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Equity in Learning

UChicago's Nicole Beechum on how a focus on equity in education research is reinvigorating how teachers teach and learners learn.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

We’ve said it before: researchers have cool friends. At dscout, we’re lucky that some of them drop by the office from time to time. So we were thrilled when the brilliant Nicole Beechum, a senior research analyst at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, joined us a few weeks ago to talk about her work.  Nicole and her co-workers at the Consortium are charged with investigating the implications of Chicago Public Schools policies, and their effect on everyone from administrators and teachers to students, parents and families.

Trained as a social worker, Nicole approaches the experience of students in urban school districts from an equity and strengths-based perspective. She’s studied how kids transition from elementary schools to high schools, and from high schools to post-secondary opportunities. Her work looks at teacher-student relationships, and how non-cognitive factors—and a student’s agency—contribute to individual success.

Read on for some of the highlights of Nicole’s talk at dscout.

On the factors at play in education today

I like to start with my why whenever I talk about the work that I do. There’s a painting by Carolyn Lawrence from 1972 called "Black Children, Keep Your Spirits Free." It speaks to me personally, but it also speaks to why I do the work that I do. I feel like in many contexts, black and Latino students are constrained by schools, by what society thinks about them. By “constraints,” what I mean is: I think schools often define how we show up, and what it looks like to be a learner. There are things that we conflate around culture, and how a kid shows up, and we think that means something about them as a learner, when in actuality it doesn't.

I wanted to understand the factors at play in education, the context over the content. That’s what led me to work in the field of education research. Because a lot of what's happening in education is not content related. We’ve figured out the content part of it, we know the things young people need to learn in terms of Spanish, History, English, etc. But how that happens, the context and the way adults engage young people is sadly still sort of a mystery.

Ultimately, some of the Consortium’s most profound work has really been looking at the questions about how certain students got to certain places with regard to their education. How is it that kids who come into high school doing really well end up dropping out? We understand a lot about that. But what we need to be better at is serving families and communities, the people who send their kids to Chicago Public Schools (CPS). We don’t really know how to engage communities. We don’t ask the questions that families have about schools. I think, as an organization, until recently we didn't really even know on a broad level what some of those questions were.

On the importance of context in the conversation

What’s come to the fore with our work on servicing families is really pushing ourselves to rethink things. We’re going back to a lot of our old research, and even seeing how the language we use about families, communities, and young people has been very detrimental, and frankly even oppressive in many ways. What we do a lot of is say, “We are objective researchers, and we are just presenting the facts. We have access to this data that CPS has given us.”

We know that across the city, black students and black boys in particular have lower grades than their counterparts of other racial/gender segments. Often when we go out in the world and list that statistic, we just leave it at that. We don’t say: “However, most of our African American students in the city are in schools that don't have a lot of resources, and they attend schools with teachers who are newer, who have less training.”

There's a lot of context that we could be providing, that we don’t always give. That's where we're trying to push ourselves in terms of our equity work. How do we have these conversations in respectful ways? How do we incorporate a historical lens? How do we show up?

On what research reveals about the disjoints in the education system

Around 15 years ago, the Consortium issued a report as part of a series called “From High School to the Future” that said that for every 100 graduates of CPS, only around four kids were going to graduate from college. It made a lot of news and was pretty revelatory for the district. In retrospect, I think it's also one of the things that needed a lot more context than it was given.

Based on that work, people wanted to know more. We started trying to understand the post-secondary transitions of young people in CPS. We did a report on senior year and some work on college matching. Many CPS kids under-match, which means they are overqualified for the college that they're going to. It’s actually worse than over-matching. Over-matching pushes you to try harder, under-matching just makes you disengaged. And a lot of the students across the city—Black, Latino, White, Asian—were under-matching.

And to investigate those post-secondary transitions, we did a lot of qualitative research. We talked to kids to understand their thought process, and what it was actually like step by step filling out the college application. We actually found that biggest drop-off was that most kids weren't completing their FAFSA (Federal Student Aid application), because they were first-generation college kids, and they didn't know how, and in some schools there wasn’t any structured support to show them how to do that.

The kids who were super connected, the kids who knew all the adults and the counselors, they were able to get those kinds of tasks done. Other kids were not, and so that's where they would drop off the college-going process. Based on that work, the district set up data systems to track kids’ progress. Every week during the fall, college counselors were getting lists via email: this is how many of your kids have applied for FAFSA, or this is how many of your kids have not.

We realized that we needed to look at how the school experience was affecting a student’s thinking on an even broader level. Like, what gets a kid to the point where they can say, “I am college bound, even though no one in my family has gone to college, this is something I can do”?

On shadowing the student experience

I have been very fortunate that the work of my current team allows us to think beyond just research and create what we call Developmental Experiences (opportunities to make meaning of experiences) for school people. We’ve really put a stake in the ground on having anyone who starts any kind of work with us begin by shadowing the student experience, actually following a student around for a day. Learn what it’s like to be a young person, start to understand a young person's day. The first time I shadowed a student, I followed a 14-year-old boy around to his classes for the day. By the end of the day, I’d been in six periods with this young person, and only two adults talked to him. Throughout the entire day. And hardly anyone used his name. Think about what that means, when you spend most of your day in a place, and no one even really identifies you saying, “I see you”—think about what that does to a young person's psyche, and their feeling of whether or not they belong there.

What we’ve realized is that in a lot of classes, kids aren't having good interactions with their teachers. What teachers usually find when they shadow a student is that school is incredibly boring. They think they're doing great things, and they are, but it's not great for everyone. We can’t continue to have a factory model of learning, to expect that students will learn just by listening to a teacher speak. That doesn’t work for all students. It doesn't get every learner to feel like, “I'm a part of this space, and the way I learn is reflected in this environment.”

On teaching kids to become learners

The work that we do now is really driven by the field trying to catch up with itself. At my team at the Consortium, we situate ourselves in a growing field within education research called the Science of Learning and Development. The Science of Learning has been around for a long time. Brain research has changed so much of what we know about how people learn, and we're trying to keep up with that. One of the things that has been siloed is young people's development. Literally, as a human, how are you developing? Most teacher education programs don't teach that. It's very rare.

We’re looking at the non-cognitive factors, the things outside of content knowledge that young people need to be successful. We’ve brought together various fields, not just education research, but neuroscience, psychology, social psychology, sociology, to think about what kids need to truly thrive in schools, to have a positive academic mindset. You have to have a set of learning strategies that you can rely on. You have to show up and participate. Ultimately, we hypothesized that success as a young person means having a sense of agency and what we call an integrated identity. And environment is so key to that happening. The learning environment has to make it clear to all students, especially the most marginalized students: you can do this, you are a part of this community, and we are going to support you.

We need to understand that there are different ways for different kinds of learners. That’s why I value those kids who can’t sit still, because they’re reminding us of that. We have to give young people the opportunity to tinker with ideas and make mistakes. If they can’t practice, if they can’t take another stab at a paper, then we’re not giving them the space to learn and understand on their own.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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