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A University of Kentucky College of Education initiative designed to increase K-8 teachers’ expertise in teaching in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms has shown gains in student reading achievement, according to a recent analysis

During the past five years, faculty with Project PLACE (Partnerships for Learning, Achievement and Classroom Engagement) have offered coaching-based professional development for teachers in Clark County, Fayette County and Scott County school districts. With a focus on culturally responsive practices, the professional development helps teachers enhance expertise in making academic content comprehensible for students learning English as another language by providing instruction in a way that is meaningful to them. 

The analysis shows students whose teachers participated in Project PLACE scored nearly two points higher on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) reading test than the control group. 

In addition to analyzing student gains in reading scores, researchers also looked at the impact of Project PLACE professional development on teachers’ implementation of culturally responsive practices, as well as teachers’ perceptions of the impact made on student literacy learning. They both showed positive, statistically significant gains.  

Project PLACE is funded by a grant awarded to UK through the National Professional Development Program, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition. The principal investigator is UK College of Education professor Susan Chambers Cantrell, Ed.D., and co-principal investigator is Kristen H. Perry, Ph.D., professor and chair, both in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. The evaluation is led by Shannon O. Sampson, Ph.D., UK College of Education Evaluation Center director and associate faculty in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation. 

The Project PLACE analysis, “The Impact of Professional Development on Inservice Teachers' Culturally Responsive Practices and Students' Reading Achievement,” was published in the October 2022 edition of the journal Literacy Research and Instruction. It was authored by Cantrell, Sampson, Perry and Katherine Robershaw, Ph.D., senior research associate in the UK Office of the Vice President for Research. 

“While we cannot establish a definitive causal link between participation in the professional development and students’ reading test scores, there is evidence supporting a moderate causal relationship. It is reasonable to expect that teachers’ new practices were valuable in increasing students’ literacy, especially because the observation data suggest that teachers’ use of culturally responsive practices significantly increased during their participation,” Cantrell said. 

Professional development opportunities in Project PLACE support teachers’ ability to connect with families in positive, non-traditional ways and learn about their funds of knowledge — a concept that enables teachers to build instruction based on the dynamics of a family’s daily activities at home and in their cultures and communities. 

“Teachers in Project PLACE noted that when academic content was linked to students’ lives and cultures, students were able to make better connections, pulling from their background knowledge. They saw learning and dialogue increase in the classroom through connecting the academic content with topics and themes that are part of their lives,” Perry said. 

The professional learning experiences in Project PLACE emphasize language and literacy and are rooted in a framework known as the “Culturally Responsive Instruction Observation Protocol.” This protocol is research-based and emphasizes classroom and family relationships, with teachers demonstrating an ethic of care in the classroom while creating opportunities for bonding and respect between students. Family relationships between school and home are initiated through teachers creating genuine partnerships with families.  

Teachers implemented a variety of practices to strengthen connections with families, such as using family journals and scrapbooks in their classrooms. As families talked and wrote in the journals, students’ vocabulary knowledge was enriched, which is an important component of reading, Cantrell said. 

Since the professional development began in 2017, approximately 125 teachers have participated (about 25 each year) by taking part in a four-day summer workshop, approximately 10 coaching sessions in their classrooms and four professional development follow-up workshops throughout the year. Several of those teachers have also completed advanced leadership coursework to earn a UK graduate certificate in Effective Teaching for Cultural and Linguistic Diversity. The teachers use knowledge gained in the graduate certificate coursework to help sustain culturally responsive strategies gained in the professional development sessions by sharing them with teachers throughout their schools. 

The culminating professional learning experience for Project PLACE will take place July 18 and 19 during a free symposium, open to the public, at the UK Gatton Student Center. The Culturally Responsive Instruction Sustainability Symposium will feature practical, hands-on, teacher-led sessions and keynote presentations by nationally acclaimed speakers.  

The professional learning content offered through Project PLACE has been extended an additional five years through Project EXCEL (Expertise for Classroom Equity through Literacy), also funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Teachers in Fayette, Scott, Shelby and Woodford counties will participate in the program. 

“A more diverse student population provides rich opportunities for all students to benefit from the wealth of cultural knowledge and experiences. To help support all learners,teachers often express a desire for more professional development geared toward teaching in diverse classrooms. We are optimistic about the impact of this work, as it has shown promise that positive academic outcomes can be achieved through supporting teachers with research-based opportunities to deepen their knowledge,” Cantrell said. 

Project PLACE is supported by the U.S. Department of Education as part of an award T365Z170121 totaling $2,711,861with 100% funded by the Department of Education.   

Project EXCEL is supported by the U.S. Department of Education as part of an award T365Z210014 totaling $2,829,373 with 100% funded by the Department of Education.