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The Q&A: Jean Madsen and Mario Torres

In this week's Q&A, we interview Jean Madsen and Mario Torres, professors of educational administration at Texas A&M University.

Jean Madsen and Mario Torres

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here are this week's subjects:

Jean Madsen and Mario Torres are educational administration professors at Texas A&M University.

Madsen has worked on several qualitative projects that include the study of private schools and teachers of color in desegregated schools. Her research interests include studying workplace relationships and their effect on organizational outcomes. Madsen has over 25 peer refereed articles and 80 presentations at the American Educational Research Association and the University Council of Education Administration. Her articles were accepted in American Educational Research Journal, Teachers College Record, Comparative Education Review, Peabody Journal of Education and Urban Education. She has written three books, with one being nominated for the Grawemeyer Award in Education.   

Torres earned his Ph.D. in educational administration from Penn State University, University Park in 2003. His research interests include school law and policy. Torres has published in the field’s premier journals including the Educational Administration Quarterly, Journal of Educational Administration, the Journal of School Leadership and Education and Urban Society and recently co-authored a book with John Hoyle entitled Six Steps to Preparing Exemplary Principals and Superintendents: Leadership at its Best through Rowman and Littlefield Education Press. He is a research fellow with the Mexican American and U.S. Latino Research Center.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Why are changing demographics in schools important to address?

Jean Madsen: The schools' demographics are changing, and we have these sort of traditional schools that often have white teachers that have been there for a while. And you have the child coming to the school, who probably has cultural differences between how they perceive each other, the kind of degree of expectation, how they discipline, and so on. 

Part of the issue is that a lot of the time, these teachers are not prepared to work with these individuals from different race and ethnicities. 

Mario Torres: Schools have focused on for the longest time addressing the letter of the law from a normative perspective. So, if asked the question if they have an inclusive school, many times the administrators might answer that, yes, they do comply with all the laws and regulations at the state and federal level that apply to this school and legally create that inclusive environment.

Where I think we are intentional with our research, where we differ from other research is that we are probing this further; rather, the items go into situations where administrators, teachers and parents respond and give their perspective about how the school is doing in certain areas relating to inclusion. Really, this is not very typical within the inclusion or diversity related research. The other component of this, too, is we are looking at how schools are responding to legal requirements. If it deals with bullying requirements or discrimination, we are asking whether the school feels that they comply, not only with the letter of the law, but also fulfilling the spirit or the intent of the law.

Trib+Edu: How did this research project come about?

Madsen: I have been doing research in this area, doing research in organizational diversity and workplace relationships. In previous research, what I discovered was the leader was critical, was real pivotal in creating these positive exchanges in a changing setting. I started off with that and it came to my thoughts, and I think along with Dr. Torres, that it would just be a plain leadership survey. And we felt that it really would not get at the heart of answering how we know if schools are being responsive to their constituency.

We know that there are positives and negatives with changing demographics, and when those negatives occur, you have an impact on the school’s outcome, be it scores or teacher turnover. We looked at the leader, we then looked at the outcomes and then the critical piece often, when you look at diversity in terms of inclusion, is the law and how they handle the law in relationship to their changing demographics. It is kind of a three-fold model based on these constructs of how we go about creating a school that is responsive to its constituencies.

Torres: Obviously, we are at a critical point in our country’s history. We’ve seen the events of Ferguson unfold and what is going on in New York. Race, equity and equality are still areas that deserve a lot of attention. I think our research really gets at the core of these fundamental conflicts between what people consider to be race conscious and what others might consider also to be just meeting the bare minimum legal requirement. I think our research really gets at what the school is doing actively to address the needs of this emerging population in schools. The Pew Foundation released its report on demographics, and right now we are at a point where children of color appear to be the majority in schools in many places.

It was kind of intentional, and it wasn’t. We are seeing all of this come about, but I think this is an exciting time for us to be doing this kind of study.

Trib+Edu: How is the survey broken down?

Madsen: We put the survey together with those constructs of the role of the leader, the impact it has on outcomes and then the legal piece of that. We designed the survey with all those constructs in it. As a way to ensure that we hear all voices, the teachers and administrators will take the survey, so that the teachers will interact with the leaders and the leaders will talk to the teachers. So it will be sort of this self-evaluation, but to make sure, we thought about looking at the parent piece, because that is the missing link. If I report as a teacher that I’m doing a great job with my school and my principal says the same thing and we look at their outcomes and that is in fact not happening, we have another aspect of parents and their being able to give their insights on this.

Trib+Edu: Your research seems like it both is meant to evaluate where schools are and also encourage future inclusivity. How will your research eventually serve as a tool to do that?

Madsen: It will be based on those surveys and those are what is cited in the literature in terms of how to address changing demographics. There is this legal piece. Another piece of it is the impact it has on outcomes. And the third piece combined all of those together so we would be able to develop a scale that those schools that in fact had very favorable comments in regard to the school, that would be a school that would have a high degree of inclusivity. And those schools that had low scores in terms of outcomes and teacher input and student input, they would be considered to have low inclusivity.

Torres: One of the stipulations for our funding from the Kellogg Foundation was that we develop a more authentic engagement model for studying these kind of issues, so it is not just applying the survey data and walk away. Rather, they value more conversation, dialogue interaction with all the roles within the systems. They desire better schools not by tip-toeing around the more sensitive issues, but actually we try to address them in a fundamental way, and that is not easy. We realize that this is very different from the old model of doing research, but we feel that this kind of approach offers a lot of promise because it requires us to be very engaged with board members, with the superintendent, with the school leader and, frankly, some of the conversations will be uncomfortable. We’ll have groups of parents and groups of teachers and groups of leaders, and this will give us an opportunity to delve further into these critical issues.

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