New Wheelock Educational Policy Center Will Put Research in the Hands of Policymakers, Drive National Conversations
Aim: improving educational outcomes for historically marginalized students
Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development is taking another big step forward, one that expands the cross-discipline collaborations that began with the 2018 merger of Wheelock College and Boston University. The college recently launched the Wheelock Educational Policy Center (WEPC), an interdisciplinary hub for research that aspires to drive national conversations and policy decisions that impact educational outcomes for historically marginalized students.
David Chard, Wheelock dean ad interim, says that when the college’s leadership considered the full impact that Wheelock could make, “it became clear that we needed to think beyond the local, beyond the preparation of teachers and counselors, and to the policies and system changes that impact public schools more broadly and more permanently. Our aspirations to have a significant and positive impact on these outcomes, combined with our hiring a team of methodological experts and seasoned policy scholars, have made the creation of this center essential.”
Meagan Comb, WEPC executive director, says the center’s research will focus on rethinking policies that have contributed to persistent inequities within the education system for several student groups, including students of color, students with disabilities, and English learners. Comb joined the center in January after eight years at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, most recently as director of educator effectiveness.
Discussions about creating such a center began shortly after the merger of Wheelock and BU, says WEPC faculty director Marcus Winters, a Wheelock associate professor and educational leadership and policy studies department chair.
“There was a case to be made that a private research university like BU had the kind of multidisciplinary expertise that you could really leverage in ways that would impact policy,” Winters says. “So while the center is called the Wheelock Educational Policy Center, it is not exclusive to Wheelock faculty. We see it gaining from having affiliated faculty in other departments.”
He points out that education policy is particularly well-suited to input from other disciplines. Economics, for example, is a powerful driver of education policy, as is sociology and political science. Winters also envisions much collaboration with data scientists and BU’s Initiative on Cities.
“There are many people across the campus who are doing work that the center could support, either directly as part of the center’s work or just sharing ideas,” he says. “And I think there will be a lot of opportunities for students in other departments to work with us.”
WEPC currently has seven affiliated faculty members. Wheelock lecturer Ariel Tichnor-Wagner, the center’s managing director, focuses her research on policy and programs that improve the academic and social-emotional outcomes of culturally and linguistically diverse students. Andrew Bacher-Hicks is a Wheelock assistant professor, whose research examines labor markets and the link between crime and education. Olivia Chi, a Wheelock assistant professor, researches the teacher labor market, measures of teacher quality, and policies that reduce educational inequality. An applied microeconomist who studies labor economics and education policy, Joshua Goodman is an associate professor of education and economics, with joint appointments at Wheelock and the College of Arts & Sciences. Nathan Jones is a Wheelock associate professor of special education and a founding member of the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences. Kevin Lang and Daniele Paserman are both CAS professors of economics, and Jesse Bruhn (GRS’18) is an assistant professor of economics at Brown University.
“The faculty we are starting with is excellent,” says Winters. “And we are hoping to build on top of that.” The college has recently added a master’s program in educational policy studies and expanded its PhD policy studies program. “The center is about furthering that commitment and making policy a core part of what the college is about. We will be doing research that is specifically aimed at informing policy decisions.”
One example of such research, says Comb, is a working paper by Chi on the effects of how having a same-race classroom observer could have implications for updating teacher evaluation practices. Similarly, she says, a paper by Jones and Winters on the effects of co-teaching can present state education leaders with the pros and cons of having two, rather than one, teacher in the classroom supporting students with and without disabilities.
The center’s primary goal is to engage in research alongside policymakers who can put the insights into action, Comb says, as she was accustomed to doing in her previous position with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “We are hoping to start our research with a conversation with policymakers and carry on that conversation through the research,” she says. “We want to help inform the decisions they know they need to make rather than try to sell them on the findings on the back end.”
Comb’s experience with both researchers and policymakers will come in handy as WEPC seeks to forge new partnerships within the BU community and across various levels of education decision-makers in Massachusetts and beyond. “We have an opportunity to not only provide a platform for research insights from faculty,” she says, “but to approach the research from the outset in a way that anticipates and is responsive to the questions and needs of the field.”
A recent partnership with the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) that examined district reopening plans illustrates what WEPC research-partnership work might look like. Ed Lambert, MBAE executive director, says the collaboration helped his organization understand how Massachusetts schools have adapted to the pandemic and how to envision the best ways to support students in this challenging time.
“It’s great to see this commitment to bringing academic expertise to bear on pressing education policy questions formalized in the Wheelock Educational Policy Center,” Lambert says.