School & District Management

Research: In the Trenches

By Debra Viadero — October 16, 2002 12 min read
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Researcher Richard Murnane took a leave from academe to spend a year working for the Boston public schools.

It’s lunchtime at the downtown headquarters of the Boston public school system and Richard J. Murnane is rolling up his sleeves and going to work.

Murnane, a Harvard University economist, is here having a nuts-and-bolts discussion with some of the school system’s top administrators about plans for putting in place a sophisticated new data-management system—one that will help teachers and principals analyze their students’ test scores with the click of a computer key.

“Why don’t we get a status report on the rollout?” the bearded professor asks over sandwiches and bottles of water. And, over the next two hours, the talk around the conference table is of technical capabilities, union issues, data-processing tasks, and training yet to be done. All the while, the hum and roar of the traffic six floors below drifts in through the open window.

For a well-respected economist with a stack of books and dozens of scholarly articles to his credit, this is not a typical setting or the usual sort of conversation. Murnane is more accustomed to carpeted lecture halls and quiet, if cramped, university offices. But with a tenured job, an established academic reputation, and two sons off to college, Murnane made an unusual decision: He opted to take a year off from his university teaching duties to do what he could to help Boston’s public schools.

“I’d been wanting to do public service for a long time,” says Murnane, 57, who is now in his 20th year of teaching at Harvard’s graduate school of education. “And I think the challenges facing urban schools are our number-one problem in education.”

Of course, researchers in education spend lots of time in the schools and districts they study. And scholars in all fields occasionally step out of their ivory towers to work in government or in the administrations of their universities. Harvard, in fact, has its own outreach office to help direct and facilitate those kinds of public-spirited efforts. But most of the time when researchers come to school districts, it’s because they have a project in mind or because they are looking for data.

Murnane took a slightly different approach, according to Boston school officials: He asked district administrators first where they needed help. He then chose a project that needed moving along and stuck with it all last year, through the tedious details and operational stages.

This year, although he has returned to university teaching, he continues to work with the school system, teaching a class to help principals and teachers figure out the kinds of analyses that the new data-management system can help them with, and running meetings like the one last month in the school district headquarters.

“That hasn’t happened in Boston public schools before—at least, not in the seven years of this administration,” Timothy F.C. Knowles, the system’s deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, says of Murnane’s work. “The traditional way is for the questions to be driven by the academy—and that’s not to say they aren’t useful. Sometimes they overlap with our needs, but often there’s not any attention to the issues we’re dealing with in schools.”

Important Ties

Finding ties between research and the worlds of policy and practice is becoming more important than ever—in part because the economic stakes attached to getting a good education are higher, and in part because the new federal education law calls on schools to make better use of research. Murnane’s efforts, at the least, offer one model for strengthening those ties.

If research hasn’t played much of a role in the gritty world of schools, one reason is the lack of incentive for academics to take their expertise into real classrooms. What counts more in the insulated but competitive world of university scholarship is what gets published. A scholar’s job, after all, is to produce new knowledge and new insights to add to the literature in their fields.

Finding ties between research and the worlds of policy and practice is becoming more important than ever.

“Economists don’t give you credit for this kind of work,” says Frank Levy, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and a co-author with Murnane. “Yet this is absolutely crucial work, and it’s important that smart people do it.”

Working three to four days a week for the Boston schools meant that Murnane put in some extraordinarily long hours. On some days last year, he started his workday at district headquarters at 7 a.m. and then returned to Harvard, in nearby Cambridge, at 3 p.m. to work for another seven hours with the five doctoral students who were still under his wing.

That Murnane would choose such a rocky, unheralded path was not a surprise, however, to his friends, who know him as modest and self-effacing.

“You don’t ever have the sense that he’s in an ivory tower,” says Maryellen F. Donahue, who is the director of research, assessment, and evaluation for the Boston district.

Murnane is upfront, for example, about his occasional stutter, which crops up when he’s nervous. He asks his listeners to jump in and help him out when he stumbles on a word.

Friends and colleagues also point out that Murnane is the kind of person who took his children to work in soup kitchens as they were growing up, who mentors junior faculty members, and who seems to spend almost as much time dissecting and critiquing his own teaching as he does on the economic calculations that are his bread and butter.

Besides, education is in his blood. Murnane’s mother taught middle school English. His father was a high school principal. Murnane himself taught mathematics in Roman Catholic high schools for three years. When he was growing up in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the professor recalls, conversations around the dinner table often centered on matters of schooling.

Exploring the links between education and the economy, in fact, has become Murnane’s specialty over the course of his academic career. In Who Will Teach? Policies That Matter, written with Harvard colleagues Judith Singer and John B. Willett, Murnane showed that both teachers’ salaries and state certification requirements strongly affect the composition of the teaching force.

The book that Murnane co-wrote with Levy, Teaching the New Basic Skills, explores how changes in the U.S. economy have increased the skills that high school graduates need to earn a middle-class living. It also shows how schools need to change to provide all students with those skills. The two scholars are now at work on another book, exploring how the spread of information technology affects the labor market and the skills needed to thrive in a rapidly changing economy.

Receptive Audience

“This is a guy who’s been worried about schooling all his life,” Willett says. A professor of statistics and data analysis, Willett recalls sitting in Murnane’s fourth-floor office above the education school’s Gutman Library a year or more before he went to work in Boston’s administrative trenches. Murnane paused during their conversation, Willett says, and looked up at his bookshelves, full of the elegantly bound and embossed dissertations that he had nurtured along.

“‘I wonder how many of them actually had an impact on the lives of children?’” Willett says Murnane asked. “I think he came to feel it couldn’t be a one-way street. The solution wasn’t that universities had to figure out a one-way solution and give it to schools. There had to be more of a collaboration.”

‘I'd been wanting to do public service for a long time. And I think the challenges facing urban schools are our number-one problem in education.’

Boston school leaders were certainly game for the venture. Both Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant and Deputy Superintendent Knowles are former students of Murnane’s. The 64,000-student district was facing a round of budget cuts that would hit the administrative staff the hardest, imposing a 10 percent reduction at 26 Court St., the district’s headquarters.

“The challenge is too great to pull off with the horses we have,” says Knowles. “You’ve got to admit you can’t do it by yourself.”

The school system couldn’t pay Murnane. For that, he turned to the Menlo Park, Calif.- based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Administrators could, though, lend him a desk and offer him open access to their top-level meetings for a year.

“I remember thinking, what is an economics professor from Harvard going to do here? What connection would he have with Boston public schools?” says Donahue, whose office was next to Murnane’s. “I also had the sense he was shopping around for what he wanted to do.”

She was right. In his quest to find the most useful place to be, Murnane called two colleagues who had already blazed a path from the world of research to an urban school system.

Anthony S. Bryk, a University of Chicago sociology professor, helped put together the Consortium on Chicago School Research, probably the biggest and best-known attempt to corral academic research in the service of an urban school system. Charlie Abelmann, a former World Bank economist, has worked in the District of Columbia’s public school system.

Murnane says the two gave him four pieces of advice. First, pick a project that has a high priority for the superintendent and the support of the leadership team. Second, work as part of a group that includes some of those key leaders. Next, be sure that the project is something that people working in the schools want done. Finally, make certain that there is a “plausible theory of action” that the project will positively affect students.

Murnane took that advice to heart and began interviewing players at all levels—from teachers and principals in neighborhoods stretching from Dorchester to Roxbury to high-level administrators. In the end, he set his sights on the information-management system that funneled state test scores and other bits of data to the city’s 130 public schools.

Upgrading Data System

Like most districts in Massachusetts, Boston was under pressure to improve students’ scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, the state’s high-stakes testing system. Raising scores was particularly important as 2003 approached, when consequences kick in for high school students who fail the test. Unless they pass, those seniors will be unable to graduate with their classmates in June.

Determining how he could be most useful, Murnane set his sights on the information-management system that funneled state test scores and other data to the city's schools.

Beginning last school year, principals could get raw score data from the district’s central offices through an information system known as LIZA, for Local Intranet Zone for Administrators. But the system was hard to use and had no mechanisms for conducting the kinds of graphical analyses that could pinpoint a school’s academic strengths and weaknesses.

Aware of the shortcomings, the district and its director of information services, Albert K.F. Lau, had plans to upgrade and integrate the system to make it more powerful and user-friendly. But the day-to-day chore of operating a big-city school district often made the project a challenge.

Centralized System

Not everyone, however, was at a loss to analyze the test-score data. Working with the Boston Plan for Excellence, a local foundation that had evolved to become something of a research-and-development arm for the schools, 45 to 50 principals already had the capability of doing fairly sophisticated computer analyses of their students’ scores. That’s because the foundation, with the help of Kristan B. Singleton, a technology-savvy Harvard graduate who came to the foundation from the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, had developed a software program called FAST Track that allowed educators to merge their own data with data collected at the district level.

The trouble with FAST Track was that it was school-specific, and its centralized student data did not keep pace with the rapidly changing populations inside the schools. Principals of schools with high student-mobility rates might, for example, could be looking at scores for students who had transferred months ago.

Murnane put two and two together and suggested that the foundation and the school system collaborate in setting up a centralized data-management system that would give every educator, in every school, the necessary data.

“I remember it seemed such an obvious idea, but took us six hours to get there,” says Singleton, who helped hatch the plan during a long car ride with Murnane to look at the Rochester, N.H., schools’ data-management system. “Our leaders were talking, but we needed to have people talking at lower levels, too.”

Though Murnane himself is no expert in assessment or data-management, his unassuming demeanor and broad knowledge made him the right person to bring all the interested parties together, people here say. And those meetings are continuing this school year.

“He really owned the momentum for the project,” says Ann M. Grady, the director of instructional technology for the district. “We could all get sidetracked with the many responsibilities we have.”

The fruit of the project is a new system called MyBPS, which this month began rolling out in half of Boston’s public schools. It enables teachers and principals to see how their own students fared—both individually and as a group—on MCAS and other standardized tests. More importantly, educators will be able to see students’ responses on individual items; patterns will show where to direct their teaching efforts. The information also comes to schools in real time, so that educators are looking at data only for those students actually attending their schools.

Even with the new technology, Murnane sees room for improvement.

Murnane says his year in central office taught him something about the context in which he frames the economic principles and concepts he teaches.

“Learning to use the software is only a small piece of the challenge,” he says. “Educators know their test scores are not adequate, and they’ve got lots of problems. And now they’ve got all this data, but they don’t know how to formulate the questions they could address with it.”

His idea was to pair students from Harvard’s education school with public schools and to develop a workshop in which the graduate students, building administrators, and teachers could figure out how to mine the riches of data and draft targeted improvement plans. More than 40 educators turn out, on average, for the evening workshops. The graduate school, in turn, has agreed to give the Boston educators one academic credit for successfully completing the program.

Murnane is back in the classroom this school year, teaching the workshop in a technical high school in Roxbury on Tuesday nights and a microeconomics class at Harvard on Wednesday mornings. His year in the central office, he says, taught him something about the context in which he frames the economic principles and concepts he teaches.

In his 8 a.m. class in microeconomics one day last month, something of that sensibility came through in a lesson on “elasticities of demand.”

Standing in the pit of the carpeted lecture hall, with equations written like so much Sanskrit on the blackboard behind him, Murnane gives the class a little lecture on making theory real.

“The challenge is being able to take economists’ language and translate it to everyday English, so that others can understand it,” he tells his students. “That’s something we’ll be working on all semester.”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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