home about the BEE review methods sign up for updates resources

Resources / Voices from the Field

Tom Corcoran, Researcher and Qualitative Sociologist

June 2009

Tom Corcoran, ResearcherTom Corcoran directs the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) at Teachers College, Columbia University, and is principal investigator of the Center on Continuous Instructional Improvement (CCII). Previously, Corcoran served as Policy Advisor for Education for New Jersey Governor Jim Florio, Director of School Improvement for Research for Better Schools, and Director of Evaluation and Chief of Staff of the New Jersey Department of Education. He has served as a consultant to urban school districts and national foundations on improving school effectiveness and equity. He served as a member of the National Research Council’s K–8 Science Learning Study and its Steering Committee on Evaluating Options for Common Standards, and has been a visiting professor of education policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs at Princeton University since 1999.

The Best Evidence Encyclopedia interviewed Mr. Corcoran about his experience with evidence-based education reform.

Best Evidence Encyclopedia: Would you talk about the work you do and the projects you have been involved with?

Tom Corcoran: At CPRE, we do research and evaluation studies for a variety of clients – foundations, occasionally large school districts and states, and the federal government (Institute of Education Sciences, National Science Foundation). We also have a large multi-year grant from the Hewlett Foundation to promote interest in adaptive instruction and formative assessment, and help build a field of researchers, developers, and practitioners interested in these strategies. We are also doing some work on the use of learning progressions in science* , mathematics, and literacy, and a couple of studies on use of formative assessment in classrooms, one with the Reading-Writing project here at Teachers College, another with a mathematics group up in Vermont that does a lot of work with formative assessment.

CPRE’s work began in 1984 as a policy center looking at the implementation and impact of state policy on education. It has evolved over the last 20 years and our work now focuses more heavily on connections between policy and practice, and particularly the conditions under which practices can change.

BEE: Do you still work with policy makers or is your work now more performing evaluations?

TC: We still work with policy makers, and CPRE has a large dissemination program housed at the University of Pennsylvania. We do a lot of outreach to policy makers trying to share the results of research with them and even drawing their attention to research that is done by others that might influence policy design. So, we still see policy makers as the primary target for our work. But we are trying to look more at the connections between policy and practice, in what ways state and local policy influence practices and what is the nature of those influences. It’s not a simple linear thing where you institute policy and practice changes as envisioned. It doesn’t always change in the ways you expect it to or the ways you would like it to.

CPRE is a group of researchers from seven different universities. Teachers College is just one of the institutions involved. Penn [University of Pennsylvania] has been the center for the CPRE work, but there’s a large CPRE group at Wisconsin, a large group at Michigan, and smaller groups at Stamford, Northwestern, and Harvard.

BEE: Would you describe a study you’ve done that resulted in a significant development of evidence for good practices? Would you also describe the research question you were addressing?

TC: One example would be the evaluation work we did for the Merck Institute for Science Education for almost a decade, 1993 to 2003. We’ve essentially studied the impact of the Merck Institute’s teacher professional development in science, and to a lesser extent mathematics, and tried to ascertain how classroom practice was changing and what impact that had on interest and attitudes toward science in grades K-8.

We did a large number of observations and interviews with teachers using a strategy that we refer to as 30-unit observations. The teachers we were working with were largely using kit-based science modules developed by FOSS, STC, and other publishers. They were 6-8-week science units that are available commercially.  So we would go in and do an observation. We were trying to understand how teachers monitored kids’ progress and how they intervened when kids were struggling and not doing so well. We also wanted to know to what extent the student investigations that were done were done in a formulaic way or in a way that got kids to think deeply about the data they were observing and collecting — to what extent they could see a pattern in the data and come up with an explanation for it, as opposed to having the teacher provide explanations.

We were really interested in the extent to which Merck’s training shifted the use of these modules from a quasi-rote pattern of teaching where the investigations were more like recipes kids carried out as opposed to actually collecting data and trying to understand and explain the data.

We used observations at the beginning and the end of the units, and interviews with teachers about what they expected to see happen and what did happen and how they assessed what was happening with the kids toward the end.

I think those studies showed benefits in a school setting where there was some structure for teachers to work together around the use of these units and look at student work together and discuss what was happening with respect to the investigations in their classes. In those situations where there was some community of practice around the use of the science materials, you began to see the kind of classroom interactions occurring that Merck envisioned where there was student-centered discussion and a process of data collection and understanding of the data.

BEE: What were your major findings?

TC: Where you had a certain pattern of professional conditions, you were more likely to get the desired practice. When you got the desired practice, you saw significant differences in student engagement and increased choice of students’ science classes in high school.  We were unable to answer the question of whether the changes affected student performance because of the limitations of the local and state science assessments.

BEE: What did you see as the most important aspects of the professional conditions or community?

TC: Everyone got the same professional development, but where the teachers got a deeper understanding of the content and pedagogical knowledge were in those schools in which communities of practice emerged. The discussions with their peers helped them anticipate the problems kids might have and they worked together on instructional strategy.

In places where teachers worked in isolation, it was easy for them to slide back into almost a more rote implementation of these units, as opposed to the more active teaching and adaptive instruction that Merck was looking for.

BEE: Would you talk more about the communities of practice you saw in places with the greatest success of implementing the Merck model? Who comprised it and what kind of interactions were going on?

TC: There’s a lot of misunderstanding of communities of practice in the education literature. It’s sometimes described as a whole school approach – bringing all the teachers together. What we saw were groups of teachers who were teaching the same curriculum, maybe even shared some of the same children, and had time to meet and look at student work or observe one another and have discussions about individual lessons and what was happening in the classroom during that lesson. It was really where you had work groups – maybe grade level teams – or to some extent departments, but the most powerful seemed to be grade level teams. These were teachers teaching the same modules -- if not at the same time, then they were going to have to teach them eventually. And so there was shared interest in the content and a shared interest in the kids because they were all teaching fourth graders and they could sit and look at fourth graders’ work and discuss what the kids were understanding or not understanding with a considerable amount of expertise, because they were all teaching that same age group.

There a long list of literature that comes out of organizational sociology about work groups – creation of effective work teams in industry. There have been studies of similar reforms in industry in the Nordic countries, in particular, that foreshadows the work on community of practice and in some ways provides a better theoretical foundation than some of the work people are currently paying attention to.

Where you get the best situations are where people are sharing the same tasks and have a shared interest in the efficacy of that work.

BEE: When it was discovered that this was an effective approach, was there an effort to take research to practice?

TC: Yes, Merck was a very good client; we would give them briefings and write reports on what we were finding, and they paid a lot of attention to the feedback. I think the strategies they were using to try to build communities of practice changed. Merck has a cadre of instructional coaches and the work they do has been refocused on working with grade-level teams as opposed to just working with individual teachers, based on the findings we produced for them.

BEE: Have you used the Best Evidence Encyclopedia as a tool in your work?

TC: I have used it in several ways. I’m interested in the links between research and practice, and I’ve written about that. A colleague and I just published a chapter on instruction in a book on high school reform. In the chapter, we did a quick overview of what we know at this point – what research says about what works at the high school level. We used the BEE reviews as one of the sources for the chapter, along with those produced by EPPI or by the New Zealand group – the best evidence group that works out of the ministry of New Zealand. There are several groups of people around the world that are doing useful synthesis work. So we certainly used the BEE work on middle school mathematics and high school literacy programs.

I’m also involved in projects in Jordan and Thailand. I’ve tapped into the BEE to show the Jordanians and Thais the instructional practices that are likely to have large effects on achievement – where are the opportunities when you are trying to reform a structure and want large effects, as opposed to making lots of small changes and jumping through hoops to do things that have little or no effect.

BEE: Since science is not one of the topics covered on the BEE, how did you make that linkage for your work in Thailand?

TC: We’re working in science in Thailand, but we’re also working in mathematics and literacy in Jordan. Also, one of our assumptions is that some of the same practices – teaming is an example – that have large effects in mathematics also work with science as well.

For Further Information

Consortium for Policy Research in Education

Merck Institute for Science Education

*See Learning Progressions in Science: An Evidence-Based Approach to Reform (May 2009) http://www.cpre.org/images/stories/cpre_pdfs/lp_science_rr63.pdf


Click Here to find out
how you can receive
the latest BEE updates

Privacy Disclosure Contact Us Site Map
Back to Homepage Back to Homepage JHU SOE CDDRE