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Contextualizing Research: Using Inquiry to Advance Equity

June 22, 2017
Liz Newman and Hadar Baharav
Liz Newman & Hadar Baharav


At the Gardner Center, we are strong believers in linking data to action, and we bring this mindset and commitment to our partnerships. We co-construct research questions with community partners that allow them to take informed action based on findings, and we help establish the conditions for them to build their capacity to use data strategically to lead and ignite change. To do this, we coach community partners in considering research-based indicators at the individual (student), setting (school), and system (district) levels while respecting the importance of local context. We also support partners to establish cycles of inquiry and action that take both research and context into account through a process of learning and improvement.

Research-Based Indicators

While indicators of educational success at key milestones are relevant for all students, as suggested by academic research (which implies that findings can be generalized across contexts), they do not exist in isolation. In our work with community partners, we have learned that practitioners are much more inclined to consider data at the student-level — such as GPA and credits earned, attendance and suspension records, and level of engagement in school — than to consider data at the setting or system levels. The focus on individual-level data is understandable, even expected, considering that at the core of educational practice are the students whom educators seek to support to reach their full human potential. Student-level indicators are also tightly aligned with the notion of accountability and are regularly used as proxies to indicate levels of institutional success.

Yet, students attend classes and receive services in school and program settings which, in turn, are based within the context of federal, state, and local systems. Factors within these school and program settings can promote or inhibit students’ participation in educational endeavors, as well as the resulting outcomes. Factors within the system can create conditions that either support or hinder how schools and programs operate. Hence, we must recognize the significant influences of settings and systems on student outcomes. Indeed, there are data at these levels that are often relevant, depending on the objective and local context. Setting-level data may include, for example, the number of certified teachers, counselor-to-student ratios, and course availability. At the system level, examples may include policies and funding to support college-going culture in schools, or communication and enhanced links between different parts of the education continuum.

Context-Based Supports

To promote equity and advance positive outcomes for all subgroups of students in a given local context, settings and systems must create supports that are tailored to meet their diverse needs. Supports are interventions intended to effect a change in students’ knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors and may include, for example, mentoring, tutoring, or college application workshops. To enhance equity for all students, practitioners must disaggregate data for subpopulations of students, such as English learners or race groups, a practice that is intended to result in the illumination of successes and challenges faced by distinct subgroups of students, and in the development of supports that meet identified needs.

The decisions regarding which groups of students to consider are locally-based; they are reflective of the community’s characteristics. Similarly, supports are locally-based actions or interventions; they also are reflective of the context. Thus, the design, implementation, and impact of supports is expected to vary among contexts. By extension, supports may look significantly different among schools in a single district, and even for different student subgroups within a single school. And yet, supports always map back to the desired outcomes and indicators of success for all students.

Advancing Equity

Using data to inform action as part of a cycle of inquiry is an approach that has the potential to expand understanding by addressing the inequality of opportunities and social processes that preserve inequality (Carter & Reardon, 2014). By focusing attention toward research-based indicators, designing and implementing supports that reflect identified local needs and assets, and gathering and analyzing relevant data through a process geared toward learning and improvement, stakeholders can meaningfully engage in advancing educational equity and equality of opportunity.

Liz Newman is a Senior Community Engagement Associate and Hadar Baharav is a Research Associate.