Out of the Ivory Tower and into the Trenches of Education Reform


John Easton, consortium executive director, and Penny Bender Sebring
John Easton, consortium executive director, and Penny Bender Sebring.
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Photo by John Zick

No one could ever accuse Penny Bender Sebring of conducting esoteric research holed up in an ivory tower. On the contrary, Sebring (PhD85) and her colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research work hard to ensure that their research is relevant and useful.

The goal of the consortium, located at the University of Chicago, is to produce high-quality research on the Chicago Public Schools, their problems and solutions. The studies are specially designed to meet the needs of local educators and policy makers.

"Often the people who really need the research don't ever see it," explains Sebring, co-director of the consortium and a senior research associate at the University of Chicago. "Our aspiration is to break down the barriers between the researchers, policy makers and practitioners."

From the consortium's start in 1990, Sebring and her colleagues have worked with the leadership of the Chicago Public Schools, the reform community and scholars at other universities in Chicago — including Northwestern — to help decide which research projects to pursue. The group shares its findings with school and civic leaders, district administrators, advocacy organizations and education policy makers.

In her 15 years at the consortium, Sebring has served on the leadership committee that sets the research agenda, conducted research and contributed to public reports, books and articles on a variety of topics including students' interest and engagement, urban education, school leadership, and the utilization of research and evaluation results. The consortium's latest book, Organizing Schools for Improvement, tracks the Chicago elementary schools with the highest achievement gains in the 1990s and analyzes how they obtained those results. Sebring and four other authors found that local leaders must stimulate and nourish the development of four core organizational supports: parent and community ties, the professionalism of the faculty and staff, a student-centered learning climate and high-quality instruction.

"We found that even in the poorest neighborhoods, schools with the greatest strengths in these areas were more likely to improve student learning than other similar schools," says Sebring. Sebring's interest in education began about 35 years ago. After studying Spanish and majoring in sociology at Grinnell College in Iowa, Sebring spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Venezuela doing community development work.

"I don't think Peace Corps volunteers are ever the same afterwards," says Sebring. "You become aware of how poor much of the world is and that education is really central to a better life. All of the problems that people face require education as part of the solution."

When she returned to the United States, Sebring earned her teaching certificate, taught high school in a small town in Pennsylvania and earned a master's degree in education evaluation from Penn State.

A family move to Chicago prompted Sebring to enroll in Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy, where she became interested in how people made use of research.

In 1985 Sebring earned her doctorate in administration and policy studies from Northwestern. The results from her award-winning PhD dissertation titled "Course Taking, Achievement, and Curricular Policy" were sent to the California State Board of Education where they were used to determine the roster of required high school courses.

Shortly after graduation, she began work for the National Opinion Research Center, also at the University of Chicago, where she conducted social science surveys for governmental agencies and academic institutions. After about six years Anthony Bryk, a University of Chicago professor, asked her to co-found the Consortium on Chicago Board Research.

When Sebring earned her PhD, she says she envisioned a teaching career. Instead she has spent the last 20 years as a researcher helping to disseminate information to those who need it. "The work has been truly fascinating," she says. "While the problems sometimes seem intractable, test scores and graduation rates have improved. I have great hope for further progress."

Katharine Duke is a freelance writer.
By Katharine Duke