“The goal of SERP is to develop the coordinating capacity and expertise required to support highly productive collaborations among practitioners, researchers, developers, and policy makers.”
Problem-solving research and development for education
Mission and Strategy
The cost of a failed education has never been higher for individuals, families, businesses, and the economic strength and well-being of our nation. And yet the primary engine of innovation and improvement in other sectors -problem-solving research and development - is vastly underutilized in education. Between 1997 and 2003, the National Academies' National Research Council formed three committees to determine how a focused, scientifically based program of research and development could generate a culture of continuous improvement in our nation's schools. The outgrowth of those efforts was the creation of the independent Strategic Education Research Partnership.
The goal of SERP is to develop the coordinating capacity and expertise required to support highly productive collaborations among practitioners, researchers, developers, and policy makers. SERP is accomplishing this mission by establishing a set of field sites-- school districts that enter into sustained partnerships with SERP researchers to engage in problem solving and continuous improvement rooted in, and supported by, scientific research and development.
SERP in Action: Field Site Research and Development
SERP currently operates three field sites: one in Boston, one in San Francisco, and one that is composed of 4 smaller, inner-ring suburban districts that are part of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN): Arlington, VA, Evanston, IL, Madison, WI, and Shaker Heights, OH. The Districts' leaders commit to regular meetings with key SERP researchers and staff to ensure the integration of the work with the district's agenda and decision making.
Each field site has a different program of work. In Boston, the focus is on middle school literacy across the content areas. In San Francisco it is on middle school mathematics and science, and the literacy and language challenges of accessing content in those domains. In the MSAN site, the work is focused on algebra learning and on the engagement of students in academics at the transition to high school. While the foci differ, each site operates according to a common set of SERP principles:
- The program of work is designed to address the problem(s) that the school district identifies as most urgent.
- SERP recruits an interdisciplinary team of researchers, developers, and practitioners who are among the nation's most accomplished in the domain identified by the district.
- Multiple lines of work are launched simultaneously to address the complexity of the challenges as they manifest in real school contexts.
- Design work includes both researchers and practitioners at every stage. It attends from the start to designing for scale, and deliberately builds on prior work.
- Interventions are subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation, providing solid evidence of their effect on student achievement.
In four short years, the field sites have been remarkably successful at deepening the engagement level and commitment of the school districts-even in times of transition-- and at recruiting cooperative networks of researchers and practitioners who are among the best in the nation. Quality products, including assessments, instructional programs, pedagogical tools, and online professional development, have already begun to emerge from the work, attracting the interest of other districts facing similar challenges. For example, Word Generation, a three year, cross subject program for building the knowledge base students need to read academic texts, will soon be widely available to school districts via the web at http://www.wordgeneration.org/. The web-site is replete with videos of classroom teaching and interviews with teachers and administrators, providing a solid foundation for other schools interested in implementing it or similar programs.
Field Site and the SERP Strategic Plan
A mature SERP organization is envisioned as one with 12 to 15 geographically and demographically diverse field sites that operate within a culture of continuous improvement and cross-fertilization of ideas, where researchers and practitioners collaborate to solve major problems affecting student learning. Additional sites will be chosen based on the strength and commitment of the district leadership, the depth of the research and development capacity in the area, and the interest of the funding community in supporting the work.
The long term funding plan SERP will pursue envisions a private-public partnership in which the national SERP office is funded by foundations with a national reach and by the federal government. Core support for individual field sites will be sought from local philanthropists who are committed to strengthening their communities. SERP will seek an endowment for each site in order to ensure the stability of the infrastructure over time, giving each district a stable identity as a site where research and development is part of its culture. Funding for specific projects would be sought from government agencies and from foundations with an interest in the particular topic. The funding model is responsive to the deeply held belief that local communities must take responsibility for the quality and character of their schools, at the same time that it acknowledges the critical national interest in supporting the quality of the K-12 education system and the competitiveness of the nation's future workforce.
As the SERP organization grows over time, so will the contributions it can make to improved functioning of the education sector. Knowledge gained in one subject or in one site can be applied to others. As the program of work grows, the field sites will become training grounds for junior faculty, graduate students, and pre-service and in-service teachers. And as the effort to build a coherent knowledge base extends over years and decades, the preparation programs in colleges of education will be more firmly and scientifically rooted in the practice for which teachers are being prepared.
Unlike many education initiatives, the SERP approach does not promise quick reform. Time and again those promises have proven too difficult to meet and impossible to sustain. Instead, SERP proposes to build the partnerships and the infrastructure to create an education sector capable of continuous innovation and improvement; a sector where knowledge from practice and research can be codified, rigorously tested, and widely shared. Attaining that goal will require the sites and the coordination capacity to effectively bring the worlds of research, development, and practice together routinely and productively. This is the unique niche that SERP has occupied.