A Powerful Link Between Research and Practice

In Oklahoma, every 4-year-old child has the opportunity to attend public preschool — but that doesn’t mean they do. In 2017, Partnering in Education Research (PIER) fellow Emily Hanno began to search for the reasons why. With research heavily favoring preschool as a way to improve students’ academic, cognitive, and emotional capabilities, Hanno’s work would have far-reaching implications.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, PIER fellow Andrew Bacher-Hicks was facing another critical question, this time about teacher retention. He wanted to find out what New Jersey teachers who started their careers five years ago were doing today. To answer this question, he found himself in the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE), linking data from various sources to provide insight on the career pathways of the state’s teachers. Like many decision-making organizations in education, the New Jersey DOE had long had these data but lacked the capacity to fully utilize them.

Hanno and Bacher-Hicks are two of a select group of doctoral students who have been awarded PIER Fellowships. Housed within the Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR) at Harvard University and funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, the PIER Fellowship is working to revolutionize how the next generation of leading education policy researchers are trained. PIER fellows are among the most talented Harvard Ph.D. students in the social sciences and are selected to help solve these and other pressing education questions through quantitative research partnerships with school districts and state education agencies. Rather than study education policy and practice from afar, fellows work within major organizations for an immersive 10-week summer internship to answer questions that matter to education leaders, educators, and students.

The work of these fellows has had broad significance in their respective organizations and communities. After linking and examining attendance, demographic, and performance data for Head Start agency CAP Tulsa, Hanno pinpointed key insights relating to enrollment instability for three- and four-year-old children in the area. “While most of the preschool students were persisting throughout the entire school year, some children were either leaving the program early or starting the school year late. This was quite concerning because it means children are missing out on opportunities for learning.” Especially with a national program like Head Start, findings like these in Tulsa, Oklahoma, could have implications for other communities as well.

Graduate students are seldom taught the skills needed to form meaningful partnerships, where findings may influence decision making. PIER fellows have exactly that opportunity — building skills and relationships by being right there, in the trenches. While Bacher-Hicks had previously worked with state-level administrative data as an education researcher, his past experiences were far less immersive.

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