How school learning environment affects academic achievement—education policy research for future generations

August 12, 2015

Bloustein School Associate Professor Stephanie M. Curenton was recently selected as a Chancellor’s Scholar at Rutgers. Created through the New Brunswick Strategic Plan to recognize truly outstanding and highly promising scholars at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, each of the Chancellor’s Scholar awardees will receive $5k for innovative research initiatives and/or program development for up to five years.

Dr. Curenton came to Rutgers in 2007 as an assistant research professor in the National Institute for Early Education Research, Graduate School of Education, and joined the Bloustein School as an assistant professor in 2008. She was promoted to associate professor with tenure in early 2015 and serves as the director of the school’s Ecology of School Readiness Lab. Her current research focuses on the social, cognitive, and language development of low-income and minority children within various human ecological contexts, including stress and poverty, and how those elements affect children’s future health and education success.

The research coming out of the school readiness lab covers a wide span of areas and topics. From studying parent-child interactions around home literacy activities such as shared reading to the focus on children’s individual skills—including narrative skills, social and emotional skills, or literacy skills—that make them successful in school. Curenton and her colleagues are also examining how the school learning environment, such as the academic achievement of one’s peers, can predict students’ reading and math achievement.

Also the recipient of a $422K grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to examine preschoolers’ oral language skills, the funding will support Curenton’s work around building training programs and professional development skills for the early education workforce.

Research from both small-scale as well as state-wide and national studies show that early childhood teachers need training around how to foster cognitively challenging classroom conversations that allow children the opportunity to explore their ideas and work in collaborative groups. Curenton has developed a classroom conversation approach called the Conversation Compass that is designed to encourage teachers to use peer-led instructional conversations in the classroom.

“The Kellogg grant has given me the opportunity to develop a professional development model for providing cost-effective training to teachers via an online course she said. “The course will be accompanied by a desk copy workbook will not only reinforce what they have learned in the online course, but also use to help plan lessons using these newly-acquired skills.”

The work related to the Kellogg grant is taking place in three phases, Curenton said. “In the first phase, we concentrated on developing the materials. We are now in the second phase, where we are examining the feasibility of implementing the strategy in the average classroom; we are working with two wonderful teachers who are allowing us to conduct in-depth observations of their classrooms,” she said. “We are learning so much about the strengths and challenges of implementing this approach in real live classrooms, and we will use this information to help us redefine the professional development model.”

In the final phase, she will systematically observe a larger group of teachers as they implement their training and subsequently examine whether what they have learned will effectively change their teaching.

This fall, the workbook developed as part of the grant, “Conversation Compass: A Teacher’s Guide to High-Quality Language Learning in Young Children,” will be available from RedLeaf Press. It is intended to reinforce what the teacher has learned during the online course, as well as explain what the research says about the importance of such training and how it can enhance children’s learning.

“I was extremely honored to have been nominated as a Chancellor’s Scholar by dean James Hughes and my colleagues, regardless of whether I had been selected, because it shows that the School really values the work I do and my colleagues see me as having a strong future there,” she said.

With the funding from the Chancellor’s Scholar award, Curenton intends to build up her own early childhood policy skills, both domestically and globally. She is currently working with long-time mentor Laura Justice from Ohio State University in her early childhood research and policy center in order to connect the work being done at the schools. “Given that Rutgers is a new member of the Big Ten and the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation), I think it is important that we establish connections and networks with colleagues in those schools,” she said “I have already been invited speak there and share my policy experiences, and the Chancellor’s Scholar initiative will enable me to do much more.”

She also aims to develop stronger connections with colleagues in Jamaica, not only to provide expertise but also to learn more about the challenges they face as they build up the early childhood education network across the country.

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