• by Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., and Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2006 • Josie Cortez

Sankofa, a word from the Twi language of West Africa, is a symbol of the wisdom in learning from the past in the building of our future, of looking back as one moves forward. It is a symbol that resonates with the Intercultural Development Research Association’s STAR Center as the federally-funded comprehensive regional assistance centers end after 10 years of operation. As with Sankofa, this is a good time to look back as we move forward. It is a good time to take the best from the past and the lessons from struggles and achievements to help inform and guide the future of professional development and technical assistance. alt

Since the inception in 1995 of the comprehensive centers, the centers have pioneered work in the delivery of many differentiated technical assistance and professional development services once provided by a loosely-connected collection of specialty centers that focused on limited focus areas. IDRA’s STAR Center was one of 15 comprehensive centers originally authorized under Title XIII of the Improving America’s Schools Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1995.

Re-authorized by Congress under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the STAR Center supported the second U.S. Department of Education strategic goal of NCLB to improve student achievement. Toward this end, the STAR Center objectives targeted four areas of focus:

  • Ensuring that all students read on grade level by the third grade;
  • Improving teacher and principal quality;
  • Improving the performance of all high school students; and
  • Improving mathematics achievement of all students.

Under the leadership of IDRA’s Dr. Abelardo Villarreal, who served as project director for the center, the STAR Center has been a collaboration among IDRA, the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and RMC Research Corporation. This collaboration persisted over the 10-year span, and lessons were learned about coordinating many technical assistance and professional development efforts, and complementing and capitalizing on distinctive organizational strengths.

Over the past 10 years, the STAR Center staff experienced firsthand how focused technical assistance contributed to the positive changes in education in Texas. As the number of students has increased in Texas schools, including minority students and English language learners, so have achievement levels. Improvements in student achievement resulted in decreases in the number of schools rated unacceptable and increases in schools deemed “exemplary” by our state accountability system.

STAR Center contributions to improvements in Texas public education ranged from improving teacher capacity to teach English language learners in core content areas, to identifying critical characteristics of high-poverty, high-performing schools. Highlights of the STAR Center’s impact include the following.

  • The Texas Reading Success Network, a technical-assistance program that helped targeted schools make effective use of the state’s professional development programs to help teachers in kindergarten through third grade implement the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) in reading and supported improvements in student reading achievement.
  • The STAR Center’s study, “Hope for Urban Education: A Study of Nine High-Performing, High-Poverty, Urban Elementary Schools,” of “turnaround” schools (nine urban elementary schools around the country that made dramatic gains in student achievement in a relatively short time). These high-poverty, high-minority schools showed impressive academic results; in fact, they attained higher levels of achievement than most schools in the nation. Further, they achieved results in reading and mathematics that surpassed the achievement of students in affluent suburban schools.
  • The Migrant Program Integrated Planning and Decision Making Institute designed and facilitated by the STAR Center that offered teams of key stakeholders from local school districts and community the opportunity to:
    • Discuss migrant education program best practices,
    • Identify data collected on migrant students,
    • Determine additional data needs,
    • Review the seven areas of concern, and
    • Develop an action plan based on evidence of need.
  • Professional development and technical assistance to low performing schools in the Education Service Center Region X, and to other service centers across Texas, to improve high school student performance in mathematics and reading, exceeding the expected Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) scores in reading and mathematics for participating schools.
  • Assisting schools in aligning curriculum and instruction with the TAKS through regional institutes on research-based mathematics teaching strategies that stressed the use of manipulatives, increasing mathematics scores for almost all of the participating schools.

Consistently, throughout all of our work, the STAR Center focused on what makes a difference for students. That meant working with everyone who matters in the education of students: teachers, parents and families, administrators, state agency staff, and federal staff. STAR Center staff brought years of experience, expertise and uncompromised dedication, capitalizing on the strength of our individual partners as well as the collaborative strength of our national network to every classroom, principal’s office and conference center that hosted these efforts.

Over the 10 years, there have been many important accomplishments in Texas education that have made a positive difference for schoolchildren. The STAR Center contributed to these accomplishments, sometimes teacher by teacher, other times campus by campus, sometimes at the state or national level, and always positively influencing and impacting the quality of education provided to Texas students. As rigorous evaluation and research of these efforts showed, the STAR Center took the most appropriate and valid research and applied it in a way that worked for students and their teachers. Over these 10 years, the STAR Center served over 100,000 clients, most of them teachers and administrators. Nine out of 10 clients surveyed in 2003 (94 percent) reported that STAR Center services had impacted their work.

Moving Forward

As we look forward, there is great clarity about what is needed to continue to make a difference in Texas classrooms. Our insights come from years of trial, error and great success. Despite the progress, there is still much that is left to do in Texas classrooms and classrooms across the country so that no child is left behind.

In Texas, we face challenges at the state and local levels of new accountability requirements, new Title III regulations, high in-grade retention rates and high dropout rates in our schools, a severe shortage of qualified teachers and limited access to few resources. Compounding these challenges is an era of declining state investment in public education and ongoing state policy changes that hamper continuity. Many of these challenges, like those that came before, can be met through effective technical assistance.

The STAR Center has made an extraordinary impact and has some lessons to share, lessons that build on the best of what was done. Following are some things to remember.

Everything begins and ends with relationships.

The most effective technical assistance efforts are based on establishing a long-term relationship with clients. There are many consultants who offer technical assistance and professional development but few who work together with schools and state education agencies in an in-depth, close manner. Most STAR Center efforts worked, in large part, because of the trust established between the client and provider.

Credible staff are needed with a strong background of working in schools.

Content expertise is important, but it is not sufficient. People are more apt to listen to those who also have been in the trenches and understand firsthand the struggles and challenges faced by first-line personnel, including teachers, administrators and support staff. Importantly, they have to be able to see beyond the struggles and help with solutions. Coaching, demonstrating and modeling were key components of our most successful efforts.

Data and research can be used to inform.

Opportunities for success are enhanced by helping clients understand the benefits of using data to make decisions. Clients often need help using data wisely and ensuring that data are always used to serve the best interest of the student. It also is important to use varied data sources, including qualitative, teacher reflective data, and quantitative student data to guide the effort and ultimately positively impact the outcome.

Change takes time, hard work, flexibility and persistence.

Every change process has its ups and downs, and the wise technical assistance provider is persistent. The successful technical assistance provider recognizes that school staff at times may feel that change is an affront to their personal identities. So the effective technical assistance provider uses humor, generates buy-in from all groups, works closely with leadership, and stays attuned to the perceptions and interpretations of issues, resolving them as quickly as possible. Changes within schools themselves – changing leadership, staff and focus – can and should be anticipated and adjustments should be made as needed.

Nurturing, caring and creating a sense of urgency are keys to success in turning around low-performing schools.

Creating and nurturing a culture of caring (for children and for each other), creating a sense of urgency and accountability through the use of data and research, and helping leaders establish strong consistent strategies for success are vital to the local change process. Administrators and teachers involved in most STAR Center efforts were already caring individuals. The center provided a systematic way of channeling that, along with shared accountability, into strategies that would work for students.

Collaboration requires high degrees of trust and responsiveness to each other.

Each partner in the collaboration must deliver on its promises and must do so in a way that is responsive to each partner’s needs. That way, trust is built and maintained over time.

Co-create clear expectations at the beginning of any collaborative effort.

When expectations are clearly understood, they are more likely to be met and relationships stay on a positive course. Collaboration is not the same as coordination. Excellent collaboration starts with agreement about values and philosophy. It continues with agreement about division of labor.

Coordination requires understanding a division of labor and connecting points.

While valuable, coordination in itself does not produce the same kind of culture for work as collaboration.

Collaboration, while sometimes not efficient, typically is more effective than doing things alone.

Collaboration takes an enormous amount of time and effort, and it takes trust. However, in the best instances, collaboration produces enduring relationships, synergy and leveraging of efforts and resources, leading to greater sustainability for the project.

Clear and consistent communication is important for effective collaboration.

It is important to understand the meanings of various words to the collaborative partners. At the beginning of a collaborative relationship, partners often think they understand each other only to find out later that they defined things differently or imbued different meanings to concepts. The best results come from common understandings and internally consistent communication early in the collaboration.

Schools Can Improve on their Own, But Effective Technical Assistance Supports and Accelerates Needed Change

There is an important role for technical assistance that must be filled: helping people understand and apply best practices for serving children and youth, particularly those who come from economically disadvantaged areas, who are English language learners and who are members of families that are migratory. Their needs are to some extent unique. History has taught us that if there are no assistance centers devoted to help schools in serving their needs, some students are likely to be ill-served, underserved and in a few circumstances un-served. Schools want to be successful with all students, but sometimes external support is needed.

The STAR Center played an important role in moving forward together with schools. The center accomplished much, given our limited funding and perpetually uncertain future. In Texas, as in the rest of the country, the efforts of the STAR Center and the comprehensive centers network have greatly contributed to increasing schools’ capacity to effectively serve all children. The result is that more children are achieving, as reflected in some of the national studies tracking school reforms. Yet, the center has recognized that more improvement is needed.

Although the data indicate that education in Texas is still far from where it needs to be, there is movement in the right direction. All technical assistance providers need to stop, look back and make sure no one is left behind before moving forward. In contrast to many previously disconnected federal technical assistance efforts, new initiatives also must build on and extend what we have already learned in successful efforts that have been proven to work. The many schools STAR Center activities improved, and the many children whose futures are still being created day-by-day, week-by-week and month-by-month, deserve nothing less.

Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., is design and development coordinator at IDRA. Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org

[©2006, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2006 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]