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Learnings about how approaches to research advance educational equity

As part of a larger effort to promote educational equity, researchers across the country are grappling with what it means to center equity in their work. At City Year, as we strengthen our research-to-practice-to-policy system, we’ve been on a learning journey to do this inspired by leaders in the field, including Chicago Beyond, Child Trends, the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, the Funder and Evaluator Affinity Network, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, among others, who all foreground the insights of those most affected by the research and position community voice as essential to the work’s veracity and utility.

Last summer, we first talked about our organization’s learning journey with equity-based research implementation as part of a presentation and blog post for the Aurora Symposium. In that essay, we alluded to a qualitative project we had just launched across three City Year sites in which we planned to implement equity-based research strategies at every stage from start to finish. Now that this research project is complete, we’re excited to share what we did and learned.

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You can read the case study on how a personalized approach to learning helped City Year to adapt during COVID-19.

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We recognized local context in our approach to equity-based action

At the outset of this project, we ensured that all stakeholders gained an understanding of the school and community contexts in which the research was being conducted. Our research partner, Jacquie Beaubien of Motivation, Mindset, and Equity Consulting, joined calls with City Year site staff at the beginning of the project to get to know them better and learn from their perspective before diving into artifacts, materials, contextual readings and data. This set the stage for mutual trust and allowed for a more precise research plan that would be the least burdensome and most relevant to participants.

We centered on research as a learning tool

We have been explicit with research partners and participants about City Year’s commitment to research as a tool for learning and improvement alongside our efforts to build our evidence of impact and to support educational equity for all students. We grounded all planning conversations for our most recent evaluation in this assertion, which increased buy-in among participants and added a layer of safety for both the researcher and participants to engage in candid conversations throughout in the spirit of learning.

We collaboratively developed research questions

We ensured our questions connected back to our organization’s Research and Learning Agenda and were useful to as many people as possible by taking a bottom-up approach to question generation and by incorporating the feedback of those closest to the work in each stage. We included the three sites involved in the study in the question generation process—City Year Columbus, City Year Los Angeles and City Year Memphis—and those sites, in turn, consulted their communities. Centering site and community voices set a foundation of trust and engagement and ensured that the research would be grounded in what mattered most to participants and their local context. Our partner adjusted questions based on this local feedback.   

We carefully assembled the research team with equity as a focus

City Year’s Research Team hopes to continue to confirm City Year’s commitment to engaging diverse research teams that reflect the make-up of the individuals participating in the evaluation and honor participant voice from the outset. Research partners who are committed to equity were chosen through an RFP process developed in partnership with City Year’s Equity Council and with feedback from various stakeholders that included input from the sites where the research was conducted. This past year we added new aspects to our RFP process, including asking for an equity statement from researchers and adding specific questions that check for potential biases and a commitment to using an equity-based lens in analysis, including an understanding of the cultural, political and historical context surrounding the work.

We grappled with which methodologies lend themselves best to equity within research

We aimed to elevate and choose methodologies that centered context and the voices of those being researched by centering community voice, including using artifacts and honoring oral storytelling aspects around data, to shed light on context within project planning, implementation and analysis. Within complex nuanced holistic systems present in the education system, capturing contextual information is crucial for more accurate and useful findings.

In a recent qualitative study, Challenges and Opportunities: Student and practitioner experiences during COVID-19, we affirmed just how important nuance, artifacts that provide context, and participant voice are in diving deeper into findings and interpreting data in a way that connects most usefully back to practice and participant needs and learnings.

In quantitative studies, we have found that elevating participant voice, connecting data back to contextual information, and equity-based interpretive lenses are still crucial for interpreting findings with the most veracity.

Through a recent mixed methods study, we have seen how qualitative work sheds light on layers and stories present underneath quantitative data that otherwise wouldn’t have been surfaced.

We have found ourselves time and again coming back to context mattering deeply.

We centered participants throughout

We had transparent conversations about how evaluations affect our shared values of diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging with all groups, on an ongoing basis. We collaborated with research partners to identify potential biases in the data or methodology and leveraged their awareness of those biases to understand whether they were contemplating and actively working to root out bias. We also kept close lines of communication with all parties, from sites to research partners, throughout the course of the project. When there was misalignment between what a researcher wanted to implement and the needs or desires of the community being researched, we consistently centered the voices of the participants by advocating for shifting implementation practices where possible to meet participant needs. When anything was projected to be unduly burdensome according to participants, we problem-solved with sites and the researchers to find the best way to move forward.

We created accessible materials that connect to practice

Creating materials that are accessible to practitioners and their communities is an important way to connect research back to those closest to the work. Over the past two years, we’ve created toolkits and guides to accompany research reports and help translate research back to practice in a digestible format based on solicitations and feedback from practitioners. These toolkits and guides have garnered positive feedback from various stakeholders, from AmeriCorps members to principals, teachers and school guidance counselors.

We ensured our approach is iterative

Our Research and Learning Agenda and working draft of City Year’s Equity-Based Research Guidelines serve as guiding documents for all we do. We solicited formative feedback on these documents from participants and various stakeholders, did a more detailed step back at the end of each research project where we asked for feedback from all stakeholders involved that we then incorporated into codification documents and future planning. We also reached out to other external and internal stakeholders, from organizational leaders doing similar work to AmeriCorps members and City Year site and HQ staff, quarterly for feedback on our guiding documents and processes. Our Research and Learning Agenda and Equity-Based Research document were updated and socialized based on learning and feedback, which is something we will continue to do yearly.

Conducting research within the context of COVID-19 amplified the need to center the voices and needs of students and practitioners more than ever. We will continue learning more about equity-based research best practices and implementing them more deeply with a learner’s mindset to support the communities and practitioners we serve.

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Learn more about how City Year is working to advance equity through expanding student success coaching to more schools.

As we deepen our practices aligned with equity-based research, we hope to continue to learn from you as well as share our learnings while we move through the spirals of necessary evolution on the path to educational equity. We hope our research deepens equity, builds trust, and informs positive change as part of ensuring all students and schools have access to equitable, joyful and engaging learning environments as quickly as possible.

Explore the series

This essay is the second in a series that explores City Year’s learning journey to embrace an equity-focused research agenda and help to translate what we are discovering about our approach and how to best serve students. The first in the series, What the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about supporting students and practitioners, was published earlier this year.

Jessica Proett is a Senior Director, External Evaluation, on City Year’s Education Research & Strategy team. She came to City Year after several years as a teacher and is passionate about educational research as a learning tool that connects directly back to practice.  

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