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The Impact of Geography and Policy on Students

Ph.D. candidate Christopher Cleveland's research focuses on issues of equity and the impact of environmental factors on educational opportunity
Christopher Cleveland
Christopher Cleveland

Students are deeply affected by their educational environment. Where they grow up, which schools they attend, and the curriculum they learn impacts much of their primary education.

For Ph.D. candidate Christopher Cleveland, Ed.M.'19, that sense of educational geography has impacted much of his work as an educator and researcher. Cleveland grew up in Phoenix and found student activism in high school, setting him on the path to think critically about how schools support students with different backgrounds and opportunities. Working with a minority student achievement network called MSAN, Cleveland says he “focused on thinking about how school districts can be supporting students of color and giving them access to more advanced courses.”

Cleveland's work in education, as well as his research and consulting work, has sharpened in recent years to focus on the systemic factors and policy decisions that impact where students learn and the kinds of programming available to them.

“I’m striving to amplify connections between researchers and policymakers on issues like education finance and special education. I think there are real tensions to solve as we are looking at how Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) funding is going to be winding down or extended after COVID,” Cleveland says. “What have we learned about federal and state issues in education finance during COVID? We are also coming up on the 50-year anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). What are we learning about what’s going well or not going well with special education? What can we be doing to make the next 50 years better?”

Below, Cleveland discusses his recent research into special education and student discipline, the historic impact of redlining on education, and why he followed a career in education after his own lived experience as a student.

Much of your research focuses on vulnerable student populations, especially when it comes to the efficacy or ethics of certain practices. What is it about those kinds of questions in education that you find interesting?

I think about the work I’ve done in special education to be central to this question of the ethical or moral rights of students. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is one of the largest civil rights movements in our country along with the push for women and people of color to get voting rights and access to civil services.

It’s an interesting debate: We don’t really know if we’re appropriately identifying students for special education services nor which services and placements are appropriate for students with disabilities. The consideration of academic services and placements is buffered against an ethical consideration, which is that IDEA defines a standard for free and appropriate education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) which asserts a preference for students with disabilities to be with their peers. It’s an interesting reflection of what we civically value in education.

More broadly, if you think about it, special education involves medical issues so the conversation also extends to our conception of healthcare. We talk about special education students having access to a free and appropriate public education, but we don’t necessarily extend that idea to say everyone should have access to free and appropriate healthcare. So it’s interesting to see how these conversations translate across different domains when they have relationships to each other.

You’ve also written about school funding within a variety of contexts, including how the legacy of redlining for economically depressed and racially segregated areas. How did you decide to take on that approach in your research?

In the past few years, there were a couple of pieces written about home values and heat exposure within cities based on historical redlining patterns, but I hadn’t seen anything at that time that had connected it to modern educational outcomes. It felt important to explore because COVID was highlighting how schools are subject to many external forces and the broader conversations happening in 2020 about race. A variety of federal and “social” programs played a large part in shaping the way we talk about people with different backgrounds and informing where they lived. It seemed important to highlight how these programs still impact our lives today.

The redlining research you’ve done is so interesting because, as you’ve said, the geography of where someone is educated really matters. And the research showed how these environments are created in ways you can document to this day. What lessons did you learn from this project?

One takeaway I have is that progress across the United States is not unilateral. If you were to look at demographic or economic shifts in Boston, you wouldn’t necessarily claim those to be the same progression of shifts as you would see in Los Angeles or Atlanta. Some places included in that study are hyper-urban. Some are more suburban. We can imagine that economic factors or the ability to be geographically mobile as an individual are going to shape the segregation findings that we see.

The other nuance is around funding, particularly the use of local property wealth to fund schools, as there’s a variety of state and local funding systems in place across the country. It raises this meta question of which kind of trends are fair to declare a national phenomenon versus those that are mediated by location and how we might declare certain cities to reflect bright spots of progress more than others.

Another focus of your work has been on New York City’s gifted education program and the equity of the program’s layout in the city. What was a takeaway from that research?

Historically these gifted programs do not employ universal screening nor are they distributed in a way that everyone has access. Within New York City, you also see other types of schools vying for student attendance, whether they’re private schools or public charters. If you were to look at a map of New York you would say “these different types of schools are placed in very different parts of the city.” Often the private schools are enrolling wealthier students while the charter schools serve a larger proportion of lower-income or Black students. From the public school district leader's perspective, they have to think about how they want to interact with those other types of schools when they’re thinking about attracting and supporting students.

This work shows how having access to a gifted program encourages students to stay in the public school setting. The findings comment on both the feasibility of going to these geographically dispersed programs and the distinct preferences among families in terms of what they perceive as the value of gifted programs versus other educational options.

Another paper you’ve written focuses on the impact lawmakers have had on student discipline in Massachusetts. You’ve worked at the state level with public schools in the past, how did that influence your approach?

I previously worked with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on district planning and special education issues and learned about the Rethinking Discipline Initiative through which Massachusetts has been working to address discipline issues with an eye toward issues of place and race. This set the stage for me to look at some of the impacts of Chapter 222, the earlier legislation that aimed to change disciplinary practices within the state.

I don’t think any parent is saying “I really want to send my kid to the high discipline incident school.” But it’s very often the case that it’s their primary or only choice when you consider where these incidents are happening.

There are schools in Massachusetts that have markedly higher rates of student incidents and suspensions and expulsions. This trend reflects both differences in student behavior and school culture toward discipline. It's often the case that it’s students with disabilities, low-income, Black, and Hispanic students relative to other student populations who are more exposed to discipline issues.

The pandemic has made lots of things harder, but there have certainly been extraordinary challenges in education. Is there something you’ve learned working through the pandemic that’s motivated you in your work? What keeps you in education?

I’m motivated by the conversations I have been having with researchers and policymakers about my work. There is genuine interest in taking new approaches to better support students.

I’m also motivated by the Alliance for Resource Equity and Advancing Education Resource Equity Network I have been managing during COVID. I’ve found this work incredibly rewarding and frustrating because some of these Chief Equity Officers are in positions where they can’t say the word "equity" right now — our country is in a pretty difficult spot.

I want to do what I can to help push us through this moment or else we shortchange a lot of people given where COVID has left us. I’m hopeful we can reimagine how conversations about equity so we can have real progress.


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