Andy Lee thought he was helping some of his struggling students learn how to write an argumentative essay by breaking the task into smaller pieces, such as focusing first on the skill of paraphrasing.
After all, Strategic Inquiry — the method the English department chair and lesson design coach at Savanna High School in Anaheim, California, is implementing as part of an education leadership program at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) — urges teachers to “get small” in order to close gaps in students’ learning.
But then, Nell Scharff Panero, the education faculty member at Hunter College in New York City who helped to develop the model, asked Lee and his colleagues at Savanna an important question — could their students, many of whom are “long-term English learners,” even write sentences? While some students could, Lee acknowledged that many had not mastered proper sentence structure. So, since January, his students have been becoming stronger sentence writers, learning how to identify fragments and practicing skills that previous teachers probably assumed they knew.
“It’s given them confidence,” Lee said in an interview. “Coming to school or class for them is meaningful now.”
Teachers are often trained to plan their lessons with the needs of all students in mind — high-achieving, low-achieving and those in the middle. Strategic Inquiry upends that theory and focuses exclusively on students “outside the realm of success,” Jennifer Goldstein, a professor in CSUF's Department of Educational Leadership, said in an interview.
Teachers take a narrow approach “in order to experience the school through the lens of those students,” she said. Differentiation, she added, is sometimes discussed as an abstract idea. But Strategic Inquiry focuses at the individual and small group level. “It’s powerful because it’s concrete.”
Goldstein worked with Panero at Baruch College in New York when the approach — then known as the Scaffolded Apprenticeship Model — was implemented in partnership with New Visions for Public Schools.
The model is now receiving increased attention because of a recent evaluation by researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University, focusing on New York City’s Renewal Schools, a group of low-performing schools that receive technical assistance and additional resources to meet improvement goals. Focusing on 2014-16, the researchers found that students in Renewal high schools were more than twice as likely to be on track to graduate and less than half as likely to be off track for graduation than their peers in non-Renewal high schools, who were not exposed to the model.
The researchers also noted positive shifts in how teachers — and students — felt about their schools and their work. “Buy-in to the model was strong, and teachers and student support staff found [Strategic Inquiry] to be an effective school improvement strategy,” they wrote. “Levels of teacher self-efficacy were high. Teachers reported strengthened relationships since inquiry began.”
In interviews and on surveys, administrators and teachers also reported improvements in student engagement, especially among special education students and English learners.
When he became principal of John Adams High School in Queens, Daniel Scanlon was familiar with Strategic Inquiry from its use in other schools, but also rather skeptical toward it. He knew, however, that he needed to address the culture of low expectations at the school, he said in an interview.
Panero asked him to facilitate an inquiry team, which focuses on identifying struggling students and providing targeted instruction focused on the skills that they were missing. Teachers, he said, would often say students are failing the Regents Exams in New York because they can’t write an essay. But the inquiry process takes teachers much deeper.
“Are they not doing well on the essay because they don’t know to provide supportive evidence? They don’t know the content?” Scanlon asks. “Each skill has a different solution to it.”
Teachers then determine which strategies will address those skills and track students’ progress closely. For a school that was running out of time to make improvements before being taken over by the state, Strategic Inquiry has led to significant academic growth, and the school is now rated “in good standing,” Scanlon said. The graduation rate, while still low, has grown from 52% to 72%.
‘Embedded in school improvement’
In their evaluation, the Teachers College researchers also highlighted a connection between participating in Strategic Inquiry and showing an interest in school leadership. At three of the four schools studied, more than half of the teachers participating as inquiry team members reported they would consider leadership positions in the future.
At CSUF, Strategic Inquiry is at the center of a unique educational leadership program funded by the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE), a state agency that provides technical assistance to help districts meet student achievement goals. The Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD) is one of those districts.
Goldstein co-teaches the program with AUHSD cabinet-level administrators. The district nominated the candidates, and the teacher leaders in the program — some of whom may move into leadership roles — will have expertise in a continuous improvement model.
“Leadership development is embedded in school improvement work,” Goldstein said, adding that she hopes the connection with CCEE will spur wider interest in Strategic Inquiry across the state.
In AUHSD, as well as in the San Francisco Unified School District, the Strategic Inquiry approach is especially being viewed as an effective way to increase literacy skills among English learners (ELs) — students who, Lee said, have strong conversational skills but lack the academic language and vocabulary they need to be successful in high school and prepare for college. Recent research from nonprofit assessment organization NWEA also shows ELs are less likely than non-EL students to have feelings of self-efficacy as they enter middle school, which contributes to slower growth in math and reading and can help explain why students lack key skills and knowledge in high school.
As with any change affecting teachers’ practice, however, there are challenges to making the shift. Teachers are pulled, Lee said, between sticking to a syllabus or taking the time to understand why the lowest-performing students in the class are struggling. He adds that if 30 students in a class of 37 passed, the traditional mindset has been to consider that acceptable.
“That’s a win for most of us,” he said. “But those seven are never going to get what they need.”