Margaret Heritage: New Book by CRESST Researcher, Former UCLA Lab School Principal

Heritage's research career benefits greatly from her experiences as a classroom teacher and school administrator.

As assistant director for professional development at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST) at UCLA, Margaret Heritage is among those rare researchers who have had extensive on-the-ground experience in her field. The former principal of UCLA Lab School (previously known as the University Elementary School/UES) draws upon years of experience in classroom teaching, preparing teachers at the college level, and serving as a county inspector of schools in her native England helping teachers improve student assessment. Her newest book, “Formative Assessment in Practice: A Process of Inquiry and Action” (Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2013), will be released this month, featuring innovations from the classrooms of UCLA Lab School, among other school sites.

“My career has always straddled research and practice,” Heritage says. “I don’t think I could have done any of the jobs I’ve had in education without the classroom experience. Even today, I draw on it.”

Heritage has recently published a chapter in “The Sage Handbook of Research on Classroom Assessment” (J. McMillan, ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2013). In “Gathering Evidence of Student Understanding,” Heritage identifies the basics of evidence collection to support formative assessment practice and student learning and encourages multiple strategies for teachers to use in collecting evidence.  She also has a forthcoming article, “Evidence of Academic Literacy,” in a volume to be published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

Heritage says that educators’ reliance on multiple choice tests greatly limits students’ acquisition of academic literacy.

“Multiple choice tests oftentimes don’t represent high levels of thinking,” says Heritage. “More importantly, they don’t give students the opportunity to engage in discourse, to give students an understanding of how to engage with a teacher or with peers to discuss some intellectual activity… or to know how to ask questions and express their thinking in particular ways.

“Multiple choice tests don’t really assess how kids speak, and so as far as I’m concerned, that’s a major element of academic literacies,” she continues. “Being competent and college- and career-ready means being able to express yourself in ways that are understandable to the particular audience you have in mind. We want students to use language in cognitively demanding ways…  We want them to engage in the development of language to support their thinking and to be able to express their thinking.”

Heritage states that current tests do not assess students’ pragmatic competence.

“Pragmatic competence is knowing about what language to use, and when,” she says, “so that kids are not getting [confused as to] what’s appropriate on a text message versus what’s appropriate in a research report for school. The ideas of selecting the right language, framing it to your audience, knowing the kinds of language you need to use to make yourself understood – those are all part of what I’m proposing as academic literacy – and multiple choice tests don’t test that.”

Heritage is a member of the steering committee of the “Understanding Language” consortium at Stanford University, an initiative funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and The Gates Foundation. The main aim of Understanding Language” is to heighten awareness of the critical role of language in the Common Core State Standards, especially as it relates to English language learners (ELLs).

“Understanding Language” is a really important initiative in the United States,” Heritage says. “It’s very slow going though, for the kind of overhaul we need to make in assessment in order to support language learning to the degree that it needs to be supported.

“We need less multiple choice. I think we need to have more authentic assessment, and by that, I mean assessment in context,” she states. “Discourse practices have to be much more front and center in classrooms than they already are. Teachers need to be trusted a lot more to do assessments for themselves, so they’re able to get examples of kids’ discourse, and then think about not just evaluating what [students] can do and what they can’t do, but what to do about it. And they need opportunities for peer interaction rather than passive learning, which is a lot of what happens in classrooms.”

As principal of UES, Heritage was able to foster this type of interactive learning community. She says that “lab school” was an apt nickname for the UES, even before it was officially renamed in 2009.

“The idea of the school was to try out promising practices and research them and then disseminate them,” Heritage says. “In terms of effective instruction, I would say the school was really strong in enabling students to learn with and from each other, which meant structuring opportunities so the kids could talk to each other – not just chit-chat – but really engage in structured, productive conversations [about] problem solving, generating creative ideas, doing research together, presenting their ideas.”

Prior to Heritage taking the helm as principal, UES had begun its signature “Learning in Two Languages” program, which focused on developing students’ bilingual skills both for English-dominant speakers and Spanish-dominant speakers. She recalls that challenge of presenting instruction to both student populations while “getting the balance right about how much English should be spoken, how much Spanish should be spoken.

“It was a challenge particularly for those English-dominant speakers who were learning Spanish, to acquire Spanish at the rate they really should have done,” Heritage notes, “because the school was English-dominant outside of ‘Learning in Two Languages.’”

Conversely, Heritage says that Spanish-dominant students acquired English very quickly due to the fact that the school was English-dominant. However, the environment at UES made it clear to Spanish speaking students and their families that their language and culture were of value.

“The [Spanish-speaking] families felt that their language was valued, and it was used as a resource in the classroom,” she says. “And they knew their culture was valued because of how we were able to manifest that in the school. That’s the challenge in the public schools, to make sure that you are using students’ experiences and their cultural background as resources for learning. We were very successful in that.”

Heritage says that parental attitudes toward a bilingual learning environment have changed dramatically from her time as principal, when participation in dual language learning was optional. A visit to UCLA Lab School today exhibits dual language learning in all subjects, including math and science courses.

“At that time – 1994 or 1995 –it was hard to recruit non-Spanish speaking children to that program,” she says. “And if the parents – native English speakers – wanted to be in that program, they were really, really keen on it. They had a mission. Now, people have recognized the benefits of being bilingual.”

Among the many achievements of UES during Heritage’s tenure as principal, the Safe School conflict resolution program, the school’s Critical Thinking Institute, and a yearly visit by British art educator Malcolm Wray are still implemented to this day. In addition, Heritage added a physical feature to the campus – a bridge that– unites all parts of the PreK-6th grade school.

“We approach all areas [with] the child’s experiences, by working from the child, rather than … sticking the child into the curriculum,” says Heritage.

Heritage, who in her native England served as a county inspector of schools in Warwickshire, says that UCLA Lab School’s personalized teaching and learning echoes much of the instruction in schools back home.

“In the U.K. when I was teaching, they referred to it as ‘in loco parentis,’” says Heritage. “You are there as the parent, which means you focus on the whole child. It’s more personalized by the teacher; and more planned by teachers for the children they teach. That, I think, is the biggest strength of the Lab School, the amount of planning that teachers do together in terms of how they’re going to achieve certain goals for children, both with academic content and social and emotional goals.”

Heritage was also a member of the faculty in the Department of Education at the University of Warwick, and has taught courses in the Departments of Education at UCLA and at Stanford University. Among her most recent writings are collaborations with UCLA faculty from the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSE&IS). A paper that Heritage co-authored with W.J. Popham, professor emeritus of education and renowned expert on educational assessment, on professional development for formative assessment use, was published by the Educational Testing Service in 2008. In 2007, she also jointly authored a chapter with current UCLA Lab School principal, Norma Silva, for “The Language Demands of School: Putting Academic English to the Test” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) which was edited by Alison Bailey, professor of education.

Heritage has also co-authored “Formative Assessment for Literacy and Academic Language,” (Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2010) with Bailey (Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2008), and is currently processing data from the first year of a four-year study funded by the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research titled, “Dynamic Language Learning Progressions” (DLLP) with Bailey and Dr. Kimberly Kelly, a Post Doctoral Fellow at GSE&IS.