What Education Doctorate Students Learn From Hands-On Research Courses
This post is by Kieran Bennett and Jessica Lorenz, Ed.D. students at the School of Education at the University of Portland.
Today's post is the practitioner-scholars' perspective on Monday's post: How to Support Education Practitioner-Scholars.
There was a definite buzz of excitement in the room the day we received our projects and project partners. It was the summer after our first year as Education Doctorate (Ed.D.) students and the beginning of the six-week Research for Evaluation and Action course. This meant than in addition to learning about program evaluation, we would also apply what we learned and evaluate an actual program through the Multnomah County Partnership for Education Research (MCPER). This partnership between our school, the School of Education at the University of Portland, the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), and six local public school districts, gave us and our fellow cohort members the opportunity to conduct a program evaluation.
To move from theory to application is a pivotal learning experience for doctoral students working in education. The promise of contributing to student success in our community was inspiring. Without delay we set off to work as soon as we received our projects and partners. Our project was to evaluate the district's questions about the outcomes of a home visit program—we were asked to conduct a literature review on the potential of visiting students' homes to build relationships, then analyze the attendance and literacy achievement data for all kindergarten students in five elementary schools, about half of which received a home visit at the start of their kindergarten year. Our starting point was not to immediately analyze data or conduct the literature review though—instead, we began with dialogue and decision-making about what type of team and evaluation we wanted to create.
Our work in organizational leadership and equity inspired us to create a culturally responsive evaluation, and through this lens our first step was to decide how we would work together. We strongly believe that the culture of each student is an important aspect of their educational experience. In order to create a thorough evaluation of the home visit program, we felt that a culturally responsive approach was necessary to fully understand the program and its impact on student success. In addition, we felt that our collaboration would work better if we celebrated each other's strengths while promoting personal growth in each area of the evaluation. From the very start we were a collaborative partnership, and this meant we were involved in each step of the project rather than splitting up assignments. As doctoral students, our goal is to become well-rounded researchers, so we felt that both of us taking part in the literature review, data analysis, and recommendations was an investment in our learning.
As culturally responsive evaluators it was essential that we learned about the school district while we analyzed the data. The mission and equity plan were our starting points, and to keep focused on the specific request from the district we used the most advanced of tools: a post-it note placed on our laptops listing our research questions. This kept us grounded in our research and ensured that we made connections that were meaningful for the district. We invested in learning about the history of home visits and how that history influenced the program within the district. Through a review of the literature and the district's policies we established a connection between goals in the district's equity plan and the emphasis in the home visit model on fostering relationships of trust between educators and families. In the movement from knowing very little at the start of the project about home visits to building a strong foundation of knowledge, we strengthened our skills and the sense we have of ourselves as researchers.
Through the program evaluation we learned the importance of collaboration, even if it takes more time and energy. Equity-focused work begins by sharing ideas and working together. We acknowledged all the investors in the research—the district, the teachers, the students, and ourselves. By getting to know our own perceptions about the research and checking in with those expectations throughout the project, we understood how our evaluation was taking shape with us as its authors. The necessity of keeping a research journal to document every detail from the large to the small was highlighted. We had been given this advice early on in our doctoral program, and it came back to us full circle at the end of our evaluation as we were trying to remember why we made certain choices at the start of the evaluation.
Moving forward in future positions in education as faculty and administrators, we can now envision completing evaluations to help create data-driven decision-making rather than constructing assessments based upon anecdotal, and potentially biased, impressions of a program. In order to make ethically sound and rational decisions regarding the efficacy of any program, it is important to complete a well-executed evaluation, which involves starting with the end in mind. After this project, we feel much more empowered to complete these evaluations to contribute to future decisions regarding programming in educational settings.
Throughout the six-week process, we were inspired by the research and each other. Our data represented an investment by the district for student and teacher success, and we kept that intention in the forefront as we were navigating our evaluation. The motto of the School of Education at the University of Portland—"Every heart. Every mind. Every child"—was our guide, and through a culturally responsible framework and collaboration we learned how data connects to that promise.