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Middle Ground

Shattuck Professor Catherine Snow's Project on Adolescent Literacy

The complaints have become so commonplace that they are clichés: researchers do not produce work that helps practitioners, and practitioners ignore the information of researchers. Connecting research and practice--the bane of any education school's existence--is easier said than done.

Shattuck Professor Catherine Snow (photo by Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures, Inc.)

That is slowly changing with the work of Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty members such as Catherine Snow, Shattuck Professor of Education and an internationally known expert on children's literacy. One of her latest projects tackles the problem of adolescent literacy, not solely through dry survey data or statistical analyses, but also by studying middle school classrooms in the Boston Public Schools.

The project is part of the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP), a venture of the National Academies, the collaborative of the nation's leading academic researchers. SERP aims to embed practice in the heart of education research--that is, to find out what schools and teachers need, and to design research projects that address those issues. It's a way of connecting two worlds that often operate separately. In Snow's mind, middle school literacy is an ideal launching pad for a SERP pilot project.

"You're seeing a rash of interest in adolescent literacy," Snow says. "Part of that is that people worried about early reading achievement say,‘Oh,well,we sort of know what to do.' With adolescent literacy, kids know how to read words, but in 7th or 12th grade, can't understand the text.And we don't really know what we need to do to help them."

The project got off the ground when Boston's superintendent of schools,Thomas W. Payzant, M.A.T.'63, C.A.S.'66, Ed.D.'68--who sat on the committee that designed SERP--agreed to have six of the city's middle schools serve as field sites for Snow and researchers from other universities in Boston and Cambridge. Snow teaches a doctoral-level class for students from Harvard, Boston College, Boston University, and Lesley University who will determine what schools and teachers need, collect data, and design interventions.

"With adolescent literacy, kids know how to read words, but in 7th or 12th grade, can't understand the text. And we don't really know what we need to do to help them."

Rather than starting with preconceived research notions, Snow and her team began by figuring out what teachers and administrators in the six schools wanted. Their list of questions included: What best practices exist for middle school literacy? Which teachers are doing the best jobs in their schools? How closely are teachers following Boston's Collaborative Coaching and Learning model of building literacy skills? Other inquiries focused on the extent to which content-area teachers think literacy is something they should teach, the kinds of professional development teachers are receiving, and how teachers use assessment data in solving literacy problems.

"Ultimately,what we want to do is try out interventions," Snow says. "But the interventions are likely to be ineffective if teachers don't feel they meet the needs of the students they serve. This is a way to incorporate their questions into the design of the interventions, when we get to that point."

Right now, literacy interventions leave little room for individuality, Snow contends. Word reading, fluency, vocabulary, and strategic reading are all components of literacy, and a student might have problems with only one of them. Yet the help students receive in schools might not target what they actually need, Snow points out."Which kids have which [problems], to what degree, and what to do about them--that's what no one really knows," she says.

By May 2005, Snow and her team will have produced reports for the six schools. But the bigger, thornier research questions will be tackled over the next 10 years, at the cost of $3 million to $4 million a year, says Snow, who is seeking grants. Eventually, this pilot project could be a model for other research collaboratives.

For Snow, the venture is an exciting step in a career that has been focused on how children acquire literacy skills and on ways to prevent reading problems in young children. Snow, the author of Preparing Our Teachers: Opportunities for Better Reading Instruction, earned her doctorate from McGill University and has chaired two national panels on literacy. Her other research projects include studying the language and literacy skills among low-income children who have been followed for 15 years, since age 3, researching how first- and second-language learners acquire vocabulary, and writing about bilingual education policies in the United States and in other countries.

"Middle-school literacy was the perfect place to begin a real partnership with practitioners," Snow said. "It's an area in which we can learn a large amount by looking at successful practice."