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Gina Biancarosa

Gina Biancarosa, Ed.D.
Assistant Professor of Educational Methodology, Policy and Leadership
 

Chasing Literacy All the Way to Oregon

Being raised in southern Florida, Gina Biancarosa says, “is a little bit like being from Mars”. Perhaps that's why her career path has ricocheted back and forth between two passions: love of language arts and engaging in social service. A very perceptive person, witnessing her teenage enjoyment of reading for the blind, might have predicted that she would eventually become a trainer of reading specialists.

Biancarosa was on a fast track for a dual bachelor and master's degree in English literature at Boston College, but she ditched the master's degree when she saw that it would not fulfill her desire to help others less able or less fortunate. After graduating with a BA, she got a job with Princeton Review teaching people how to take tests: SAT, PSAT, GRE, etc. She enjoyed this work and continued with it on a part-time basis after landing a 9-5 job as a hospital administrator. Receiving a big hospital promotion and raise made Biancarosa realize that administration was not her life direction. She gave six months notice.

Back in Boston after a two-month tour of Europe, Biancarosa took on more work with the Princeton Review and began tutoring in an adult literacy program. She began to wonder what was going on in public education that would result in adults reading at a second grade level. Wondering led to the decision to become a literacy specialist.

She enrolled in a one-year literacy specialist licensure program at Harvard University. The classes raised Biancarosa’s awareness of how children’s education is impacted by their family and culture. She discovered a course outside the licensure track called Literacy Politics and Policy that conflicted with a required licensure class. The pull of this particular course was so strong that Biancarosa redirected her study toward a master’s degree in Language and Literacy, with the idea of finishing her licensure program after getting the degree.

Master’s degree in hand, Biancarosa cobbled together a series of contracts to support herself and to get placement hours as a literacy specialist: teaching first and third grade readers in a white middle class district; helping struggling fifth grade readers in an afterschool program in a culturally diverse school; and assisting Catherine Snow in filming kids who could read but whose comprehension revealed “interesting misunderstandings.” The latter turned out to be a gelling experience.

Biancarosa’s work with 5th graders in the afterschool program disclosed that their reading issues were less about decoding and more about comprehension. To improve their comprehension, she provided background knowledge and experiences that would allow them to read between the lines. But, “how do you measure that a kid has more background knowledge now or at least is utilizing that background knowledge in a new way?”
 

Biancarosa enrolled in a doctoral program at Harvard with a vision of establishing a family literacy and community center in a geographic area of social need. She realized that funders of programs such as 21st Century Learning Centers were going to want numbers to prove efficacy, just as they had with the federal Even Start program which saw its funding cut after studies yielded little in quantifiable improvements in participants’ lives. “It led me to issues of measurement and what really does change when you have improved someone’s comprehension. I became very interested in oral reading fluency and research that shows people who comprehend better tend to read faster.” That’s where she went with her dissertation research. “I designed an experiment where I had target sentences that were very rigidly controlled so that I would know that differences in the time of reading the sentence had nothing to do with the vocabulary, the length of the sentence or its placement in the passage; really narrowing it down to that it’s got to be about the comprehension.”

By the time she had completed her doctorate, Biancarosa was fully committed to research and wanted to shore up her methodological skills. She sought and received post-doctoral funding to work with Anthony Bryk at Stanford University on multi-level and value-added modeling. During her three years there she looked at the effect of professional development on teachers and on students and began work on measuring the efficacy of reading coaches in their one-on-one coaching activities.

When she was ready to look for a faculty position, Biancarosa was drawn to University of Oregon “because a lot of the seminal work in oral reading fluency has come out of Oregon.” On campus for an interview, she was attracted by the College of Education’s research centers, “how engaged and engaging they are, how collaborative they are. Folks try to stay relevant and they stay involved in the community. All of these outreach programs just seemed really exciting to me.”

With the new reading endorsement program in the College of Education, Biancarosa is able to teach reading classes again, as well as measurement and statistics. It’s all coming together: passion for literacy, desire to have a social impact, vision of a socially relevant literacy center, fascination with research and measurement, and the West coast lifestyle.