2012 NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellows

Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, University of California, Los Angeles

The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Creation of Moral Authority: Top-Down Textual Economy and the Use of Indigenous Languages

Churches, like schools, are educational institutions that reach an enormous number of people. This is particularly true of authoritarian groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who base their religion on a vast array of written texts and consider religious activity “study” rather than “worship.” Witnesses have been publishing tracts and magazines in multiple languages for some time, but the extension to indigenous languages without a long tradition of literacy is a recent initiative, and has not been widely studied (Pharao Hansen 2010; Mubimba 1987). Furthermore, the longstanding centrality of study and education takes on new meaning in the context of this language policy change. To explore this phenomenon, I conducted a nine-month ethnographic study in a rural Chontal community in Oaxaca, Mexico, as well as shorter periods of comparative fieldwork with an urban Chontal-language congregation, and interviews at Watchtower Society national and international headquarters in Mexico City and New York.

Brooke Bocast, Temple University

If Books Fail, Try Beauty’: Gender, Consumption, and Higher Education in Uganda

My dissertation examines the sexual economy – wherein university women trade sexual favors for money and commodities – at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Preliminary research reveals that transactional sex features prominently in many students’ strategies for academic, financial, and personal success. Guided by the question, Why do highly educated university women engage in transactions that put them at risk of public admonishment and dangerous sexually transmitted diseases?, my dissertation investigates how young African women negotiate the tensions inherent in a matrix of increased educational opportunities, limited financial resources, heightened health risks, competing affective ties, and desire for material commodities. Based on twenty-four months of ethnographic research, I argues that Uganda’s tertiary education reforms – in direct opposition to their stated aims – contribute to circumstances that undermine female university students’ opportunities for success.

Emily Bruce, University of Minnesota

Reading Agency: The Making of Modern German Childhoods, 1770-1850

This dissertation investigates German children’s reading around 1800. Pedagogical innovations, the development of book markets, and rising bourgeois domesticity made German-speaking Central Europe a key site for reimagining childhood. Historians have demonstrated that preoccupation with the condition of children’s lives is a driving force in the modern world. To better understand children’s roles, we need studies which combine the history of changing ideology with the history of children’s lived experience. This is an analysis of children’s reading practices through marginalia, school & publication records, and other archival materials. It is organized as case studies in genres written for children: periodicals, folktales, and geography textbooks. I will bring multidisciplinary concerns from childhood studies to bear on compelling historical materials from German archives, offering a cross-cultural perspective on changes in literacy education which impact educational discourse today.

Julie Cohen, Stanford University

Effective teachers and effective teaching: Subject matter, classroom practices and teacher value-added measures

Current policies stress identifying effective teachers, but we know little about whether good teaching looks the same and has similar relationships with student achievement across academic subjects. This study analyzes whether one observation tool can reliably assess the quality of teaching practices across content areas, and whether several practices have similar relationships with achievement gains in mathematics and English language arts (ELA). For each of 122 4th grade teachers, six lessons (three in both math and ELA) are scored with a reliable observation tool. Using regressions, I analyze the relationship between scores on teaching practices and achievement gains. Case studies of 15 teachers help explain patterns in the analyses by demonstrating how content shapes practices. Understanding and mapping of effective teaching practices across content areas is crucial to improving the quality and precision of elementary teacher evaluation, preparation, and professional development.

Dallas Dotter, University of California, San Diego

Breakfast at the Desk: The Impacts of Universal Classroom Breakfast Programs and Other Early Intervention Policies on Academic Performance

Using rare longitudinal data that follow public school students into postsecondary education, I evaluate the causal impacts of three policies which target students early in their educational careers. First, I use a difference in differences regression design to estimate the effects on student outcomes of providing free school breakfasts to all students in relatively low income schools. Second, I exploit the discontinuity in school entry ages among student born near “cutoff” dates to investigate the persistence of school starting age effects and the mechanisms by which they occur. Finally, a regression discontinuity design is used to estimate the causal effects of gifted and talented education programs on students’ secondary and postsecondary outcomes. These rigorous quantitative analyses will contribute to the knowledge of whether and how such broadly used policies can affect the educational trajectories of students, including beyond the scope for which they are initially designed.

S. Michael Gaddis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The Effects of College Selectivity on Labor Market Success: Race, Gender, and Horizontal Stratification in Higher Education

Does graduating from a selective college give students an advantage in the labor market? Is this advantage the same for students from all social backgrounds? These questions are important to families, educators, policymakers, and researchers but the answers are not clear. Students select into colleges and majors on unobserved characteristics, introducing bias into observational models. Previous methods are unable to isolate mechanisms of the effect of college selectivity. My dissertation addresses these shortcomings through use of the first-ever computerized audit study of educational credentials. Using matched candidate pairs, I apply for 1080 jobs, varying college selectivity, major, race, and gender. I aim to establish the causal effect of college selectivity on labor market success and examine how race and gender moderate the effect. My dissertation contributes to our theoretical and empirical understanding of the possibilities and limits of education in reducing social inequality.

Robert Gross, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Regulating the Educational Marketplace: School Choice and Competition in the Urban North, 1880-1929

Debates surrounding market forces, competition, and regulation in urban education have a long history. The growth of Catholic parochial schools in cities from 1880-1929 introduced new school choices for Catholic parents, and competition with public schools. Their rise prompted a host of state and non-state actors to contend with complex questions surrounding how to regulate these education markets. Relying on public and Catholic school administrative records, periodicals, and manuscript collections, this dissertation examines the social, economic, and political consequences surrounding parochial-school construction in the urban north. It explores how public officials, religious authorities, educators, and parents negotiated school competition. In doing so, it integrates the history of urban public and parochial schools, placing their stories in the broader context of competition and regulation in American life during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Jarrod Hanson, University of Colorado

In Defense of a Deliberative Democratic Civics Education

Democracy appears to be in crisis as political divides are ever widening. There is hope in deliberative democratic civics education. Civics education traditionally has been tied to aggregative theories of democracy. My dissertation defends grounding civics education in deliberative democracy. It illustrates what deliberative democratic civics education would look like in the classroom and addresses the perils of its classroom use. Grounding civics education in deliberative democracy provides students not only with the means to participate in democracy as citizens, but to influence the shape of that democracy going forward. Deliberative democratic theory also focuses current scholarship in civics education by providing a framework within which practices such as classroom discussion can be better understood. It also gives shape to the civic mission of schools and as such has the potential to influence education policies such as school integration, school choice and online schooling.

Michael Hartney, University of Notre Dame

Turning Out Teachers: The Causes and Consequences of Teacher Political Activism

My dissertation attempts to disentangle the causes and consequences of teacher political activism in the U.S. I seek to reorient teacher union research away from its narrow focus on whether or not policy-making occurs in a “bargaining” or “non-bargaining” jurisdiction, and instead move us toward a more comprehensive research agenda on the teachers unions – an agenda that pays attention to well-established theories about political participation. Ultimately, my project distinguishes itself by 1) developing a theoretical model of teacher political influence; and, 2) testing that model with real world data. I find that teacher political activism is a far better predictor of union influence than the existence of collective bargaining rights/agreements in states and school districts. Given the recent flurry of activity aimed at eliminating collective bargaining, this research provides important context for the way in which interest group politics shapes education reform efforts.

Larisa Heiphetz, Harvard University

The Fourth R: Developing Notions of Religious Diversity

Religion constitutes an important social identity for children and adults worldwide. Despite the legal separation of public school and religion in the United States, religion also influences public education. However, few scholars have examined children’s understanding of religious diversity or the influence of religious difference on social preferences. Part 1 of my dissertation demonstrates that 5-10 year old children and adults differentiate religious beliefs from facts (which have only one correct answer) and preferences (which do not) and explores mechanisms underlying this effect. Parts 2-3 examine the circumstances under which children prefer those who share their beliefs. These studies show that religious cognition emerges early, that aspects of such cognition remain stable across development, and that invisible mental states influence preferences. Children’s belief-based cognitions influence their perceptions of peers throughout the elementary school years.

Megan Holland, Harvard University

Unequal Playing Fields, Same Game: Variations in Students’ Approaches to the College Application Process in Racially and Socioeconomically Diverse Schools

My dissertation examines how students engage in the college application process and how this varies by race, class and gender. I use extensive interview, observation, and survey data from 117 respondents at two racially diverse high schools to track students over time as they go through their junior and senior years and trace the pathways they take on their road to college. I gather data on where students get information from, why they tap one resource and not another, and how they weigh the information available to them when making college decisions. While others have explored aspects of this process in homogenous contexts, I shed light on how a diverse range of students are influenced differently by the same school context. My initial findings point to the complex role of social capital and how peer networks and relationships with institutional gatekeepers such as guidance counselors can both expand and constrict a student’s college options and the resources at their disposal.

James Huguley, Harvard University

The Moderating Effects of School Context on Racial Achievement Dynamics in High School: Modeling Key Elements of Social and Structural Theory

Educational research has been unable to explain large portions of achievement disparities between Black and White students. To address this issue, this study will use the novel approach of testing whether certain school-context variables actually moderate the effects of known student-level contributors on achievement. Using a nationally representative sample, this study will examine the degree to which school racial composition and school-level racial socio-economic disparities attenuate the relationships between SES, achievement, and engagement for Black students. To do so this study will use multilevel, multiple-group structural equation modeling, a technique which allows one to test a system of relationships using optimal measures of key constructs. The results of this study will help clarify the moderating influence of school context on achievement disparities, and will also inform more targeted interventions in the pursuit of equity in educational outcomes.

Corinne Hutchinson, Georgetown University

Modeling Language Mixing by Bilingual Navajo-English Speaking Children

The primary goal of this project is to examine the patterns and linguistic constraints on language mixing, or “code-mixing”, in the speech of bilingual Navajo-English speaking 3 to 7 year-old children. This goal can be broken down into the following main sub-goals: (a) to provide a clear, theory-neutral description of code-mixing in the speech of young bilingual Navajo-English speaking children, (b) to determine whether the existing theoretical models of code-mixing accurately predict the Navajo-English child code-mixing data (or whether these models require modification), and (c) to determine whether the code-mixing behavior varies according to a speaker’s age, language proficiency, home language exposure, or school-based language experience. High levels of culturally supported code-mixing may challenge the assumptions of tribal Navajo immersion schools, which currently target language separation rather than the use of a mixed code.

Khalil Johnson, Yale University

Red, Black, & “Brown”: African American Educators in Indian Country

Red, Black, & Brown reveals an unintended consequence of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. It documents how the displacement of African American educators from southern schools after Brown sent hundreds of black teachers into Bureau of Indian Affairs run schools on reservations across the United States. This migration narrative ruptures a partition dividing 20th century black and Indian history while connecting the educational history of both groups in order to shed new light on the long civil rights struggle.
Excluded from the protections of true citizenship in the South, black teachers found relative security through federal employment only to become functionaries in the government’s efforts to assimilate Indians through education. While differing statuses of inequality made African Americans and Native Americans competitors in the struggle for equal rights and self-determination, a shared sense of oppression often fostered affinities and alliances across racial lines.

Maryam Kashani, University of Texas

Seeking Sacred Knowledge: Zaytuna College and the Education of American Muslims

In a time when “traditional” Islam and Islamic education are seen as incommensurable with American society and ideals, American Muslims are using “traditional” Islamic scholarship to articulate the future possibilities of Islam and being Muslim in America. This research shows how Islamic tradition is mobilized by scholars and students to craft an American Islam based on a shared moral and ethical system that draws from the heterogeneous experiences of diverse Muslims and their material circumstances. Based on 18 months of ethnographic research at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, this study is shaped by oral histories, participant-observation, and visual ethnography. This dissertation provides empirical data about a college and a knowledge-based community at the forefront of a growing phenomena of primary, secondary, and tertiary Islamic education in the US, while also contributing an Islamic example to the study of faith-based institutions of higher learning.

Matthew Kraft, Harvard University

What promotes teacher development? Examining the effect of the professional environment on the productivity growth of teachers

Recent efforts to reform districts’ human capital practices focus narrowly on teachers and fail to address the importance of the school context in shaping teachers’ career decisions and facilitating their success with students. I propose to examine the role of the school environment in supporting or constraining teachers’ ability to become more effective. I ask whether more supportive professional environments promote greater growth in teacher productivity, as measured by the ability to raise student test scores. Drawing upon work redesign theory and previous research, I develop six measures of developmental supports in schools using items from a biannual teacher survey. I then propose to model rates of on-the-job learning for individual teachers and test for systematic variation caused by differences in the school environments in which teachers work. This study will be one of the first empirical studies of the role of the school environment in promoting teacher productivity growth.

Emily Meanwell, Indiana University

Federal Education Policy and Inequality, 1965-2013: From Compensation to Commensuration

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is one of the most important education policies in American history, but it was intended to combat poverty, not to change the content or form of education. This connection to inequality has remained at ESEA’s core from 1965 through 2002 (No Child Left Behind); despite this, ESEA has been neglected by sociologists. My dissertation uses a historical and cultural sociological lens and content analysis to examine the development of ESEA. I investigate three research questions: What cultural understandings and ideals underpin ESEA? What categories of recipients or actors are established in ESEA? How have these understandings and categories changed since 1965? My dissertation makes important contributions by adding a richer understanding to scholarly literature on ESEA and education policy generally, by exploring policy changes that have had major effects on schools, and by incorporating educational policies into sociological scholarship.

Catherine O’Hallaron, University of Michigan

Supporting elementary English language learners’ argumentative writing through a Functional Grammar approach

The education field is in sore need of information about instructional approaches that advance students’ capabilities to engage in argumentative writing. The need is particularly acute for educators of English language learners (ELLs), who depend on sound instruction about how language works. This case study research investigates the features of ELL writing at different grade and language ability levels through analysis of the argumentative writing of 2nd-5th grade English learners whose genre learning has been highly scaffolded through a Functional Grammar approach. Analysis of classroom discourse and artifacts makes visible the interactional elements of a richly supportive pedagogical environment through which this learning can be developed. This research will inform writing pedagogy and assessment for ELLs at different grade and language proficiency levels.

Gerardo Ramirez, University of Chicago

The Origins, Impact and Cognitive Mechanism Underlying Math Anxiety in Early Elementary School

Math anxiety impedes students’ mathematics performance–irrespective of true ability–by disrupting working memory processes that are critical in math problem solving. Since high achieving students are characterized by a superior use of working memory, some of our most promising students may be particularly at risk for experiencing problems with math anxiety. To test this possibility, a within-subjects pre/post design will be used to address the following: 1)Does math anxiety have a negative impact on the math achievement of children as young as 1st and 2nd grade? 2)Do individual differences in working memory play a role in moderating the impact of math anxiety? 3)What is the cognitive mechanism underlying the anxiety-performance relationship? 4)Lastly, since math anxiety is highly prevalent among pre-service teachers, this study will examine whether teachers play a role in the propagation of student math anxiety.

Lauren Schudde, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Disadvantaged and Disengaged? How Financial Constraints Impact College Experiences and Success for Low-Income Students

Access to higher education has been substantially democratized, but socioeconomic inequities in graduation rates persist. Colleges aim to promote engagement with college life for students of all backgrounds but have little sense of which factors increase engagement or how engagement impacts attainment. Financial constraints affect time allocation, reactions to college life, and decisions to stay in school. My dissertation capitalizes on an experiment with a mixed-method design to examine whether reducing income constraints enhances engagement. Specifically, I estimate a set of causal relations between financial aid, engagement, and student outcomes by leveraging the experiment and quasi-experimental methods. I also explore how measuring engagement affects estimates by comparing survey measures to measures from exploratory research using text messaging. Overall, this dissertation brings an uncommonly rigorous empirical focus to engagement among disadvantaged college students.

Niral Shah, University of California, Berkeley

Racial Discourse in Mathematics and its Impact on Student Learning, Identity, and Participation

Although the “Asians are good at math” narrative is pervasive in cultural discourse, little is known about its impact on student learning. To date, most research on race in mathematics education has been limited to quantitative studies of racial achievement gaps. This dissertation illuminates the complexities of racial-mathematical discourse, as well as its implications for students’ identities and everyday participation in class. Qualitative student interviews (n = 35) and ethnographic observations were conducted at Eastwood High, a racially diverse, urban school in Northern California. Preliminary findings suggest that rather than static beliefs, students deploy racial-mathematical discourse in everyday interactions to position themselves and their classmates as more or less capable of learning mathematics. This research aims to reconceptualize what it means to learn mathematics, especially for historically marginalized students of color.

Krystal Strong, University of California, Berkeley

Political Training Grounds: Student Activism in Nigerian Universities

Based on 35 months of fieldwork, my dissertation is a comparative project, which examines how students practice politics in one federal and one private university, and a polytechnic—all in the dynamic city of Ibadan, Nigeria. Through a focus on youth, education, and politics, this project seeks to understand the factors shaping student political participation in universities and the socioeconomic and political outcomes of different kinds of tertiary institutions in a single city and its environs. The research makes use of various research methods including participant observation, informal and semi-structured interviews, questionnaires, archival research, a video documentation project, and Participatory Photo Mapping. This work will contribute a theoretically informed empirical study to the scholarship on African educational practices and institutions, youth and politics, and contemporary Nigeria in the fields of anthropology, education, political science, and African studies.

Rebecca Tarlau, University of California, Berkeley

Transforming Rural Schools: The Struggle over Education in areas of Agrarian Reform in Brazil

My dissertation research analyzes the educational initiatives of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST). Based on 17 months of qualitative research, I examine the reasons why MST activists became concerned with transforming rural schools, the pedagogical practices they developed and the theories they draw on. Using a three-state comparison, I analyze the process of negotiation between MST activists and government officials, and the conditions under which MST activists are allowed to participate in the school system. Finally, through extensive classroom observation I explore the implications of the MST’s participation for the curriculum and pedagogical practices in these schools. This research is an important contribution to education in its analysis of an innovative educational pedagogy for rural areas, how community participation in schools occurs in practice, and the feasibility of implementing new educational practices within the public school system.

Christopher Walters, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

No Excuses Charter Schools and Racial Achievement Gaps: Predicting the Effects of Charter Expansion

Lottery-based instrumental variables estimates show that Boston’s charter schools substantially increase test scores and close racial achievement gaps among their applicants. A key policy question is whether charter expansion is likely to produce similar effects on a larger scale. This paper uses a structural model of school choice and academic achievement to extrapolate from IV estimates and predict the effects of charter expansion for the citywide achievement distribution in Boston. Estimates of the model suggest that charter applicants are negatively selected on achievement gains: low-income students and students with low prior achievement gain the most from charter attendance, but are unlikely to apply to charter schools. This form of selection implies that charter schools are likely to produce substantial gains for marginal students drawn in by expansion. Simulations suggest that realistic expansions are likely to reduce gaps in math scores between Boston and the rest of Massachusetts by 10 percent, and reduce racial achievement gaps by 5 percent. Nevertheless, the estimates also imply that perceived application costs are high and that most students prefer traditional public school to charter schools, so large expansions are likely to leave many charter seats empty. These results suggest that the potential gains from charter expansion may be limited as much by demand as by supply.

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