Not even a week into the new decade, Min Sun already accomplished what many who work in education may never do.
She helped persuade people to maybe change their minds.
A researcher and associate professor with the University of Washington’s College of Education, Sun last week released a working paper that bucked some of what had been conventional wisdom about a billion-dollar federal program intended to revive the nation’s underperforming schools.
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education’s own review of the costly program found the money didn’t move the needle on student test scores, high-school graduation rates or college enrollment. But in a longer-term study — which hasn’t been peer reviewed — Sun’s research showed a bigger-than-expected payoff from the grants, especially in some of Washington’s worst schools.
One veteran education journalist’s reaction: “Whoa whoa whoa hold up now.”
Education Lab sat down with Sun before her paper’s release and asked her about the role that researchers play in public schools, what she thinks about Seattle’s schools and why she’s still interested in education. Her responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Question: What kind of relationship do colleges of education and researchers have with school districts and teachers working in the classroom? And how can that relationship improve?
Answer: The researchers working here at UW have a unique identity compared to maybe a majority of many other institutions (of higher education). The college of education really values research that’s relevant to practice. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to strike a balance of contributing to the literature and what it’s like to use transformative, innovative research approaches to examine questions relevant to real problems in education. The more I work on this research, the more I realize that I would be more satisfied if my work actually generated real impact that benefits kids in schools.
Q: What kind of data is there to explore in education?
A: One type of data is administrative — particularly those generated by federal accountability (rules) — like student test scores, absenteeism, demographics. Pretty much all the public schools generate this massive amount of data. You also have this sort of new form of data, like text and reports or open-ended surveys with parents, students and teachers. These days, you can scrape unstructured data from websites, for example, the data behind the map of teacher salaries across WA districts, and other interesting data too. You can structure these new forms of data to make them informative and useful with machine-learning techniques. In the tech industry, people have been using similar data and methods to analyze their customers’ satisfaction, make purchase recommendations to their clients, and to inform their business decisions, but in education we haven’t really used that information much yet.
Q: How can educators put that kind of information to good use?
A: Honestly that’s the million-dollar question. How do we encourage practitioners to use data? Because that is ultimately the goal at the end of the day. As a researcher, my job is to think about how to display and present the data in the most user-friendly way and tie it to the question that interests to practitioners. With national studies, I hear them (local educators) ask how that’s relevant to their work. The other barrier is capacity. Not all school districts have professional researchers working for them. Seattle Public Schools is very fortunate because they have a team of professional researchers with Ph.Ds in their Research and Evaluation office. But many school districts don’t have a research arm like that. For these districts, partnering with researchers can be one lever to develop and strengthen their data and research capacity.
Q: What makes Seattle and Washington schools unique from other places you’ve studied?
A: Seattle is a very progressive school district. It has been on the frontier when confronting racial inequality. Its five-year strategic plan is squared and centered on race-based inequality. That is very refreshing. They are on the cutting edge in terms of thinking about how we systematically address the deep-rooted, race-based equity gaps. They’re not just talking about individual teachers. They’re thinking about it at the system level and the whole school climate, not only in supporting students but also supporting teachers of color.
Q: Can you mention any specific steps that Seattle schools have taken to close the opportunity gap, and any results you’ve seen so far?
A: Besides their five-year strategic plan, the rollout of racial-equity teams and ethnic studies. They are also building a system of building a culturally responsive workforce by attending to different aspects of teachers’ life cycle in the district, from the recruitment of teachers of color, to culturally responsive professional development, continuing onto coaching and mentoring teachers using culturally responsive teaching frameworks. Of course, racial inequity issues are deep-rooted and these efforts are at an early stage. It is a critical first step to recognize that racial inequity is not just an issue of individual teachers’ beliefs and awareness; rather, it is a system issue and thus needs a systemic approach.
Q: What big questions interest you about public education?
A: Definitely the persistent disparities for those groups of students who are not only underserved students of color but also economically disadvantaged students. How do we provide a better learning opportunity for them in public schools? That’s still at the center of my work. How do we identify more effective as well as cost-efficient strategies to address those persistent racial and economic learning opportunity gaps in schools? It’s still the question that energizes me.