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Breakthrough Magazine

A Teaching Renaissance

Faculty members are translating research data and theory into best practices for S.C. schools.
By Megan Sexton

When education research is carried out with purpose, it goes beyond mere theory and statistics. It’s hands-on work that translates data into best practices for teachers, counselors, school superintendents and other education leaders.

“To me, that’s what puts us and the schools and communities in our state on the cutting edge: knowing what works,” says Jon Pedersen, dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Education. “The fact we’re able to translate that into the schools and into the hands of the people actually doing the work, that’s the critical part.

“As an R1 institution, the focus is on research and teaching and translating that into practice. Our research informs our practices, which impacts what students do in their classrooms.”

That means partnering with public schools, particularly Carolina’s network of 18 K-12 schools where faculty members are embedded. The partnership allows faculty members to have a direct connection to the schools and better address their needs. It means teaching educational methods classes to USC students in public schools around the Midlands, not just in campus classrooms. It also means a breadth of research topics, from improving educational equity to increasing physical activity in elementary schools.

“We have a passion and a commitment for addressing social justice, equity and poverty. That’s a theme that cuts cleanly and clearly through our college and all the work we do, whether it’s teaching, service or research,” Pedersen says. “Our commitment to our state, community and the nation is to continue to lead in that area and grow our commitment to the work in those areas.

“It’s the totality of the community that should be the focal point. It’s a big challenge, but I think we have to take this on.”



At its core, Rhonda Jeffries’ research looks at ways to improve education for marginalized people. That means infusing social justice into the curriculum as she looks out for students who are in danger of being left behind.

After receiving a grant about 10 years ago to look at math instruction at the second- and third-grade level, she became interested in STEM classes and in understanding how students are tracked. Working with one of her graduate students, she began researching how to close the achievement gap for racial minority and low-income students, specifically those tracked for remedial classes.

She wanted to make sure incoming high school students who were behind in math were able to catch up to their classmates and increase their opportunity to be college ready. The algebra project was born.

Knowing that students who do not take algebra Iby ninth grade fall too far behind to make attending a four-year college likely, Jeffries’ idea was to teach algebra 1 to all students entering high school, even if they had not taken pre-algebra in middle school. As part of the project, a Richland County high school teacher taught the lowest performing students algebra I, and
90 percent of them passed the end-of-course exam.

“It became clear to us that just because students hadn’t been formally prepared, it wasn’t too late for them to catch up,” she says.

The next step was working with the school administration and teachers to expand the program for the entire ninth grade. That involved pre-teaching some students in an algebra seminar prior to regular class time, preparing them for what they would learn that day before they stepped into the classroom.

“When you try to tutor students after the class lesson was unsuccessful, it’s hard to get past the part where they’re humiliated and made to feel incapable,” Jeffries says. “Pre-teaching in seminars cancels that out. Our previously struggling students entered class ready to engage, and often they were out-performing students who were on-track for algebra.”

The first year, the test scores were impressive, even with the algebra seminar students included in the data set. By the second year, the high school out-performed every other school in the district. Some of the students were so inspired they asked for placement in honors-level geometry.

“How do students go from the lowest level to the honors level? It tells us that there’s no reason to throw kids away because of past performance,” she says. “Our kids enter elementary school at various levels; therefore, limiting early homogeneous grouping of students and providing options to adjust academic trajectories places all students in an atmosphere of hopefulness and expectation.”



Research shows a connection between movement and academic performance, with cognitive, behavioral and test performance all improving when students are physically active.

Yet school leaders don’t always recognize physical activity as a gateway to developing the whole child, and might see it merely as cutting into class time. Even in elementary schools with robust physical education programs, students are in PE class only once or twice a week.

One of the keys to changing that, says physical education professor Collin Webster, is working with classroom teachers to integrate more movement throughout the school day.

“We need to look at what’s realistic. Physical literacy is a new idea for many classroom teachers, but there are a number of strategies and programs to get kids more active,” Webster says. “We need to figure out the best strategy for the school.It’s not a one size fits all.”

The latest national study in 2008 showed 42 percent of elementary school students met the guidelines for 60 minutes a day of physical activity. For adolescents, the number dropped to 8 percent. Webster says activity in the classroom doesn’t always have to be vigorous or even moderate; simply reducing sedentary time has benefits.

His research focuses on physical activity promotion in schools and after-school programs with emphases on physical education teachers, general classroom teachers and after-school program staff. Through the development of a new program model, Partnerships for Active Children in Elementary Schools (PACES), Webster and his team are building a program with long-term classroom sustainability. It involves pulling expertise from physical education, public health and psychology experts.

“My focus is to get kids active through schools, but the activities aren’t arbitrary,” he says. “In physical education, students learn fundamental movement skills, like throwing and catching. They can continue to practice these skills in the regular classroom, at recess and at home. If you can’t get more physical education time, you need to get other teachers, parents and community organizations involved in helping children become not only more physically active, but also more physically literate.”

The three components of PACES include strategies and activities to infuse more physical activity into class time;
putting College of Education students into classrooms to lead and demonstrate physical activity promotion strategies; and developing a long-term partnership between researchers and schools to identify appropriate movement-based resources.

“There’s no question that getting kids active involves multiple disciplines,” Webster says. “Getting kids physically literate will require a multi-disciplinary approach. There’s never a silver bullet.”



Education professor Gloria Bouttehas a simple goal: ensuring that all students are able to succeed in school, particularly those who are culturally and linguistically diverse.

Boutte founded the Center of Excellence for the Education and Equity of African-American Students at Carolina and has made that goal her life’s work. She has spent more than three decades training, encouraging and inspiring teachers to try to reverse the data that shows students of color not performing as well academically.

She believes a renaissance is in order, a change that will start with teachers who understand the needs of culturally diverse students and the enthusiasm to work with students in the classroom.

“In the field, historically, there’s a high turnover among people who work with these students,” Boutte says. “There’s some trepidation among new and veteran teachers about doing this work.”

Part of her time is spent with educators of students of color — from pre-school through college level — learning why some excel and sharing examples of teachers doing exemplary work. She records their lessons and documents what happens in their classrooms. By capturing the voices of the teachers and then interviewing and reviewing the work of the students, she can tell how well the students are grasping the content.

“I try to get them excited and exhilarated about doing this work. The way I do that is to share cases of teachers from different grade levels and different content areas who are excited and want to work in these settings,” she says. “We don’t see enough models of successful classrooms and teachers and strategies.”

Her research strives to show that there are general strategies for culturally relevant teaching that can work across grade levels and subject areas. She’s found that successful teachers focus onacademic achievement, making sure students learn the same content, but often by teaching in different ways. Successful teachers also focus on cultural competency, making sure students see themselves in the content but also learn about the world beyond. They also teach critical consciousness, making sure students are taught how to question, analyze and think critically.

Boutte’s work is not just theoretical; her research translates theory on culturally relevant teaching into practice so people can see how it looks. She spreads the word through publishing case studies and presenting at national and international conferences. She also holds monthly roundtables where teachers, professors and community members are invited to discuss how culturally relevant teaching can be shared in classrooms.

“In a lot of schools with children of color or children of the poor, it can become laborious for teachers,” Boutte says. “Theylose joy because teaching is coupled with all the demands that schools and policymakers have put on them.

“My work tries to regenerate that joy, to build this renaissance of renewal for wanting to do this work. I see it as noble work. I see it as a challenge, and I see it as something that is mutually beneficial to society and the children we serve in
South Carolina and the nation.”



Catherine Compton-Lillydidn’t set out to conduct long-term research studies of student achievement. She was an elementary school teacher and graduate student in Upstate New York, concerned about some of the students in her inner-city school and working on her dissertation.

She found herself staying late at school many afternoons, frustrated as she tried to figure out why some of her students struggled to read and write. She knew something wasn’t working, and her dissertation turned into a larger, long-term study that tried to put the puzzle pieces together.

That study turned into a career for Compton-Lilly as a teacher and researcher, doing longitudinal studies that follow groups of children through elementary, middle and high school. She has published four books describing her experiences in a high-poverty community, following eight of her former first-grade students through high school. She now is in her ninth year of following students of immigrant families in the Midwest.

“The thing that drives me is working to identify the kids that are underserved — the kids who aren’t getting out of schooling what they should be able to get,” she says.

Now the John C. Hungerpiller Professor at USC’s College of Education, Compton-Lilly continues her research on inequity in schools and with immigrant families, with plans for a long-term project to follow a single school.

“Inequity in our society is not something that happens in first grade or eighth grade,” she says. “It’s a cumulating process that occurs with many small challenges that kids face or situations that are difficult. Racism plays a part in it. Poverty plays a part in it. Underfunded schools play a part in it. And health services play a part in it.

“All of these things help to explain inequity. Inequity is a long-term process that eats away at children’s souls and a family’s very fabric. Parents want to be good parents, and they love their kids dearly, but sometimes their lives aren’t set up in ways that they can do all they want to do for their kids.”

Her work involves thinking about ways schools can be structured so that teachers and administrators are more aware of students’ experiences and a stronger network of support can be fostered.

“I think education is flummoxed in some ways. We’re teaching like we did 50 years ago,” Compton-Lilly says.
“One of the reasons is we’re always thinking about short-term outcomes — the next test scores, the next year’s growth.

“We need to break away from that mindset and start thinking about kids as learners and thinkers and people with histories and visions of their own futures. Then we can start to redefine education as something that’s not just about meeting a set of standards or passing a set of tests, but as more about who children want to become. Then we can open opportunities for them and help them be more engaged in the educational experiences we offer them.”



Psychology associate professor Scott Deckerhas spent much of his career developing assessment tests for children with reading difficulties. Now he is using a three-year grant from the S.C. Department of Education to assess how each school district goes about identifying and helping students with dyslexia.

        South Carolina’s 103 school districts have no uniform protocol for identifying children with dyslexia — a reading disorder that affects 6 percent to 10 percent of school-age children nationwide — and don’t necessarily use best practice interventions.

“Because there hasn’t been a lot of guidance, everyone has been crafting their own policies — it’s like the Wild West,” says Decker, program director for the school psychology program at USC. “We’ve heard that some school districts are doing a great job in this area. But others are probably not performing at high levels.”

Decker says his interest in learning and reading stemmed from his own reading problems as a child. “I eventually ended up in gifted classes, but I did terrible in the first grade,” he says. “I was a delayed reader.”

Decker is using an internal ASPIRE grant from the Office of Research to assemble an interdisciplinary team of faculty members from across campus who have expertise in literacy, language and learning.

At some point, Decker envisions creating an app that would inform parents as to what is normal reading behavior for a given age, providing prompts to seek intervention if warranted. He’s also hoping to develop training modules for future teachers and school psychologists that would guide them in dyslexia assessment.



Watching a child with visual impairments confidently run or hop on one foot is more than rewarding for Ali Brian, a physical education researcher in the College of Education.
“It brings tears to your eyes,” she says.

Brian helps young children and adolescents with and without disabilities improve their gross motor skills — their ability to run, jump, hop, throw, catch and bounce a ball.
The common belief that kids naturally acquire those motor skills is more myth than fact, according to Brian’s research.

Two of her recent publications have shown that almost 80 percent of the preschool children tested — whether in Ohio, Louisiana or South Carolina — are exhibiting developmental delays with these skills. But after six weeks of twice weekly motor skills interventions guided by a specialist, only 5 percent of the same children showed delays.

“Nobody knows for sure why they are delayed, but it’s my hypothesis they’re not receiving any structured movement program in preschool with a specialist,” Brian says. “They only receive recess.”

        There typically aren’t physical education teachers in preschools, and classroom teachers often don’t know the best ways to teach children gross motor skills. “The end game is to not only teach the teachers how to teach, but to help them conduct a motor skills intervention with me at their side,” Brian says.

While her early work focused on Head Start and rural Title One preschools, she now also looks at children with and without disabilities, particularly students who are blind or visually impaired. Her work has found that students with disabilities learn gross motor skills at the same rate as students without disabilities. All students start out delayed, but see parallel growth in six to eight weeks when intervention strategies
are applied.

        Children with visual impairments are more likely than their peers to be sedentary, overweight or obese. Since it’s alow-incidence disability, there is only a small amount of data, and the numbers suggest children with visual impairment lag far behind in gross motor skill development.

        Brian works with Camp Abilities, a sports camp for blind and visually impaired children, the S.C. School for the Deaf and the Blind and parents of visually impaired children. In her work with parents of blind or visually impaired children, she provides a talking pedometer and a guide wire for running, and she suggests family activities that focus on motor skills.

Although students with visual impairments are farther behind at the start, they moved from the fifth percentile to around the thirtieth percentile after a six-week intervention. Her next project will look at ways to assess gross motor skills of children with autism and develop interventions to improve their skills.

“To see the change, it’s powerful,” Brian says. “You think, ‘I can make a difference in their lives.’”

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.