Friday, March 24, 2023

ResearchEd and Equity: Eradicating Educational Evidence Deserts

In the past few days, a recent Tom Rademacher piece in Education Post has kicked up a lot dust over on Twitter. The piece implied that researchED is not committed to educationaly equity — insinuating, essentially, that the researchED community is ‘selling the dangerous message that it’s OK to stop trying with all this equity stuff.’


I didn’t much like the piece, of course, as it was over-generalized, over-dramatized, misplaced, and shallow. I’m rather used to that, though, so not a big deal. And, fairly, Rademacher walked back some of his essay in his follow-up conversations on Twitter, saying that he didn’t have all of researchED in mind, only some specific people he calls the ‘Fordham Crew’.

**Before moving on, though, a couple specific quibbles:

  1. The language of the original piece sure sounds like he still means everyone rED-related. If he doesn’t actually mean to say that and has publicly said so, it sure would be nice if he changed or retracted it. I won’t demand it or hold my breath, of course.
  2. I know some members of the ‘Fordham Crew’ pretty well by now, and I have to say I don’t think Rademacher’s reading them accurately. Before assuring readers the ‘Fordham Crew’ are all just extrapolations of a caricature like James Lindsay, Rademacher may want to look further into their work. At the very least, he should show more evidence — because, y’know, he provides none — about how the ‘Crew’ he has in mind ‘eras[es] the work of people of color’. It’s pretty irresponsible, I’d say, to not prop such a heavy charge up with at least a few specific examples.

While I could go on responding to Rademacher’s piece, I’m less interested in the essay itself than I am with the conversation it started. I think it’s very important for the growing researchED US network to wrestle with, and I am very pleased Rademacher’s piece made our little grassroots thing go off and really start wrestling.

And, frankly, it’s an important time to say a few things about where researchED stands (or would like to stand, anyway) within education’s ongoing work to equitably prepare all kids.

On those notes, I’m going to build around a 26 November tweet from my friend Jasmine Lane, as I felt it hit on a crucial point. I’m paraphrasing, but in her tweet Jasmine suggested that, as much as researchED believes itself to be committed to issues of educational equity, critics like Rademacher don’t see researchED as such because researchED doesn’t choose to attack educational equity issues in the same ways Rademacher does. To put it another way: in Rademacher’s view, doing ‘The Work’ (his term) means something very specific. And if researchED isn’t doing that, it’s not actually about educational equity. Her tweet is here:


I appreciate Jasmine bringing it up this way, and I think she’s absolutely right. And if I might, I’d like to expand on it more explicitly. Maybe it’ll shed some light on how I think researchED sees itself (or how we would like to see ourselves, anyway) within education’s ongoing and urgent equity discussion.

To start this expansion, I’ll start with a textbook example of inequity, the food desert.

If you’re not familiar with the term, the Food Empowerment Project defines a food desert as a ‘geographic area where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance.’

In food deserts (which occur most commonly in low-income areas where few residents own cars), ‘People’s choices about what to eat are severely limited by the options available to them and what they can afford — and many food deserts contain an overabundance of fast food chains selling cheap “meat” and dairy-based foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.’

Over long terms, the consequences of constrained access to healthy foods is a main reason that ethnic minority and low-income populations suffer from from statistically higher rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other diet-related conditions than the general population.

Looking more deeply into food deserts and what all’s going on in them, however, researchers have found more challenging layers than sheer geographic proximity. More specifically, this 2018 study suggested that populations living within food deserts tend to be less-educated about what healthful options would be, and accordingly shop for less-healthy foods. In other words: attracting a supermarket to the area and improving the access to healthful options does not alone eradicate the inequity of food deserts.

Again, food deserts’ existence can be seen as a textbook inequity: when healthful food options are further away from folks in lower-income areas, when those options cost more than empty-calorie options do, and when people’s awareness of healthy eating differ according to income level, the ultimate (and shameful) result is that lower-income folks will have worse nutritional habits than higher-income folks over the long terms, and they will in turn experience long-term health issues like obesity and diabetes in much greater proportion.

This all relates closely to researchED’s mission, in that researchED sees the existence of educational evidence deserts — educational settings where practical and operational actions have little evidence to support their selection — as producing greatly inequitable outcomes. And just like the nutritional experts, epidemiologists, and activists working to eradicate the health-related inequities of food deserts, researchED seeks to eradicate,  through professional development and networking ed professionals, learning inequities that result when prioritized practices aren’t soundly informed by what research can tell us about things like how people learnwhich instructional practices have produced effective learning elsewhere, and instructional aspirations are just plain hokum. In fact, and to borrow from Tom Rademacher’s piece, researchED is expressly ‘about inequities, about recognizing and working to undo them.’

Look over even one researchED program (let’s take the one from Philadelphia just a couple weeks ago, for example), and it should be fairly plain to see that a wide range of ‘healthful evidence options’ are presented at researchED conferences to help bring some fruit to these inequitable evidence deserts: evidence about why black teachers leave the teaching profession (and what leaders can do) by Dr. Ashley Griffin and Dr. R. Davis Dixon, cognitive-scientific evidence about the importance of background knowledge to all other learning (by Natalie Wexler and David Didau), evidence from classrooms about how cognitive-scientific research can inform teachers’ practice and move student learning (by Patrice Bain and John Mohl), and on and on. And, of course, setting the tone for the day, the keynote address by Baltimore Public Schools CEO, Dr. Sonja Santelises — a system leader who is working to achieve educational equity in her district by bringing evidence-based practices into what she recognized as an educational evidence desert. (NOTE: Dr. Santelises even frames it similarly, but borrows from historic housing policies — namely redlining — to illustrate. If you don’t know about what she’s doing with BCPS’s curriculum work toward equity, you should get to know it. We’ll have video of her rED Philly talk up soon, but you can see a short youtube introduction to her approach and thinking here.)

True, these may not fit ‘The Work’ of educational equity as defined by Tom Rademacher. All of these examples, however, work toward more equitable outcomes for kids by filling gaps in the various educational evidence deserts most education professionals are stuck in — places where research-unhealthy options like 1:1 iPad initiatives and training on growth-mindset interventions (read: two interventions that have shaky evidence, at best, to support them) are much more likely to be enacted and prioritized than a research-verified strategy like knowledge-rich curricula. And, much like the low-income family with no car in a poorer part of town having to arrange a trip to the nearest supermarket, they’d have to go through a helluva lot to find these healthful options on their own. (To wit: see researchED Philly’s panel of English teachers — Lindsay Kemeny, Margaret Goldberg, and the aforementioned Jasmine Lane, all moderated by APM’s Emily Hanford — sharing stories of how they’d been taught to teach reading and what they each had to do to turn their practices around. Once again, this video should be up soon.)

As a network of education professionals, researchED of course still has a long way to go on this score — and I can promise, as the U.S. organizer, that we are working on it. For individuals who disagree with researchED’s priorities to suggest that researchED as a whole is laughing off or not fighting for equitable educational outcomes, however, is simply off-base.

This piece first ran here at the author’s blog, A Total Ed Case.

Eric Kalenze
Eric Kalenze’s career in education has included posts in teaching, coaching, administration, and consulting. He is the author of 2019’s ‘What the Academy Taught Us’ and 2014’s ‘Education Is Upside-Down’, and he regularly contributes pieces about education practice, research, and reform to publications like Education Week, Education Post, The Hechinger Report, Education Next, and TES US, as well as to his blog, ‘A Total Ed Case’. Based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro area, he currently teaches high school and serves as Curriculum and Instruction Lead at Apple Valley’s FIT Academy, plus works with schools/districts as an independent consultant and serves as researchED’s US Ambassador. @erickalenze


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