Supporting Urban Education with Decision-Oriented Educational Research

by William Bickel and Jennifer Iriti

William Bickel, a senior scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) and professor of Administrative and Policy Studies.

Through the School of Education, we support urban education by helping practitioners and policymakers learn from their work using Decision-Oriented Educational Research (DOER). DOER is an approach to applied research and evaluation where we put the decision needs identified by the urban educator/leader at the center and derive the focus of the inquiry from those needs. 

Urban education organizations—both districts and nonprofit support groups—often do not have the internal resources or capacities to conduct rigorous and systematic studies of their own work to inform future policy and practice decisions. The DOER work brings professional-quality research and evaluation expertise to bear on problems of policy and practice in Pittsburgh’s urban education community. A few key principles guide the work: 
  • Working collaboratively with decision makers to identify questions of policy or practice important to their work and using these to drive the design of an inquiry;
  • Tapping the relevant research base to identify effective practices and organizing frameworks for the policy or practice issues of concern;
  • Developing and implementing rigorous mixed-methods studies;
  • Analyzing data and communicating findings in ways that support meaning and decision making (e.g., innovative data visualization and interactive sharing processes); and,
  • Intentional efforts for building capacity in the organization via new tools, instruments, processes, and conceptual frameworks. 

Jennifer Iriti, a research associate and co-director of the Evaluation for Learning Group at the University of Pittsburgh¹s Learning Research & Development Center.

Our work supports the Pittsburgh urban education community and creates opportunities for other School of Education faculty to partner on projects in their local community while simultaneously advancing their ow research agenda. The project also provides powerful opportunities for graduate students to both participate in rigorous apprentice-style research and evaluation experiences as well as develop a firsthand understanding of contemporary issues in urban education.

One such example of a project is our work with The Pittsburgh Promise, an ambitious, place-based postsecondary scholarship for city school graduates, which is designed to stimulate improvements in the preK-12 education system, improve postsecondary outcomes of graduates, and stimulate community and economic development. Collaborating with program leadership, we have implemented a number of studies since its inception: 
  • Helping to develop the initiative’s theory of change,
  • Documenting changes in district practices to get students “Promise Ready,” and
  • Crafting indicator systems that monitor progress toward goals. 
These research activities build organizational capacity in The Promise, and contribute directly to decision making by the organization, district, and other nonprofit sector leaders in support of “Promise-readiness.”
Another program is Be A Middle School Mentor (BAMSM), an initiative of the United Way
and the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) intended to utilize mentoring relationships to support students in becoming ready for the Pittsburgh Promise postsecondary scholarship. Mentors and students meet weekly and build a nurturing relationship and engage in conversation and activities around their career and life aspirations. The DOER work helped to strengthen future implementations of the program by the on-site documentation of mentor/mentee experiences, and using this information to improve cross-site design and implementation coherence.
A third project is research on the issue of “right-matching”: students selecting schools for postsecondary education that are aligned with academic performance and maximize their chances of success in terms of successful transition to a post secondary setting, academic performance, and degree attainment. Working with School of Education colleagues Lindsay Page and Rip Correnti, our research mines existing quantitative and newly gathered qualitative data. The goals are to understand current certain patterns and practices and to develop evidence-grounded tools and frameworks to help counselors, educators, and parents guide students to attend postsecondary institutions that are likely to support their success. This work is being done in partnership with the PPS, The Promise leadership, and Propel Schools (a network of charter schools in Pittsburgh). 
Improving educational outcomes for urban students is a core goal of the School of Education. The DOER work directly supports more effective, evidence-based decision making among regional educators and policy shapers to achieve this end.