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Exploring the Effects of Desegregation

With his research, doctoral marshal Mark Chin, Ph.D.'22, aims to develop more equitable schools and policies.
Mark Chin
Photo: Jill Anderson

Mark Chin, Ph.D.’22, always knew he wanted his scholarly work to address the persistent racial and socioeconomic disparities engrained in the education system, and to investigate the potential power of schools to change mindsets. Through his time at HGSE, he aspired to “uncover how schools serving students and families with more racial and/or socioeconomic privilege might challenge racial prejudice and encourage students to adopt more equity-oriented sociopolitical preferences, like supporting policies that redistribute wealth or expand the social safety net.” 

Chin’s appointment as class marshal recognizes his work and dedication to developing equitable schools and policies, as well as his service to HGSE and the academic community more broadly. “I am so deeply honored to have been selected to serve as Commencement marshal for our graduating class, says Chin. “My friends and classmates at the Ed School have taught me so much during our time as Ph.D. students — how to be a better researcher, a better friend, a better person. I cannot wait for us all to be reunited for graduation and to have the opportunity to celebrate our community and our accomplishments together.” 

Following Commencement, Chin will be a postdoc at HGSE before taking a position as an assistant professor of education policy and inequality at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College in August of next year. He’s looking forward to joining a similar academic community and getting to teach a first-year practicum. 

“It is bittersweet to be completing the Ph.D. and to be graduating,” he says. "I have been at the Ed School for more than 10 years. But I know that I’ll remain connected to the friends, faculty, and other members of the incredible community at HGSE. We’ll continue to stay in each other’s lives and support one another as we all move onto new, exciting opportunities.”

Here, Chin reflects on the ways research can help us tap into the power of schools to shift biases and shares his fondest memories of the HGSE community. 

Tell me about the motivation for your research.
I’m an Asian American man, whose parents immigrated from China and believed their own “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentalities helped them succeed and enter the American middle class. With this privilege, my parents were able to choose where to live based on the “quality” of the neighborhood public schools. These “good” schools were considered good because they helped to prepare privileged youth like myself to graduate from high school and go to college. But they never encouraged me to care about equity, empathize with others from different backgrounds, question the importance of individual “merit” over inherited privilege, or to reflect on my own implicit biases. I think a “good” school should do that.

I also believe that by focusing on outcomes, [like the ability to shift mindsets and biases] as opposed to test scores, my work may speak more directly to addressing the larger systems, structures, and institutions that oppress Black, Brown, and low-income communities. It’s my hope this approach avoids pathologizing the schools serving marginalized and disenfranchised youth, which are often over-researched yet underfunded.  

Why did you choose to focus on school desegregation efforts in your dissertation? What new findings did you hope to bring to the existing body of research?
Given my research interests, school desegregation by race was a natural topic for me to write on for my dissertation. A key motivating factor for the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision was the potential for school integration to decrease racial prejudice. There’s a psychological theory called the “contact hypothesis” that suggests by increasing Black-White contact in desegregated schools, both Black and White youth would have more positive attitudes towards each other. 

But there’s been relatively little compelling quantitative evidence that supports the contact hypothesis, especially from schools during the period of substantial educational change following Brown v. Board. So I decided to make that the focus of my dissertation. I hoped to provide causal evidence on whether white youth who lived in contexts with desegregating schools had more positive racial attitudes as adults. In my research, I find some evidence that they did — especially for those who lived in the U.S. South. 

The final paper of my dissertation explores, in the present day, how we might encourage families and students to proactively choose more racially integrated or diverse schools when they have access to many school options. History shows that white families were largely opposed to desegregation efforts. Another study I worked on showed that this opposition may have led to negative consequences for equity — Black students were suspended at higher rates in desegregating districts after Brown v. Board. Which is why I am excited about this ongoing work. I think it has the potential to inform nuanced policymaking that maximizes the potential of school integration.

Why is it so important to have data like this to talk about inequity?
Quantitative research is a powerful tool for informing policymaking. Studies using quantitative methods, for example, have helped uncover persistent racial and socioeconomic inequalities in school resources and in the opportunities available to marginalized youth. This work has informed the adoption of programs that aim to reduce disparities in college-going and readiness, learning opportunities, and access to quality early childhood education. At the same time, quantitative research can often be reductive of individuals’ experiences. Conclusions from most quantitative studies usually apply to the “average” individual, whatever that may mean. When data is limited, information from groups that actually have very different experiences is often combined in order to use certain quantitative methods. This can mask critical differences and hinder our understanding.  By centering inequity in my research, I hope to always remind myself of these limitations of quantitative research. 

What will you remember most about HGSE? 
I’ll miss the incredible Ph.D. student community at HGSE the most. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, during my time as a doctoral student, I have made lifelong friends. Unsurprisingly, the highlights from HGSE that I love reflecting on most involve time I spent with other doc students. As first years, many of those in my cohort would explore the Cambridge night life after classes ended on Thursday and Friday. We’d go to the Cantab to see the Chicken Slacks perform and I fondly remember an evening of karaoke at the Hong Kong. In our second year, maybe six or seven of the members in my cohort got married and I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of their special days. My wife and I invited many of my classmates to our wedding, and they made the trek to Indianapolis on a blizzard weekend. Finally, with the ongoing pandemic and many of us moving to different parts of the country following the end of our coursework, it has been wonderful being able to remain connected over Zoom. Despite the distance, being able to celebrate professional and personal milestones together, as well support each other at the culmination of our time in the Ph.D. Program at the virtual dissertation defenses, has been truly special.


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