Effective Educational Practice: A Crucial First Step in Addressing the Needs of Traditionally Overlooked Students

Dimeo, Jennifer Kumpost, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Tomlinson, Carol A., Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Students regularly encounter challenges that reflect a poor educational fit and their key needs are often overlooked in traditional school settings. These challenges include background factors such as poverty (Arnold & Doctoroff, 2003; Case, Fertigl, & Paxson, 2006; Rouse & Fantuzzo, 2009) and cultural differences (Bourdieu, 2008; Delpit, 2006; Garcia & Guerra, 2004; Jaeger, 2011; Lareau, 2003; Morrison, Robbins, & Rose, 2008; Rothstein-Fisch & Greenfield, 2000; Sternberg, 2004 & 2007), as well as greater systemic inequalities such as funding (Biddle & Berliner, 2002; Condron & Roscigno, 2003), inequitable schooling experiences (Fram, Miller-Cribbs, & Van Horn, 2007; Giroux & Schmidt, 2004; Kozol, 1991), low teacher perspectives and expectations (Armstrong, 2010; Delpit, 2006; Garcia & Guerra, 2004), and low-quality curriculum (Baker, 2005; Freire, 2009; Garcia & Guerra, 2004) that lacks cultural relevance & responsiveness (Banks, 2006; Ladson-Billings, 1995).
Despite these challenges, classrooms can support equity in access to excellence in education for traditionally overlooked students by (1) holding high expectations of all students while simultaneously providing high levels of support (e.g. Delpit, 2006; Howard, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 1992; Morrison, Robbins, & Rose, 2008; Swartz, 2009), (2) affirming and capitalizing on student culture and strengths, and (3) developing student efficacy and sense of empowerment (e.g. Banks, 2006; Benson, 2003; Ladson-Billings, 1992; Martinez, 2009; Matczynski, Rogus, Lasley, & Joseph, 2000; Morrison, Robbins, & Rose, 2008; Richards, Brown, & Forde, 2007; Rothstein-Fisch & Greenfield, 2000; Seidl, 2007; Sternberg, 2010; Sternberg, Gringorenko, & Bundy, 2001; Swartz, 2009). Such efforts require a foundation of best educational practices (Hattie, 2009), and Tomlinson’s model of Differentiation (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011) is a highly useful frame for considering both best educational practice and the needs of traditionally overlooked students. This is because it is a model that is grounded in research-based approaches in all areas of classroom practice; rather than being a formula or collection of strategies, it is an approach to thinking about teaching and learning where teachers “proactively modify curricula, teaching methods, resources, learning activities, and student products to address the diverse needs of individual students and small groups of students to maximize the learning opportunity for each student in a classroom” (Tomlinson, Brighton, Hertberg, Callahan, Moon, Brimijoin, Conover, & Reynolds, 2003, p 121).
The school site I partnered with for this capstone project had a significant population of traditionally overlooked students (i.e. 40% or more of students were considered to be from backgrounds of poverty) and desired support in addressing the needs of both this group of students as well for all students. This capstone project was conducted with a practical action research design overall and an ethnographic approach to data collection and analysis. After spending significant time observing teachers, it was clear that the site lacked a crucial foundation of overall best practices that should serve as a foundation from which the more specialized needs of traditionally overlooked students could be met. The purpose of the project was therefore the increase of building-level capacity of faculty to identify and implement best educational practices as a foundation from which the needs of students from backgrounds of poverty could be met. Data were collected through extensive observations, voluntary follow-up interviews, and informal meetings with the leadership over a period of six weeks. A Guide to Thinking and Analysis to Educational Practice was developed to focus observations and guide data analysis. This guide represented a synthesis of research and literature on best educational practice for all students as well as research and literature support in addressing the key needs of traditionally overlooked students. It was organized around the framework of Tomlinson’s model of Differentiation. Data was analyzed for patterns and regularities in school-wide practices relative to the research and literature synthesized in this guide. School-wide needs emerged during the process of data analysis according in six areas of classroom practice: curriculum, learning objectives, and content; use of assessment; learning tasks; use of grouping; overall response to student needs; and the learning environment. These needs were synthesized into a system of best practices that included the following chief recommendations: (1) lay a foundation of substantive and meaningful learning goals; (2) design and use effective assessments; (3) proactively and intentionally plan for student learning; and (4) create safe and supportive learning environments. Three products were designed to address school-wide needs and fulfill the purpose of the project: a school profile, a handbook, and series of staff development workshop protocols. The school profile provided site leadership and faculty with a clear and concise report of school-wide practice relative to best educational practice and described key needs for growth toward a system of best practices. The handbook served as a teacher-friendly guide for understanding and implementing a system of best practices with content, support tools, and recommended resources. It also served to provide leadership with tools and resources that could be used to sustain continued growth toward best educational practice. The staff development protocol contained a series of six workshops that served as a springboard for “first steps” toward best educational practice and focused on how to develop key areas of best educational practice. Both the handbook and the staff development protocol lay a foundation of overall best practices from which the more specialized needs of traditionally overlooked students can be met.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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