Undergraduate Gets Hands-On Experience in Education Reform at the Curry School

For Ashley Blackwell, a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, reforming the education system was a mission of personal importance.

“I felt like my education didn’t address everything I needed,” Blackwell said. “It seems schools have a hard time dealing with students who don’t fall in the middle in terms of academic ability – those students that are either behind or ahead of their peers aren’t provided with adequate learning opportunities.

“Coming from a low-income background, I was really interested in low-income student access to higher education and critically evaluating the education system as a whole,” Blackwell said, adding that her own decision to attend U.Va. hinged largely on the comprehensive financial aid package available to low-income students through AccessUVA.

This drive to improve learning for marginalized student populations led Blackwell to look for opportunities in organizations that were entrenched in finding solutions to a variety of education needs. After a little investigating, she discovered a highly-regarded observational tool developed at the Curry School of Education by Dean Robert Pianta to improve teaching and learning: The Classroom Assessment Scoring System™ (CLASS™).

“I contacted Dean Pianta to see how I could get involved,” Blackwell said. “I thought the work being done with the CLASS™ was really valuable in that it systematically evaluated teachers and provided feedback in a way that would help them improve teacher-child interactions and the general classroom experience.”

Dean Pianta put Blackwell in touch with the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), the research center responsible for the continued development of the CLASS™. Amanda Williford, research assistant professor with CASTL, was looking for an undergraduate research assistant to help the National Center for Quality Teaching and Learning (NCQTL), a project that creates professional development materials to support high quality teacher-child interactions (aligned with CLASS™) and children’s learning in Head Start classrooms.   

Undergraduate Research Assistant Ashley Blackwell“Undergraduate research assistants are critical to the success of our work at CASTL,” said Williford. “Ashley has conducted excellent research and been a key team member on multiple projects, working closely with my graduate students Lauren Carter and Catherine Sanger (both third-year doctoral students in the Curry School’s Clinical and School Psychology Program).

“Ashley collaborated with Lauren and me to create a consumer report, ensuring that Head Start programs could receive accurate information about multiple early childhood curricula, and thereby informing decisions about which curriculum to implement. Ashley helped us create a product that we think will be very useful to early childhood educators.”

Blackwell especially appreciated the depth of work in which she was able to participate.

“I feel like my experience at CASTL was so incredible because I wasn’t just doing administrative tasks – I got hands-on experience, and my input was counted,” said Blackwell.

After working for a semester with the NCQTL project, Blackwell had other chances to continue her involvement with the Curry School both in and out of CASTL.

“I wasn’t working in a box focused solely on one project,” said Blackwell. “I was able to attend meetings and see the bigger picture of what everyone was doing and how the work connected. The people at CASTL were so great at introducing me to other researchers, so I was constantly connected to other tasks and projects that were going on and was able to transition into other work.”

Blackwell went on to organize a media database for Teachers Learning and Collaborating, a professional development (PD) component of NCQTL. The gallery housed multimedia resources accessible to participating teachers throughout the PD program. Blackwell then worked on the Effective Teacher-Child Interactions pilot, finding research articles and video clips to incorporate into the curriculum for the online course.

The experience she gained developing and evaluating curriculum at CASTL led Blackwell to work with the Charlottesville Right to Education project. The project, led by Associate Professor Carol Anne Spreen with the Social Foundations program, gave Curry students the chance to develop and implement a social justice-oriented curriculum in Charlottesville High School.

Most recently, she has worked for the Preschool Relationship Enhancement Project (PREP), which focuses on enhancing teacher-child relationships through an intervention called Banking Time - a set of techniques that help teachers invest in a positive relationship with their students. Blackwell watches videotaped teacher-child interactions and records specific behaviors that occur during the encounter using a coding system developed by Williford and Sanger.

“It is challenging to become reliable on this coding system, and Ashley has been an excellent coder, in turn allowing us to better understand how well teachers implemented Banking Time with preschoolers who display disruptive behaviors,” Williford said.

Already, the on-the-job experience Blackwell gained while working as a research assistant has given her an advantage when applying for internships outside of U.Va.

“The organizations I’ve been interviewing with want their interns to draft reports, and I can say that I’ve done that in an authentic way,” said Blackwell.

Beyond developing these skills, Blackwell’s work through the Curry School also helped her to take on a more global perspective of education issues.

“When I was preparing materials for the teacher-child interactions course, I saw how coming from a low-income background or neighborhood, and being in a stressful environment can affect brain development, and , ultimately influence where a child ends up in the education system, particularly as students are being placed on different academic tracks from an early age,” Blackwell said.

“Working with CASTL has helped me to think about the education system from a research perspective, which isn’t something I had done before. I knew that the education system needed to be improved from my own experience, but seeing the research coming out of CASTL has helped to recognize the systemic issues that influence learning environments.”

I knew that the education system needed to be improved from my own experience, but seeing the research coming out of CASTL has helped to recognize the systemic issues that influence learning environments.

This shift in perspective ultimately led Blackwell to major in Urban and Environmental Planning with the School of Architecture.

“I wanted to take a broader approach to education – I wanted to be able to critically evaluate all structures that are within communities to really improve the quality of life for marginalized populations.”