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College of Education Dean’s New Study Analyzes Educational Equity Issues

photo of UK College of Education dean Julian Vasquez Heilig
Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig

A unique digital media study focused on educational equity issues surrounding Teach For America has been published by University of Kentucky College of Education Dean Julian Vasquez Heilig. The study is thought to be the first in educational policy to use a new form of research — digital ethnography — to analyze participant responses.

Published online first by Urban Education, it will appear in an upcoming print issue of the journal. The study analyzed podcast interviews with former Teach For America corps members who shared their personal experiences working with the organization. They provide a counter narrative to the ways Teach For America is commonly characterized in public discourse, helping to give a more complete representation and fuller understanding of the program and its impact.

The interviews aired on the podcast “Truth for America,” hosted by Vasquez Heilig and T. Jameson Brewer, an assistant professor at the University of North Georgia and one of the study’s co-authors. Additional co-authors were Amber K. Kim, an equity literacy coach and consultant, and Miguel Sanchez, a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at California State University, Sacramento.

“We have, essentially, invented a new way of doing research. By using publicly available podcasts, anyone can go back and listen to participants’ conversations in full and make their own conclusions about what was discussed,” Vasquez Heilig said.

Typically, when researchers interview study participants, they record and later code the responses. During this coding process, the researchers find patterns and themes.

“In published research, the reader must rely on the researcher to have heard the passage right and to have coded it right and themed it correctly,” Vasquez Heilig said. “While qualitative researchers are committed to viewing their data objectively, some level of bias is inevitable. This study is unique in that it allows readers to go back and access the podcasts and see for themselves how the participants told their counternarrative stories.”

The researchers discovered themes among the responses that raise questions about Teach For America’s ability to fulfill its mission of providing all children in America with an equitable education — the kind typically available for white, suburban, middle class students.

In a purported effort to level the playing field for students of color and those living in poverty, Teach For America selects top college graduates to dedicate two years teaching at some of the most challenging schools in the U.S. Corps members are trained to teach in a five-week summer program they complete prior to being placed in a classroom.

Researchers examined, through listening to podcast interviews, corps members’ contexts, cultural and racial competencies, attitudes and beliefs. Teach For America participants, who have historically been predominantly white, often said the five-week summer institute did not adequately prepare them for teaching, nor did it provide them with a strong foundation for working with students from different backgrounds.

“I think many who join Teach For America have good intentions,” Vasquez Heilig said. “Despite their strong desires to provide students with an equitable education, they are limited by their lack of pedagogical training.

“To be effective, they would need the experience of being in a four-year college program with extended experience in a classroom and veteran mentors to gain an understanding of relevant curriculum, teaching methods and classroom management strategies.

“We found that very little has been done to prevent Teach For America corps members from approaching their two years in the classroom with a temporary visitor mentality, which is often responsible for high rates of departure and less than desirable outcomes for students and schools.”

In their article, the researchers reported four overarching themes from the podcast’s conversations:

  • problematic practice, preparation and pedagogy among corps members;
  • concerns linked to critiquing Teach For America and the organization’s responses to that critique;
  • problematic issues related to race and diversity; and
  • disconcerting funding practices and political power.

“We think there is real potential in using forums that have typically been neglected by conventional research methodologies, such as websites, blogs, podcasts, online forums and social network sites, to analyze public discourse and counternarratives around a number of issues,” Vasquez Heilig said. “The internet is credited with helping disseminate and create knowledge, and we believe it is time to analyze respondent voices in digital media, as researchers, to gather and analyze stories that will provide additional context during our search for answers to common problems impacting our fields.”

Find the “Truth for America” podcast on Stitcher or Apple Podcasts.