A $5.2 million federal grant will provide University of Wisconsin researchers and the Department of Public Instruction with an opportunity to understand achievement gaps in public schools throughout the state of Wisconsin.

Provided by the U.S. Department of Education, the grant will fund the largest research collaboration between UW and the DPI to date, Jared Knowles, DPI policy research advisor said.

He said these researchers should investigate discrepancies in the organization of education and develop new, more racially and economically considerate practices.

The research

The Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, based out of the UW School of Education, will work with researchers from DPI to analyze data from every Wisconsin public school over the next four years, Knowles said.

The center’s research is focused mainly on equity. The goal is to take the information and translate it into factual recommendations researchers can provide to all public schools across the state, Knowles explained.

“Wisconsin has the highest graduation rates in the country, but it also has the greatest racial disparities between black and white students,” he said.

If all schools use these recommendations, Knowles said, it will help to decrease these racial and financial disparities.

UW associate professor of sociology, Eric Grodsky, will be leading the UW research team.

The research will be building off of DPI’s Promoting Excellence for All report. Researchers at UW will examine data DPI has collected on student test scores, student demographic characteristics and much more information Grodsky said UW researchers haven’t even gotten into yet.

Some people have been skeptical of the collaboration, and Grodsky said he doesn’t blame them. This collaboration has been discussed for a while, but hasn’t been acted on until now, he said.

The approach will help researchers find and disseminate the reasons for these gaps sooner in order to understand how they may be narrowed, Grodsky said.

“I think it’s different for its ambitions and scope,” Grodsky said. “I’m hoping that it lays the foundation for more work on this both in terms of research, but also in terms of action in giving people clearer guidelines for effective strategies to reduce disparities.”  

The process

The researchers plan to use a three-step process in which they will analyze the data DPI collected and then go and visit schools they’ve identified to be more or less effective at diminishing the gap, Grodsky explained.

While visiting these schools, researchers will talk to parents, students and teachers to determine what practices may have affected their achievement levels, Grodsky said.

Teachers, principals, counselors and even students will be able to make better decisions on how to solve these pressing issues within their district, which is the key to Wisconsin’s educational progress and future, Knowles explained.

Schools will be “matched” and compared to see what factors may be influencing their differences in disparities, Grodsky said.

The final step will involve a state-wide survey to see how common those practices are and the extent to which they are associated with different levels of achievements, Grodsky said.

This research, Knowles said, will illuminate the failures and successes among schools trying to solve this issue.

As Wisconsin continues to become more and more diverse, it is important to continue in that direction while making sure equal educational opportunities are available to everyone, Knowles said.

“We need to make sure success is there for all students,” he said.