence is mixed on whether action research improves teaching. When Zeichner studied the Madison program in the late 1990s, teachers reported that they listened more closely to their students and looked more analytically at their teaching. They also noted that student attitudes and behavior improved. However, data did not show that action research improved student achievement.
But Teachers Network Leadership Institute reports that its grant-winners around the country have data suggesting that their action research produced academic gains. And a number of Chicago’s action researchers say they’ve recorded gains, too.
“It definitely improves achievement,” says Meegan. “Action research [unlike scientific research] is very specific to a particular classroom at a particular time and tells you what impacts those students. If you really want to improve what you do in your classroom, this is a great way to do it.”
For more information on Teachers Network Institute Leadership action research grants, visit the the Chicago Foundation for Education website at www.chgofdneduc.org
Jody Temkin is a Catalyst contributing editor.
E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.