Movers and Shakers

Meet the Colorado education researcher you can actually understand

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Have you ever wandered into a thicket of education research terminology and wished you had a translator? Someone who could put “effect size” and “causal inference” into perspective? Or just English?

Kevin Welner’s your man.

On Monday, the Boulder professor was recognized with the 2017 American Educational Research Association’s Outstanding Public Communication of Education Research Award.

Welner, who has been featured in the Washington Post and on NPR, shared a few tips with Chalkbeat.

Education research can be complicated and mind-numbing. What’s your secret to communicating so the general public can understand it?

My personal “secret” is just a lot of editing and rewriting, sharing drafts with friends and colleagues and seeking to squeeze out the academese.

But more important is the secret underlying the National Education Policy Center, which I direct and which is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education: We have a ready pool of hundreds of top researchers from around the country.

So if we need someone who can make sense of a research study with methods that are mind-numbingly complicated, we can quickly reach out to any of a dozen brilliant minds, all trained to fully understand those methods. If we need an expert who knows all the research on early-childhood education, class-size reduction or charter schools, we can do the same. We then work with those experts to engage in the editing process I noted above for myself – all geared toward ensuring that the published version is useful for academics as well as the general public.

What advice would you give to other academics and policy wonks ?

In the graduate programs where we receive our Ph.D. training, we learn almost nothing (or literally nothing) about how to communicate our research to a broader audience. Instead, our training focuses on preparing researchers to add to the scholarly knowledge base. We do that through academic journals, books, conferences, etc.

We designed the National Education Policy Center to help close that gap — to facilitate communications between the scholarly conversation and the conversation that everyone else is having, often about the same issues.

My advice to researchers would be to embrace opportunities to speak to a larger audience, even if it means stepping out of our comfort zones. The truth is that we’ve already found an enormous readiness to do so. Notwithstanding our training, and even the incentive systems that reward university-based researchers for more traditional work, we have seen a strong interest in this work, generally known as “public scholarship.”

You’ve critiqued influential news organizations, including U.S. News and World Report about their rankings of the nation’s best high schools. Why is it important to raise public questions about such things?

At best, each of us can only have real expertise in a very small number of areas. When a medical doctor or auto mechanic tells me something based on their expertise, I’m largely at their mercy. I often don’t know enough to even ask the right questions, let alone to have a B.S. detector for their answers.

What I and my colleagues at the National Education Policy Center have tried to do in the area of education research is to show the broader public a fuller picture. The U.S. News work I did, regarding high school rankings, is a good example. The rankings were undermined by technical problems, sloppiness, and fundamental problems involving choices about how and what to include in their measurement formulas. How would a parent who sees those rankings otherwise know about these weaknesses?

More money

Aurora school board campaigns pulling in money from big names

Aurora's school board candidates at a candidate forum hosted by RISE Colorado. (Photo by Yesenia Robles)

New big names are stepping in to contribute to Aurora’s school board races this year, including some longtime contributors to some Denver school board candidates.

Daniel Ritchie, a Denver philanthropist, and Patrick Hamill, the founder and CEO of Oakwood Homes, contributed to some Aurora candidates this year, according to new campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday. State records show they had not in the past. Ritchie in 2012 did support an Aurora committee to pass a tax measure for the school district.

The contributions are further evidence of Aurora’s growing profile among education reform advocates. Over the last three years, the district’s school improvement work has attracted the attention of groups and think tanks that sense opportunity in a traditionally overlooked district with a large population of underserved students. A couple of Denver’s popular college-prep charter school operators, DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep, have put down roots in Aurora.

The new campaign finance reports show that eight school board candidates vying for one of four seats on the Aurora school board raised almost $50,000 so far. One candidate, incumbent Barbara Yamrick, had not filed a report as of Wednesday afternoon.

Because four of the school board’s seven seats are up for election, and only one incumbent is attempting re-election, November’s winners could align as a majority and point the district in a new direction.

The district’s profile has risen among education watchers as it attempts reforms of some of the lowest performing schools in the state. Its strategies include an innovation zone where five schools have new autonomy from district, union and state rules, and through an evolving new process for opening charter schools.

The candidates who have raised the most amount of money are Miguel In Suk Lovato, who reported $14,181 in donations, and Gail Pough, who reported $10,181.32.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $10,181.32; 6,533.24
  • Lea Steed, $1,355.00; 878.24
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $6,365.55; 3,019.81
  • Kevin Cox, $2,554.00; $2,291.93
  • Miguel Lovato, $14,181.00; $9,336.96
  • Jane Barber, $150.00; $988.10
  • Debbie Gerkin, $7,755.43; $2,350.24
  • Marques Ivey, $4,965.30; $2,791.84/li>
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

Both received donations from Ritchie, Hamill and Democrats for Education Reform. Lovato also reported donations from Linda Childears, the president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, and other Daniels Fund employees. Lovato works there as a senior grants program officer. Pough also reported donations from Denver school board candidate Jennifer Bacon, and Democratic state Rep. Rhonda Fields.

Candidate Lea Steed and Debbie Gerkin also received donations from Democrats for Education Reform.

The organization had contributed to Aurora candidates in the past, but on a smaller scale.

Union interests also have been active. Four candidates, Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Kevin Cox and Marques Ivey, are organized as a slate endorsed by Aurora’s teacher’s union. The Public Education Committee, which is a union funded committee, donated $1,125 directly to candidate campaigns. The same committee also reported in-kind donations, meaning non-monetary, of almost $3,000 to three of the slate members, for polling.

The candidates also reported their expenditures, which mostly consisted of consultant fees, advertising materials or yard signs and rental space or food for volunteers.
Reports filed earlier in the week from independent expenditure committees show Democrats for Education Reform and union groups have also spent money this year to advocate for some Aurora school board candidates on their own. Independent expenditure committees are not allowed to donate directly to candidates, but can campaign on their own for or against candidates. Their reports were due earlier this week.

Movers & shakers

Haslam names three West Tennesseans to State Board of Education    

PHOTO: TDOE
Members of the Tennessee State Board of Education listen to a July presentation about TNReady scores by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

A Memphis real estate executive, a Cordova lawyer and a Decatur County high school student are the newest members of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

Gov. Bill Haslam announced appointments this week to dozens of state boards and commissions, including the 11-member education panel, which sets policy for K-12 schools in Tennessee.

The new members are:

  • Darrell Cobbins

    Darrell Cobbins is a Memphis native and third-generation real estate professional who attended Catholic, public and private schools. He has degrees from Rhodes College and the University of Memphis and worked for the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce. He is president of Universal Commercial Real Estate, which he founded in 2007. Representing the ninth congressional district, he replaces William Troutt, who retired this year as president of Rhodes College and is moving out of state.

  • Lang Wiseman is an attorney in Cordova who graduated from Bolton High School in Arlington. He attended the University of Tennessee on a basketball scholarship and finished as the 24th leading scorer in the school’s history. Wiseman went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and is a partner at Wiseman Bray Attorneys. Representing the eighth congressional district, he replaces Cato Johnson, who accepted a position on the University of Memphis Board of Trustees.

  • Haden Bawcum, of Bath Springs, is the board’s student member, a position that changes annually. He is a senior at Riverside High School in Decatur County.

The appointments became effective in July and are expected to be confirmed by state lawmakers early next year. Board members are not paid.

B. Fielding Rolston is chairman of the board. A retired executive with Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, he was first appointed in 1996.

You can find answers to the board’s frequently asked questions here.