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City Year’s research agenda: An equity-focused learning journey

City Year’s Education Research & Strategy (ERS) team helps the organization to understand its impact through third party research and learn from student, AmeriCorps member and teacher insights. We strive to use this information and data to collaboratively improve practice and establish strategic partnerships that inform how the human development and education sectors think about impact and evidence.

We are sharing our first comprehensive Research and Learning Agenda publicly this spring to both be transparent about our areas of study and the more inclusive ways we are striving to participate in research projects today using an equity lens.

We’re seeking feedback and ongoing dialogue with practitioners, researchers and policymakers to refine and evolve our approach and welcome any ideas or thoughts you may have.

City Year AmeriCorps member smiling with student in school

An inflection point for equity-focused research and learning

Many organizations, including City Year, are grappling with the problematic history of researchers using the authority of research to uphold marginalization based on social and racial identities as opposed to being tools to create the conditions for liberation and learning. We acknowledge that the decisions we make now about how to approach research and evaluation are critical. Efforts to understand effective strategies for partnering with students, schools and communities during the pandemic and beyond could transform how we think about education in the near- and long-term future.

As a result, the ERS team:

Strives to implement, learn from, and ultimately model an equity-based approach to research and evaluation as a key component of a vibrant research, practice, policy system.

We are a team of learners, collaborators and leaders who recognize that doing this work requires us to continuously learn, acknowledge that context matters, and approach our work with humility. ​

We believe that the research and evaluations we do should not only make meaningful contributions to organizational learning and improvement, but also inform how we define evidence and impact.

We arrived at this vision after acknowledging that some previous research projects did not center the voices of the individuals doing and most affected by the work in the research design, implementation and dissemination. This caused harm, impeded practical relevance of learnings, and highlighted the need for a new approach.

In 2019 we began by listening to AmeriCorps members, City Year staff, and partners. Then, we reviewed everything we could from leaders in equitable approaches to this work, including Chicago Beyond, the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, We All Count, and many others. As we engage in new projects today, we reflect alongside our community partners to understand what is working, recognize mistakes, and identify how we might continue to adjust our approach. We are continually learning and adapting.

What does an equity-based research approach look like in practice?

City Year adjusted how we make decisions and design research and evaluation projects, and we developed new capabilities to implement more equitable approaches to this work.

We no longer make decisions about the research projects we pursue in a silo. Previously, a small group of City Year’s most senior leaders determined the organization’s research portfolio. Today, a governance group representing diverse perspectives across the organization guides our work. This group of AmeriCorps members, site staff and headquarters staff determines what research questions we explore. They hold the Education Research & Strategy team accountable for centering an equity-based approach and make critical connections across research, practice and policy.

Today, we approach projects differently. Researchers no longer determine the methodology alone. The community members most affected by the research inform the questions and design. In early 2021, for example, the organization leveraged insights from prior projects, community members, and partners to design research to understand the key drivers behind City Year’s highly effective Student Success Coach approach.

After selecting Intentional Futures (iF) through an RFP process that included input from site impact staff, we partnered with them to employ a mixed methods approach that centered the voices of students, educators and AmeriCorps members serving as student success coaches. We sought to elevate their voices and stories through interviews, focus groups, and co-design sessions to ensure accuracy. We then wove in learnings from years of AmeriCorps member, Impact Manager (site school-based staff who support and guide corps members) and teacher surveys, student outcome data, and research on City Year’s impact to develop a very well-informed hypothesis – the Target Program Profile.

In future projects, we hope to engage families and community partners in our research process and projects, given their inherent expertise in both the needs and knowledge of successful learning projects in their own communities.

In addition to adapting our approach to work with external partners, we’ve launched a community-based action research capability and are being more intentional about how we not only design, but also disseminate research to make it more accessible and relevant. This includes developing videos, practitioner guides, and short research summaries with input from community stakeholders. We are still learning how to disseminate research in ways that allow internal and external stakeholders to make meaning of the findings.

City Year equitable approach to in school service

Shifting our own research and evaluation practice is not enough

As we continually learn and adapt our own approach to research and evaluation, City Year is engaging in conversations about what ‘evidence’ is and how ‘evidence-based’ could be defined for policy and funding purposes.

We, along with other organizations, including America’s Promise Alliance and Results for America, embrace the complexity of the research and evaluation work we seek to do and believe that our definition of evidence should as well.  We acknowledge that strong evidence honors context, culture, history, and centers those most affected by the research.

Later this year, we plan to publish the organization’s definition of strong evidence to inform sector-wide understanding and action.

A commitment to continuous learning: Our new research agenda

Our new Research Agenda serves as a roadmap for the learning we hope to do alongside community partners over the next two years and the equity-focused and human-centered way we intend to collaborate.

Today, City Year’s Education Research & Strategy Team is continuously learning about equitable approaches to research and evaluation. We developed a guiding document that we revisit annually.

In developing City Year’s research and learning agenda, we listened to AmeriCorps members, staff, partner teachers and other critical stakeholders. We then conducted a literature review to understand what sector-wide questions City Year is best positioned to answer alongside the students, educators, and school communities with whom we are privileged to partner. Finally, we applied our understanding of emerging trends in research, practice, and policy to frame questions in a way that resonates with key leaders in each sector.  In future updates to this research agenda, we hope to engage students and families.

As a diverse team at an organization striving to advance educational equity and nurture the next generation of civically engaged leaders, we seek to show up with humility and learn from every project in which we have the opportunity to participate.

We’re eager to learn from anyone who reads this post how we can do better for the students, educators, communities, and AmeriCorps members we seek to collaborate with each day.

We welcome your feedback and insights. Read the full Research and Learning Agenda:

Learn more

Author: Carolyn Trager Kliman is the Senior Vice President, Education Research & Strategy. She started her career working in New York City Public Schools and has spent nearly 20 years at the intersection of research, practice, and policy.

The other members of City Year’s Education Research & Strategy team, who lead key areas of ERS’s work and provided invaluable feedback on this piece are Jade Eckels, Meghan Healey, Jessica Proett and Tiger Rahman.


Explore other essays about City Year’s shift to an equity-based research approach and our learning journey:

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