A new $5.2 million U.S. Department of Education grant will fund the largest research collaboration to date between Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and UW-Madison.
Over the next four years, education researchers at DPI and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), part of UW-Madison's School of Education, will mine longitudinal data from Wisconsin schools, supported by qualitative studies, to identify proven practices teachers can use to narrow gaps in student opportunity and achievement levels across all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and family income levels.
For the past 10 years, DPI has worked with public school districts across the state to collect data about students, staff and academic courses, and to provide reports based on this information. Anyone logging on to DPI's information portal — WISEDash — can compare test scores and rates of attendance, truancy and graduation for each school in the state across characteristics such as economic status, race and disabilities.
In 2014, DPI created a task force to study data related to Wisconsin's achievement gaps. Schools that showed promise in closing those gaps selected educators and school leaders to share their work. The task force collected those recommendations and issued a report titled Promoting Excellence for All, for families, schools and community members to engage in efforts to close achievement gaps.
"We really want to focus on schools where achievement gaps are narrowing to find out what these schools are doing successfully," says Jared Knowles, a DPI research analyst and the project's principal investigator. "Our goal is to translate that analysis and research into evidence-based recommendations that principals, administrators, teachers and guidance counselors can easily use to make better decisions on how to solve the challenges unique to their districts, and better serve students."
To conduct a professional study of this magnitude, Knowles turned to WCER and enlisted a team of university researchers led by Eric Grodsky, associate professor of sociology and educational policy studies.
"This is a level of collaboration that I think is novel," says Grodsky. Although WCER and DPI bring different assets to the table, they share a common goal. "This project is an opportunity for us to work more closely together on issues that are central to the lives of kids in Wisconsin," he says.
The cornerstone of WCER's research — for which it will receive up to $600,000 per year of the grant money — is to identify those schools in Wisconsin where racial and economic achievement gaps are narrowing. Then Grodsky and his research team will conduct extensive, on-site interviews with school officials to identify effective practices that other districts can replicate.
"The more we learn about what's impactful, the more channels we can pursue to try to help kids in the state," says Grodsky. He and Knowles will work with several other university research groups: the Wisconsin Evaluation Collaborative, led by Brad Carl, Annalee Good and Steven Kimball; the Wisconsin Collaborative Education Research Network, led by Rich Halvorson and Jack Jorgensen; and the Institute for Research on Poverty, led by Lonnie Berger and Jennifer Noyes.
Knowles and the UW-Madison team will kick off the project later this month. The end game, the lead investigator says, is to help create local and state policy that schools eventually will adopt to make much-needed changes in their districts.
"Everyone at WCER wants to see kids doing better, straight up," says Grodsky. "We want to see kids in Wisconsin, children of color and economically disadvantaged kids, doing better in school — better test scores, less truancy and higher graduation rates."
WCER is one of the oldest, largest and most productive university-based education research centers in the world. Part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, it is home to approximately 70 research projects conducted by 500 faculty, staff and graduate students. The center, founded in 1964, receives more than $50 million annually from federal and state agencies, as well as private foundations. WCER is committed to improving educational outcomes for the nation's diverse student population, positively impacting education practice and fostering collaboration among disciplines and practitioners.