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Education Opinion

Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, Assistant Professor, Seton Hall University

By Sara Mead — May 02, 2012 5 min read
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How do various types of families engage with and make school choices? How do immigrant and English language learner students and their families engage with public schools, and what factors influence that engagement? As an assistant professor at Seton Hall University, where she also co-directs the Center for College Readiness, Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj uses both qualitative and quantitative methods to engage some of the most interesting and complicated questions in education today, and works to make those findings accessible to a policy and lay audience. A Connecticut native, Sattin-Bajaj graduated from Duke University and worked for the New York City Department of Education before earning her Ph.D. in International Education from New York University. She lives with her husband in Brooklyn, New York.

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Why did you decide to become a researcher?
I wanted to develop tools to better understand the obstacles to education policies serving as levers for equity. After seeing first-hand, while working at the New York City Department of Education how education policies could be conceived and implemented in ways that would impede rather than advance equity--specifically with regard to Latino immigrant families’ access to high quality educational opportunities--I wanted to explore how and why this was the case and identify possible research-based solutions.

How did you come to do research focused on education issues? What draws you to these issues?
My longstanding interest in education issues stems from my belief that schools can be powerful engines for individual and community advancement but too often cannot or do not fulfill their potential to serve in this capacity. Studying education policies and students’ and families’ experiences with schools allows me to better understand the obstacles and consider alternatives and solutions to current policies and practices in education. In addition, schools offer an ideal setting in which to examine the ways in which immigrants interact with one of the major social institutions in their adoptive countries. Given my interest in immigrant integration conducting research in schools provides me the opportunity to observe these interactions and think about how they may be strengthened or improved.

What research questions in education do you find most interesting?
I am most interested in research questions that seek to understand how people (usually immigrant-origin adolescents) experience or engage with particular education policies or processes (e.g., school choice) and explain how or why education policies and practices contribute to or counteract social reproduction. As a primarily qualitative researcher (with some quantitative interests as well!), I often asks questions that investigate the underlying processes that contribute to inequity. For example, in my study of Latino youth and high school choice in New York City, I was interested in examining the strategies and resources that low-income children of immigrants employed to negotiate a complex mandatory high school application process, as well as how district- and school-level practices facilitated or impeded the policy’s equity potential. In my next project I plan to extend this analytic framework to the post-secondary level and study Latino immigrant families’ experiences with the college application process.

What are your other research interests outside of education?
In addition to education research, I am interested in the processes of immigrant integration more broadly, immigration and integration policies, and social justice issues.

In addition to your academic work, you’ve also written pieces for for mainstream media outlets like New York Times’ Schoolbook and the Huffington Post. Why do you do this? What are the benefits and/or challenges?
I was drawn to education research in the first place because I wanted to ask and answer questions with both theoretical and real-world applications. As a result, I feel that it is important for my work to respond to real issues that policymakers and educators are grappling with or to point out challenges and inequities that I think deserve attention. Mainstream media outlet such as New York Times’ Schoolbook and the Huffington Post provide a platform to discuss issues of educational equity and access, share my research, and get feedback from a larger, more diverse audience than the readership of academic journals. It can be challenging to meet the short deadlines and space constraints of mainstream media platforms and to write in ways that clearly relay complex research findings, but being able to communicate well in multiple languages is a valuable skill to which I continue to strive.

What experiences, individuals, or books have most influenced your thinking about education?
A number of experiences have influenced my thinking about and research in education. My work in the Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation at the New York City Department of Education was the launching pad of my career in the field. It led me to pursue a doctorate at NYU where I had the opportunity to learn from and work closely with Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco, Pedro Noguera, Jack Buckley and many other fantastic researchers. I studied with Charles Payne as an undergraduate, and his work and thinking about education greatly influenced me early on. More recently, the work of Annette Lareau has shaped my methodological and theoretical approaches to studying social reproduction in education and the relationship between families and schools. Currently, my students and colleagues in the Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy at Seton Hall University are pushing my thinking and ideas for research in education.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
In the next ten years I hope to continue to produce research on immigrant students’ and families’ educational experiences that advances the field of education and pushes policy-makers and school leadership to pursue more equitable policies and practices. I’m working on a book based on my school choice research in New York City, and I would like to see that and other articles published in both academic and mainstream media outlets. I’d like to continue to contribute to the body of knowledge on Latino youth and educational success.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.