With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Joshua Childs is an assistant professor in the educational administration department at the University of Texas at Austin. Childs’ research focuses on issues including social networks, urban education policy and chronic absenteeism in schools.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Could you tell me about your recent research?
Joshua Childs: My research focuses on looking at leveraging cross-sector collaborations or networks to address complex societal issues. I tend to focus mostly on educational issues, so primarily chronic absenteeism and looking at ways communities have engaged in trying to curb chronic absenteeism and increase students in their schools.
Trib+Edu: What has been your most interesting finding recently?
Childs: One would be seeing that cities have recently, within the last couple years, really have taken it upon themselves to tackle the issue of chronic absenteeism. In Austin in 2011, led by E3 Alliance, they did the “Missing School Matters” campaign. In Pittsburgh, where I did my Ph.D. studies, led by the United Way, they started the “Be There” campaign.
And there are other cities around the country that have done similar campaigns, really to get the community involved in the educational issue — recognizing that there’s a problem in the school, so how can we leverage nonprofits, educational intermediaries, government organizations, public officials, schools and districts, all these different types of organizations that exist within the community, to really come together, hone in and really focus on an effort.
I think that’s the key finding. It’s not just efforts from schools, but it’s efforts from the community. And a lot of times it’s the community leading the way. And when I say community, I’m talking about organizations within the community, and so forth, about trying to reduce chronic absenteeism in schools. I think it’s an important [finding] to think about when we talk about education reform and how we go about trying to improve our schools.
Trib+Edu: You’ve done a paper looking at Race to the Top, the Obama administration program. Could you tell me a bit about what that study was about and what you have learned about that program?
Childs: There were two studies I did off of that. One was a collaborative research project where we were making the case and found from the Race to the Top program that it was really driving an education reform initiative that involved what I study, cross-sector collaboration or networks. It wasn’t just about what schools can do to improve educational outcomes, but then [it was about] how do states get other organizations involved — how do the states collaborate and network with other organizations, nationally, locally, statewide, to advance the types of reforms that they want to see?
That was really interesting. We did a social network analysis and we were able to see how states talked about creating these networks to really help facilitate education reform and hopefully, on the ground level, improve or really see that teaching and learning was happening in schools.
The other study was looking at the idea of school turnaround and how school turnaround was being talked about and conceptualized by the Obama administration, and how states were taking it upon themselves to then create these theories of action about how they would go about improving their lowest performing schools — seeing how several of the Race to the Top winning states were going to go about addressing school improvement. Was it going to be through increased professional development for teachers? Was it going to create pipelines for new school leaders and principal development? Was it through creating small turnaround network teams that would go around and serve as school improvement coaches that would help provide expertise and resources to schools that are lowest performing?
Trib+Edu: What is the role of academics in informing policies that help make schools better for kids?
Childs: We know what the issues are, or we know a lot about what the issues are, that prevent kids from succeeding academically. We know how poverty and race and gender all affect or impact student achievement and quality of schools. We know a lot of the things that cause problems or student achievement issues. I think now is a great time, where research, and academics like myself, [can ask,] how do we go about studying solutions? How do we go about studying things that are happening that schools or districts or organizations are implementing, and how do we study those to figure out if these things are working and how that can be scaled up and also spread across? How can these good ideas and good innovations be [replicated]?
At least in terms of my research, it’s about, how do we go beyond just talking about the things that we know are the reasons why students or schools are not doing well? How do we then study the solutions? How do we study those and then make [them] accessible and something that people can learn [from]?