In Oklahoma, every 4-year-old child has the opportunity to attend public preschool — but that doesn’t mean they do. In 2017, Partnering in Education Research (PIER) fellow Emily Hanno began to search for the reasons why. With research heavily favoring preschool as a way to improve students’ academic, cognitive, and emotional capabilities, Hanno’s work would have far-reaching implications.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, PIER fellow Andrew Bacher-Hicks was facing another critical question, this time about teacher retention. He wanted to find out what New Jersey teachers who started their careers five years ago were doing today. To answer this question, he found himself in the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE), linking data from various sources to provide insight on the career pathways of the state’s teachers. Like many decision-making organizations in education, the New Jersey DOE had long had these data but lacked the capacity to fully utilize them.
Hanno and Bacher-Hicks are two of a select group of doctoral students who have been awarded PIER Fellowships. Housed within the Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR) at Harvard University and funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, the PIER Fellowship is working to revolutionize how the next generation of leading education policy researchers are trained. PIER fellows are among the most talented Harvard Ph.D. students in the social sciences and are selected to help solve these and other pressing education questions through quantitative research partnerships with school districts and state education agencies. Rather than study education policy and practice from afar, fellows work within major organizations for an immersive 10-week summer internship to answer questions that matter to education leaders, educators, and students.
The work of these fellows has had broad significance in their respective organizations and communities. After linking and examining attendance, demographic, and performance data for Head Start agency CAP Tulsa, Hanno pinpointed key insights relating to enrollment instability for three- and four-year-old children in the area. “While most of the preschool students were persisting throughout the entire school year, some children were either leaving the program early or starting the school year late. This was quite concerning because it means children are missing out on opportunities for learning.” Especially with a national program like Head Start, findings like these in Tulsa, Oklahoma, could have implications for other communities as well.
Graduate students are seldom taught the skills needed to form meaningful partnerships, where findings may influence decision making. PIER fellows have exactly that opportunity — building skills and relationships by being right there, in the trenches. While Bacher-Hicks had previously worked with state-level administrative data as an education researcher, his past experiences were far less immersive.
“In my previous research projects, partner organizations would have a question then send their data to me in order to help answer it,” he says. “The internship was my first experience actually being embedded within an organization, which provided perspective on how challenging it can be to answer broad questions that require datasets owned by multiple teams. Many organizations, for example, do not have someone like a PIER fellow who sits outside any particular department to link data sets across departments and answer broad questions.”
Hanno spent a large portion of her research time building capacity within her organization to link data sets longitudinally.
“There is a lot of data available within early childhood education,” she says. “Head Start mandates that agencies keep track of students enrolled, including the collection of attendance records, family demographic information, and administrative records. While these data sets are quite robust, they’re not necessarily ready for research. Yet CAP did an excellent job connecting me with people from all corners of both the agency and the community so we could explore, together, how research can serve as a uniting force.”
By helping to build relationships between decision makers and fellows, PIER empowers both researchers and agencies to expand and deepen their capacity for data analysis.
For many students, a PIER Fellowship is the culmination of a passion for education and research that began in the classroom. For PIER fellow Blake Heller, who spent a summer researching adult education at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MA DESE), the fellowship was a natural outgrowth of his previous experiences. “I developed a passion for the question first as a practitioner by being on the ground and understanding the realities of teaching in a setting of urban poverty,” Heller reflects. “Then, as a graduate student I developed skills and tools in research to understand how the sausage is made. Once I had some training in the classroom and experience as a researcher, PIER helped me apply my skills and training independently in a real-world setting.”
Hanno, too, started her career in the classroom as a preschool Head Start teacher through the Teach For America program. “When I was teaching, there were very few supports for preschool education. Because of this, I felt called back to school to learn how to apply the skills I gained in quantitative methods as an economics undergrad to the questions I was driven to answer from a practitioner's standpoint.” Whether they started as practitioners or took the academic route, PIER Fellows recognize the opportunity for this type of work in education.
Perhaps most importantly, PIER provides a powerful link between research and practice in education — a bridge that’s essential for not only fellows, but for the field as a whole. “Education is becoming more focused on quantitative analysis,” Bacher-Hicks affirms. And this is a powerful thing for a researcher, to know that the research is actually informing policy instead of, as Heller describes, “taking place in a vacuum.” Hanno agrees. “The type of work that PIER promotes and is trying to encourage is the reason I went back to grad school. I deeply believe that the point of research is to help people on the ground, doing the work, who don't have the luxury of taking the time that I have as a researcher to reflect on the data. With PIER I was doing research that is practice relevant — that can make a difference to what people are doing on the ground.”