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Research Spotlight: F. Chris Curran

Q & A with F. Chris Curran, Associate Professor in the School of Human Development and Organizational Studies in Education

What basic questions does your research seek to answer?

My research is fundamentally driven by an effort to understand the ways in which public policy can be leveraged to increase equitable educational outcomes for groups of students who have historically been discriminated against by public institutions.  In particular, I seek to examine how the laws, policies, and practices of public schooling shape educational outcomes for students of color, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and other marginalized groups.  My current research focuses on three strands: school discipline and safety, early elementary science education, and teacher labor markets.  My recent work has explored the effects of state zero tolerance laws on racial disparities in school discipline, the relationship between preschool attendance and early elementary science performance, and the ability of alternative route teaching programs to address teacher vacancies in disadvantaged rural school districts.  Across all of this work, I link findings to actionable items for policymakers and educators so that the answers to these basic questions can potentially improve the lives of students nationwide.

What makes your work interesting?

I seek answers to pressing questions that face American education and connect this work to ongoing debates in the public sphere.  Beyond this, my work is particularly interesting because it melds different methodological and theoretical perspectives.  In one study, I may be leveraging econometric methods with big data to isolate causal effects of programs while in another I may be on the ground in schools interviewing students and teachers.  In other words, I tackle my research questions with an array of both quantitative and qualitative research designs, often leading to more nuanced understandings of the topic of interest.  In a similar vein, the theoretical basis of my work crosses multiple disciplines.  For example, much of my current work on school discipline is conducted jointly with sociologists and criminologists.  By combining perspectives from public policy and education with those from sociology and criminal justice, my collaborative work brings interdisciplinary perspectives that help expand the scope of the conversation around educational policy and practice.

What are you currently working on?

My project board probably has no less than twenty ongoing manuscripts at the moment, so the answer might seem to be, too much!  That said, here are a few of the most exciting.

For the past three years, I have been the principal investigator on a National Institute of Justice funded research project examining the implementation and roles of police in elementary schools.  My collaborators and I have collectively interviewed several hundred participants across nearly fifty schools — including police officers, principals, teachers, students, and parents — and have collected survey data on several thousand similar stakeholders.  Our work has provided a nuanced view of the day-to-day activities of school police in elementary school settings and provided timely feedback as governments and schools have looked to respond to the tragic occurrence of several mass-casualty school shootings over the past several years.

In other work, I have been exploring the implications of measurement choices on the policy and practice conclusions that are drawn about racial discipline gaps.  My work builds on others in this area to demonstrate that the choice of metric used to identify a racial discipline gap can drastically alter which school districts are identified as most inequitable as well as even change conclusions about whether racial discipline gaps are increasing or decreasing over time.  The findings have important implications for how we think about disparities in school discipline as well as how we evaluate the effectiveness of polices and practices aimed to reduce such disparities.

Finally, I have an ongoing strand of work that explores disparities in early elementary science performance by race/ethnicity.  Findings of this work suggest that racial/ethnic gaps in early science are often much larger than that in mathematics and reading and that some subgroups, such as Asian students, perform significantly worse in science relative to White students despite doing as well or better in mathematics and reading. My recent work has suggested that much of this relationship is attributable to many of these students being English language learners.  Therefore, my ongoing work is seeking to understand the policies and practices that can best be leveraged to improve science learning in the early grades for English language learners.