Could two groups of Baltimore City schoolchildren hold clues for large-scale reform of the troubled public school system?
That's the question being pursued by a group of Johns Hopkins researchers—led by the Sociology Department's Stephen Plank—who are tracking two large cohorts of students, combing the data for individual success stories.
"We're looking for the pockets of hope," Plank says of the research endeavor called the Pathways Project. Using archival data to follow for seven years the movement of those who were first-graders and those who were sixth-graders in 1999, Plank and colleagues from his department, as well as Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS), are tracing promotions, retentions, dropouts, and more to determine risk factors and—perhaps more importantly—"resilience factors." The hope: that these factors might illuminate principles for success that the school system could apply broadly.
The project is just one undertaking of a new consortium of university and community partners and the Baltimore City Public School System that will allow Johns Hopkins to put its long-held strengths in education research to use toward improving public education in the city.
The Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC), approved by the city school board last summer and granted funding by a host of community foundations, is modeled loosely on the Consortium on Chicago School Research, founded in 1990.
BERC couldn't come at a better time for Baltimore City, which has the third-worst high school graduation rate among the nation's largest school systems (behind Detroit and Cleveland), according to a recent Education Week report. In a poll conducted by the Baltimore Sun last summer, city residents gave the school system an average grade of D-plus.
Like Chicago's consortium, Baltimore's is aimed at better linking research, policy, and practice toward educational reform that is grounded in research. Its co-directors are Plank, who specializes in the sociology of education and holds a research appointment with CSOS, and Obed Norman, a faculty member in Morgan State University's math and science education program. Plank and Norman will work closely with a core group of school system officials and researchers from Hopkins, Morgan, and other universities, as well as two community-based organizations: the Baltimore City Data Collaborative and the Fund for Educational Excellence.
Among other goals, BERC aims to merge educational data with social service and vital statistics data sets-building an educational data set that would for the first time include social, residential, and economic factors.The data should make possible a more comprehensive and coherent approach to education reform in Baltimore, says Bonnie Legro, senior program officer for education at the Abell Foundation, one of the consortium's chief supporters. "It's looking at education in a longitudinal, long-term way," she says.