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Taking Initiative

A HGSE News Interview with Faculty Member Richard Weissbourd by Greer C. Bautz and Marin Jorgensen

Richard Weissbourd, faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government, currently teaches a course on effective interventions. He is founder or cofounder of several initiatives, including ReadBoston; WriteBoston; Project ASPIRE; and the Lee Academy, a pilot school in Dorchester, Massachusetts. In the following, Weissbourd discusses these initiatives, as well as his interest in and ongoing research on children's moral and social development.

Q: What are the goals of ReadBoston, the initiative you founded which is run by Boston Mayor Tom Menino?

A: ReadBoston is a citywide initiative to get all kids reading by the third grade by 2005. It's a 10-year initiative that began in 1995. It's partly trying to say, "Let's do one thing well., If kids can't read by the third grade, we know the chance of their school success is very grim, so let's focus on this one thing,”third grade reading,”make sure we do it well and get schools, communities, parents,” everybody,”focused on this one literacy goal, and get the mayor trumpeting the importance of literacy all the time. We've had some success in the last 10 years: reading scores have gone up some, teachers are using more effective literacy practices, and we've gotten a lot more parents involved,”a lot more parents reading to their kids, talking to their kids, and communicating with their kids' teachers. But we still have a long way to go.

Q: How have you been measuring the progress of ReadBoston?

A: We look at standardized test scores in the district, and we also had an evaluation done of some of the models that [Lecturer on Education and Director of the Human Development and Psychology Program] Terry Tivnan did here at HGSE along with Lowry Hemphill, who's now at Wheelock College in Boston. The evaluation looked at four different literacy models in the district that were trying to improve reading scores. ReadBoston was involved in bringing these models to the district. Again, it shows some progress, more in certain areas of reading than in others.

Q: How does the Lee Academy, the pilot school you cofounded, tie in?

A: The school is a part of the ReadBoston initiative, so the two things are connected. The Lee Academy is an effort to go deeper. We're eventually going to start with kids who are two years old; we now have kids who are three, four, and five years old and, as they get older, we're going to add grades.

"[Lee Academy] is really intended to answer this question: 'What would it take to get all kids in a poor neighborhood reading proficiently?'...In fact, to shout to the world, 'We can do this if we do it the right way.'"

The school is really intended to answer this question: "What would it take to get all kids in a poor neighborhood reading proficiently?, It's trying to do the literacy work very deeply and very well. In fact, to shout to the world, "We can do this if we do it the right way., Class sizes will be small and we'll have a real focus on high-quality training for the teachers in the building. It's a lab school, so we will do research regularly and experts will advise us; other people will come in and learn from our work. There will also be heavy emphasis on engaging families and getting families to support learning at home in powerful ways. We have a problem with mobility,”kids change schools a lot,” so we're really going to make an effort to keep kids in the building. It appears we're off to a good start; families like the place, and we only lost one student this year.

Q: Is the Lee Academy associated with HGSE in any formal way? Is there research coming out of Lee that Harvard can use for its early childhood education initiative?

A: Lee doesn't have a formal affiliation with Harvard, but there are a number of Harvard folks who are involved in one way or another as informal collaborators. Also, we [at HGSE] will do research at the Lee Academy. [Lesser Professor and Acting Dean] Kathy McCartney may be one of the people involved. And, we'll look at some other schools that are beginning with students at young ages, too. We want to make the case that if you start young, in a high-quality way, it can really make a difference. And the mayor and the superintendent want to start young. In Boston Public Schools, Superintendent Thomas Payzant [M.A.T.'63, C.A.S.'66, Ed.D.'68] is trying to add classes for four-year-olds. The mayor has pledged to have classrooms for every four-year-old by the year 2010.

Part of why we're doing this is that there is interest in early childhood education at the state and the district levels. We feel if we can do this well, it will be easier to scale up and replicate practice,”a lot of people will learn from this undertaking. So, we're hoping to wire in to some of things that are going on in the city and the state over time. In terms of ReadBoston, it's in 30 or 40 elementary schools now at different levels in different ways. So, we're also hoping to wire in to ReadBoston, so we can do a powerful family engagement practice at the school and can immediately disseminate it to other schools in the district.

We've also founded a mayor's initiative called WriteBoston to aid high-school kids with writing proficiency. Jake Murray, a research fellow at HGSE, and I started it with a few others three years ago through the Harvard Children's Initiative. We have a few HGSE students that are involved in WriteBoston; a doctoral student wrote an evaluation of WriteBoston last year. The initiative is smaller than ReadBoston, and it's really too early to evaluate fully, though we have had some initial successes.

Q: What brought you to your work with the Boston Public Schools?

"If kids can't read, they can't learn. So, the one thing that it's really important to get people on the same highway about is kids reading."

A: In terms of why I do things like ReadBoston and WriteBoston, I started to feel at some point that, because there are so many small projects that schools and communities are involved in, it's very important to get everyone on the same highway,”singing from the same hymnbook,”about certain goals for kids. And, I'm not a literacy person, but it just became crystal clear to me that if kids can't read, they can't learn. We're trying to unite people around these goals. So, that's where I became obsessed with third grade reading. People may tell you that I pester them about third-grade reading,”and I do,”because I think that it's so important that we need to focus on it, even if we're not literacy people. If we're concerned about inequality in education, then we have to be focused on kids reading.

Q: In what direction should community schools move, and does Harvard have a role to play?

A: Community schools develop and usefully incorporate supports and services in and around them that prevent and deal with students' social, health, and emotional needs. In my mind, there have to be certain values in these schools such as being asset-based and not just crisis-based. Another is that their services should not be confined to the buildings themselves, so they can be used to engage and support parents. I think we have to pay careful attention to what kind of services are provided in the actual school buildings,”and we have to engage parents to think about this as well. For instance, I don't think parents should get mental health services in their child's school,”it's too stigmatizing,”unless they are specifically requesting those services.

As far as the general direction of community schools, there are a couple of challenges. One is that, if you look at many districts in the country, you see effective full-service schools or community schools in every district. Yet, you don't see any big district that is consistently and uniformly doing effective community schools. In every district there are really terrible models of community schools, too. One of the challenges is figuring out how to scale up, to have high quality across the district as opposed to in a few isolated places.

Another challenge is to really use Harvard's resources well in the community schools. How can we draw from the Medical School (HMS), the School of Public Health (HSPH), the Business School (HBS), the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), and the Ed School to do an effective community school? They all have things to contribute. Kids need help with nutrition and with asthma,”things that the HMS or HSPH can help with. There are opportunities for the KSG and the HBS to help with financing, organization, and management. Harvard, as a university, can also play a really exciting and useful role in community schools in research and evaluation. We don't know a lot about what kind of school will work for which kids under which circumstances,”there are all these different kinds of community schools out there,”so these research challenges are very important as well.

I don't think it's going to close the achievement gap, but [improving community schools] could be one big piece in closing the achievement gap.

Q: Tell us about your forthcoming book on moral development.

"Kids' moral development is a matter of their relationship with adults,”especially their parents,”and it's decided not so much in moral talk as it is in how parents handle closeness, achievement, their own errors and transgressions, and whether they are able to listen to children carefully and assert their own values."

A: This is a book that is trying to do a couple of things: One is that it's looking at race and class differences in the development of important moral qualities. We're interviewing kids at a high-powered private school, at an economically and culturally diverse public school, and at a large public school with almost all poor students. Part of the book revolves around differences in how kids think about moral problems and about how achievement pressures shape their morality.

One thing that's surprising is that the kids in the big urban school are very focused on achievement. Some rank achievement over being a happy person or a good person. Achievement is about morality for them. If they don't achieve, they're worried about falling into drugs, gangs, and other activities they think of as immoral. We're not going to find those concerns at the private school. So far, it seems that some of the private school kids are not sure why they're achieving. They're interested in getting into good colleges, but they're asking questions about the meaning of achievement. A lot of the wealthy kids talk about being in a very competitive academic environment and the difficulty they find caring for each other in such an environment. This is not a concern of poorer kids. Their moral dilemma is more that if one does succeed academically, then they might be launched out of their community and become severed from peers; sometimes there's a feeling of disloyalty. Those are the kinds of differences we're trying to highlight.

The study is also looking at the role of sports in moral development, as well as the role of religion. But, the big theme of the book is that kids' moral development is a matter of their relationship with adults,”especially their parents,”and it's decided not so much in moral talk as it is in how parents handle closeness, achievement, their own errors and transgressions, and whether they are able to listen to children carefully and assert their own values. It's also in how teachers handle these things. We really need to understand these relationships in order to understand kids' moral development. So, we're doing a lot of interviewing of parents and teachers as well.

Examining moral development has a long history at HGSE. Lawrence Kohlberg was my advisor here when I was a student, and he was considered one of the leaders in moral development. In gathering data for the book, I am working with HGSE students who are doing surveys and interviewing kids. Eight master's and doctoral candidates have been involved at one point or another interviewing kids in these different communities and finding out what the moral challenges are. We have about six more months to do the research. And, I hope the book will appeal to both academics and to parents. It's mostly trying to give parents new ways of thinking about promoting their kids' moral growth.


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