Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Fall 2017

Social and education policy researchers and learning scientists team up with Evanston school leaders to help solve local education problems with national implications for policy and practice.

Combining Forcess

By Julie Deardorff
Dean David Figlio, ETHS Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, IPR director Diane Whitmore Shanzenbach, ETHS Principal and Assistant Superintendent Marcus Campbell, ETHS Assistant Superintendent Pete Bavis, and District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren

From left, SESP Dean David Figlio, ETHS Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, IPR director Diane Whitmore Shanzenbach, ETHS Principal and Assistant Superintendent Marcus Campbell, ETHS Assistant Superintendent Pete Bavis, and District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren review ongoing research at the high school. Photo by Eileen Malony

The city of Evanston’s distinct blend of racial, ethnic and economic diversity makes it a dream community for researchers. Committed to integration since 1966, Evanston schools prepare some of the highestachieving students in the United States for top colleges and universities.

At the same time, Northwestern University’s proud hometown wrestles with a troubling national problem: While Evanston’s black and Hispanic students outperform their counterparts nationwide, their white students score dramatically better— at the very top of the U.S.

The mutual desire to make sure that all Evanston students have the chance to excel is at the heart of an unusually deep partnership between researchers at the School of Education and Social Policy and Evanston teachers, principals and school leaders.

The ongoing collaboration, which recently grew even stronger thanks to $1 million in combined support from the Spencer Foundation and the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation, is called the Northwestern-Evanston Education Research Alliance. It is designed to improve every young Evanstonian’s education by creating a rich body of research that’s useful and relevant.

Supporters say Evanston is the ideal setting for this type of scholarly research with strong policy implications because it has the unusual challenge of educating a large fraction of low-income and extremely high-achieving students in the same school buildings. Policies and programs developed in Evanston, meanwhile, can potentially be applied across the nation.

“If Evanston can close its racial and economic opportunity gaps, it would not only be great for students in Evanston, but also would serve as a model for the nation’s school districts,” says Stanford University education researcher Sean Reardon, whose study found that Evanston’s white-black and white-Hispanic spreads are among the very largest in the U.S.

A national trend

Research-practice partnerships, or long-term collaborations between researchers and school district leaders, are a promising way to tackle persistent problems in education, according to studies by Northwestern’s Cynthia Coburn, professor of education and social policy, a pioneering researcher in the field.

One of the first research alliances was the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which was formed in 1990 as a partnership between researchers from the University of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, and other local organizations.

Since then, research-practice partnerships have been developed at The University of Washington (Bellevue School District), Stanford University (San Francisco Unified School District) and several other universities and school districts across the nation.

These collaborations still face many hurdles, including bridging different cultures, establishing trust, and balancing the needs of both sides. But they have clear benefits, especially when the research ideas come from those in the trenches, making any potential findings or recommendations something schools can actually use.

Moreover, the research quality is better because it relies on the expertise of the invested school professionals, says Nichole Pinkard, one of the first graduates of SESP’s Learning Sciences PhD program.

“I’ve found the most successful work starts from conversations with teachers and mentors, which gives you a specific and clear understanding of what the problems are,” says Pinkard. “It doesn’t work when you have a conversation, I go back and work in a lab and return in eight months. You have to collaborate with the people who are actually using your work.”

Researchers, of course, still propose ideas that the school districts may have less interest in pursuing. “But this mutuality means school leaders are more open to these ideas as well,” says Pinkard, who returned to Northwestern this fall as associate professor of learning sciences to spearhead even broader and deeper collaborations through SESP’s Office of STEM Education Partnerships.

A year with Evanston Township High School

In one particularly strong partnership between Evanston and Northwestern, doctoral students spend a year working with Evanston Township High School using school-supplied data to answer questions drawn up by teachers and school leaders.

Students in the training program, called the Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences (MPES), work in interdisciplinary teams on research questions proposed by the school, such as, “how can teachers create a supportive STEM learning environment for girls and students of color?”

At the end of the year, the students present their findings and recommendations to school leaders.

“The partnership helped our faculty look at the data in new and different ways, gave us some take-away ideas and helped continue conversations,” says Carrie Levy, director of research, evaluation and assessment at ETHS.

The MPES program brings together students from a wide variety of disciplines, including sociology, economics, statistics, psychology and human development. This diversity allows the team to address complex questions using comprehensive research designs.

During the 2015–16 partnership cycle, fellows Elizabeth Debraggio, Courtenay Kessler, and Heyu Xiong, examined AVID, an academic support program that targets ETHS students in the middle. To the school’s surprise, the team found it was exceeding expectations.

“We never would have done such a deep dive,” says Pete Bavis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Evanston Township High School District 202. “When we realized it was doing better than we thought, it teed up other research questions involving AVID.”

MPES fellows Meghan Salomon, Jake Schauer, and Carolyn Swen looked at the relationship between fine arts classes at ETHS and college enrollment. Using six years of survey and transcript data from ETHS graduates, they found that for students least likely to continue beyond high school, there may be a relationship between taking art classes freshman year and going to college.

“The results have particularly interesting policy implications because art/fine arts are often considered for the chopping block and because these courses are not part of standardized testing and are thus often deemphasized in school curriculums,” says Elora Ditton, former MPES program coordinator and a graduate of ETHS.

“We have all heard how arts can be enriching, but if data suggests that early arts course taking can influence a student’s post- secondary outcome, that’s a huge incentive to emphasize arts—or at least not cut them,” Ditton says.

David Figlio, Kristin Perkins, and Mesmin Destin


SESP faculty members have a long history of collaboration with Evanston schools. In the 1930s, Evanston/Skokie District 65 and professor Paul Witty jointly established the Psycho-Educational Clinic. In the 1950s, they teamed up for the so-called Evanston Project which focused on gifted education and ability tracking.

Today, SESP researchers are helping school district leaders think through policies and practices in several ways:

SESP Dean David Figlio leads an advisory group that examines the high school’s Restructured Freshman Year Initiative, an effort to give all first-year students the opportunity to work toward honors credits. ETHS restructured freshman humanities and biology classes after it realized too few 10th through 12th grade students had access to the challenging curriculum available in AP and honors-level courses.

Northwestern’s Kristin Perkins operates out of a prominent purple-walled partnership office inside the high school. Perkins, project coordinator with the SESP Office of STEM Education Partnerships, fosters cooperation between the high school and the University, including Kits & Cats Day, Women in STEM (WiSTEM) and Kellogg Connections, a partnership with the Kellogg School of Management.

Northwestern’s Mesmin Destin is collabo- rating with Evanston Township School District 202 to study the connection between academic achievement and health. Destin, an associate professor of human develop- ment and social policy, is testing whether participating in groups that encourage academic motivation and provide support leads to better grades and health for low socioeconomic-status students.