Carol Booth Olson
“If I can feel like I’ve moved the needle, if I can feel like I’m reaching out to these teachers and they, in turn, can get these kids into college, into good-paying jobs in the workforce, that’s its own reward,” says Carol Booth Olson, professor of education, director of the UCI Writing Project and creator of the Pathway Project. Steve Zylius / UCI

For more than 20 years, Carol Booth Olson has been working to bridge the achievement gap in academic reading and writing between English learners and English-proficient students in grades seven to 12. A professor of education at UCI and director of the campus’s Writing Project, Olson is the creator of the Pathway Project, a 46-hour teacher development program promoting an instructional approach called “cognitive strategies.”

First launched in the Santa Ana Unified School District in 1996, the Pathway Project has consistently generated statistical evidence of improved student outcomes. The program has been expanded to other school districts in Southern California, including Paramount Unified, Anaheim Union and Norwalk-La Mirada Unified.

Anaheim Union student results from the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years are the subject of a study published in the January issue of the Journal of Educational Psychologyand Norwalk-La Mirada student compositions from the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years are showcased in the debut issue of the Pathway to Academic Success Literary Magazinepublished in December.

Impressed with her dedication, we asked Olson to share some insights into the program.

Q: You’ve been involved in the Pathway Project for over two decades. How do you stay motivated?

A: My motivation is that we might be changing the trajectory of kids, particularly kids like Joel. At the beginning of the school year, the eighth-grader was reading at a fourth-grade level and was a little disruptive in class. The teacher really embraced the Pathway Project, and this kid just blossomed. He went from reading at the fourth-grade level to reading at the eighth-grade level in just one school year and also raised his score from a not-passing 4 on his pretest to a passing 8 on his post-test.

I have great respect for all teachers, but especially for those who have kids in the classroom who struggle. They really are the heroes out there, and they need all the help and support they can get. And they truly change kids’ lives. So if I can participate in that, if I can feel like I’ve moved the needle, if I can feel like I’m reaching out to these teachers and they, in turn, can get these kids into college, into good-paying jobs in the workforce, that’s its own reward.

Q: How did you get the idea for the Pathway Project?

A: As I began working with a group of teachers over time, it occurred to me that if you could enlist the most committed teachers within a single school district and work with them in a sustained manner, where they came back multiple years, and if you could get school districts – and this is the hard part – to agree to take a cohort of kids and keep them in the classes of teachers who were working together, you would create a pathway to academic success.

We felt that having teachers with multiple years of experience and students with multiple years of exposure would increase the kids’ chances of becoming college-bound, boost their performance on state tests and also motivate them. We wanted to change the students’ sense of agency, so that they would see themselves as college material. Moving students along the pathway – that was the original concept.

Q: What makes the “cognitive strategies” approach to teaching successful?

A: Cognitive strategies are acts of mind – thinking tools, I call them – that any good reader or writer will use to construct meaning. They’re essentially problem-solving strategies that are not restricted to reading and writing. Mathematicians and historians use them. Reading and writing are essentially similar processes of meaning construction, which is why we created the metaphor of the toolkit; it makes it easier for the kids to understand the process. Essentially, what we say to students is this: “If you were constructing a skateboard ramp, you would go into your garage, get into your toolkit, pull out your hammer and nails and saw, and get to work.”

In the same way, when readers read and writers write, they’re constructing meaning, and they’re going into their mental toolkit and pulling out strategies that are appropriate for the task. The thing they’re constructing is meaning, and the medium they’re using to construct the meaning is words. We use tutorials for both fiction and nonfiction texts, and we take the students through them, explaining how to implement each one of these strategies – such as tapping prior knowledge, making connections or forming interpretations – within the context of something they’re trying to read and interpret and then write about. We use multiple tutorials, because the idea is not that you just do this once and memorize it. A strategy is something you learn to exercise deliberately, and it takes time for teachers to cultivate it in kids, and it takes time for kids to get it, which is why Pathway is a multiyear intervention.

Q: How cost-effective is it for school districts to integrate Pathway training into their professional development programs?

A: We estimate that it takes about $124.58 per student. These costs account for teacher stipends, materials and books. We receive funding from various agencies, including the California Postsecondary Education Commission; National Writing Project; U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and Office of English Language Acquisition; and Investing in Innovation, or i3, Fund.

Grants are awarded on the basis of the program’s proven success in achieving results. You must demonstrate a level of “moderate evidence” for the size and scope of the intervention’s effectiveness. You must also have secured funding from the private sector equal to 10 percent of the grant total. I would like to thank our donors, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic Corp., Turnitin and, most notably, AT&T – which gave us the largest corporate contribution in the history of the School of Education.

Q: Are teachers receptive to incorporating new instructional strategies into their established curriculum?

A: The majority are very receptive. Most Anaheim teachers participating in their first year of Pathway indicated that they had made some or many changes to their teaching practices as a result of the professional development. In Norwalk-La Mirada, teachers participating in their second year of Pathway reported being even more receptive to integrating new strategies into their curriculum. What really convinces them is seeing their kids’ scores. We administer writing pretests and post-tests in October and May, and when teachers get the results, they are very motivated to adapt Pathway into their existing curriculum.

One of the strongest supporters of the program is Lynn Schaulis, district instructional coach at Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District. She sent me an email to let me know that the district’s participation in the Pathway Project has been “the most exciting development of the past decade! The benefit of a partnership with a university-level writing project cannot be understated. There is a degree of expertise and wisdom that we seem unable to leverage when we lead professional development within the district. The instructional directives are perceived as thoughtful suggestions rather than district mandates. The design of the model is so thoughtful, with an annual series of six full days and five after-school sessions. This means coming together as a community of learners once a month, and we’ve seen bonds forged across sites.”

Q: Are students aware of the fact that they’re part of a study to evaluate a new teaching approach?

A: Yes. Most kids are pretty excited to be part of a research project. They feel like UCI cares about them. We give them UCI-logo portfolios that they keep all of their work in. One eighth-grader even wrote a poem about her understanding of cognitive strategies. [The poem, “What Pathway Means to Me,” written in 2007 by eighth-grader Irene Ramirez of Lathrop Intermediate School, appears at the end of this Q&A.] They worked hard, knowing their work was being examined by researchers, and said they felt that their reading and writing had improved. The program also gave them more confidence, because it helped them overcome their fear of writing, and they said that it made them feel like they can achieve more.

Q: What are the next steps?

A: Cognitive strategies is a standalone technique that can be implemented anywhere. What I would like to do is scale up and work with the National Writing Project, which has great reach and an established infrastructure across the country. I want to choose eight states with high populations of English learners and see if we can take what we’ve been able to do successfully in California and achieve similar results in those other states and beyond.

Q: To what do you attribute the success of the Pathway Project?

A: First and foremost, it views teachers as professionals and empowers them with the tools they need to help kids. There is stronger growth in student achievement after two years of teacher participation, highlighting the importance of sustained, ongoing professional development. In every deployment, we have generated statistically significant evidence that the Pathway intervention reduces the reading and writing achievement gap between English learners and mainstream English speakers, while at the same time benefiting all students. And finally, Pathway is based on the science of education. We have been able to take research evidence and transform it into teacher-friendly practices that are accessible to students.

What Pathway means to me
Is hard to say succinctly
Construct the gist as I speak
I’ll give some hints as to what I think

My reading isn’t what it was
I ask more questions and make predictions
I try to visualize what I read
I make connections, I do concede

Imagery, symbolism
I know what they are
Before this year
They were really hard

When I write, I know what to do
I plan ahead, and so should you
I form a thesis, I think of a hook
I form opinions on what’s in the book

Concrete details are important too
They help support
What you think
And they prove!

Image Grammar is also cool
I write a sentence with participles
I paint a picture
With my pen in my hand
The final result is oh so grand

In literature circles
We sit ’round in a ring
Discussing our books
It’s fun and interesting

So Pathway had taught me to read and write
I knew how before
But now I am tight

I’ll leave you tonight
With one thought before I go
Pathway helps students
Off to college I go!