Featured Research Projects

Explore featured department research projects currently being conducted by faculty members and graduate students.

Comparative International Education and Global Studies

Education Systems, School Characteristics, and Gender Disparities in Student STEM Attitudes and Aspirations

Ran Liu

This project examines patterns of gender disparities in science attitudes and STEM aspirations of 15-year-old students across different educational institutional settings from a comparative perspective. Using data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), this study examines the crucial role of institutional characteristics of education systems and schools. At the macro level, it examines to what extent education system standardization, stratification, and privatization enlarges or reduces gender disparities in student science attitudes and STEM career aspirations. At the meso level, it will reveal the role of school science resources and school autonomy in curriculum in impacting gender disparities in science learning. Findings will also show how school policies such as ability grouping and academic admission create a competitive education environment, and whether such an environment contributes to gender differences in student attitudes and aspirations in STEM fields.

This project will contribute to the design of well-targeted national, regional, and school policies to increase girls’ motivations and aspirations in STEM fields. By examining the effects of education system characteristics, this study can inspire reflections on directions of current education reforms. By revealing the potentially beneficial education settings in offsetting gender disparities among adolescents, findings will inform researchers, policymakers, and education practitioners to better understand and address the problem of persistent underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. The potential interaction between national education systems and school characteristics can provide more specific guidance for local policymakers to develop optimal practices based on the larger educational context.

The College Internship Study (National Science Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

Matthew Hora

The College Internship Study is an initiative of CCWT and is a longitudinal, mixed-methods study of college internships at 17 postsecondary institutions in the U.S., China and Japan.  The U.S. part of the study includes a diverse range of institutions that include Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), community and technical colleges, and regional comprehensive universities.  In collaboration with the United Negro College Fund and institutional partners, the study is led by a team of 4 senior researchers and 7 graduate students to answer research questions such as: (1) What are the obstacles students face in finding and completing an internship? (2) How, if at all, are program structures (e.g., duration, type of supervision, nature of tasks) associated with student developmental and labor market outcomes? And (3) How can institutions improve their internship programs? Besides generating new empirical insights into these issues, the study is translational and provides actionable data to institutional partners in order to support equitable and sustainable institutional reforms.

The Gendered Sibling Rivalry: Effect of Sibship Structure on Adolescent Cognitive Ability in China 

Ran Liu

This project examines the effect of sibship structure on adolescent cognitive ability in China. Preliminary results show a negative effect of having siblings on adolescent cognitive ability, and this effect is more evident among girls than boys. Three mediation mechanisms are discussed: children with siblings tend to 1) have lower levels of parental education involvement and parent-child interaction; 2) spend more time on housework; and 3) possess fewer education resources. Further analysis reveals how these three mechanisms work differently for boys and girls in families with different sibship structures; in particular, girls with elder brothers are more likely to lose parent attention, while girls with younger brothers are more likely to shoulder increased domestic labor. As China has ended its One Child Policy and more children will live in households with siblings, this study points to the potential exacerbation of gender inequality and calls for the development of policy initiatives to address the adverse impact on girls.

The Reading Revolution: Multilingual Literacies in International Settings

Lesley Bartlett

Early grade reading programs in developing countries funded by USAID have largely been guided by models of learning to read in English. Drawing on literature in multilingual literacies, anthropology of education, and critical development studies, this project asks: Are literacy models, reading pedagogies, and reading assessments adapted to account for language structures, medium of instruction policies, and local histories of reading pedagogy? If so, how, and what are the consequences of those adaptations? The project entails a comparative case study of early grade reading policy and practice in Tanzania, a linguistically diverse country in sub-Saharan Africa with low rates of literacy. The study focuses on national, district, and local ministries of education and across eight schools. This project will expand our understanding of reading and pedagogy in multilingual settings and offer policy and practice recommendations for the field of early grade reading.

The Refugee Label: Mapping the Trajectories of Colombian Youth and Their Families Through Educational Bureaucracies In Ecuador

Diana Maria Rodríguez-Gómez

While other victims of the armed conflict have remained invisible, stories about refugees are omnipresent. Refugees are protagonists of news, blog entries, podcasts, novels, documentaries, movies, art exhibits, and even recipe books. Hollywood stars like Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, and Ben Stiller have produced videos encouraging the public to support refugee populations, taking concerns about refugees outside humanitarian aid. Regardless of the outlet, all these messages share a certainty about what it means to be a refugee. Using the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, these messages boldly define a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Under this definition, the term refugee appears clear, categorical, and universal. But, how did this term come to be seen this way and gain its global currency? How do policymakers and civil employees in locations far away from the place that gave birth to the category appropriate the term? How is refugee status displayed in everyday life? Drawing on the literature on the anthropology of the state, migratory and refugee studies, and comparative and international education, in this project I focus on Ecuador, an understudied refugee-hosting country of the global south, to tell the story of how this one word — refugee — transformed the migratory and educational policy landscape. Using multi-sited ethnographic methods, I examine how incoming forced migrants from Colombia became an object of policy concern in Ecuador, how various national and international institutional actors helped to set up a refugee regime, and the impact of that regime on the experiences of Colombian migrant youth.

Schooling in (Il)legal Economies: A Comparative Study of Educational Experiences in the Midst of the Drug War

Diana Maria Rodríguez-Gómez

Pointing to decades of drug-related violence against the most vulnerable, experts have declared the War on Drugs a failure. This has opened space for a drug policy reform that promotes decriminalization of illicit crops. In Colombia, these two global responses to coca cropping have resulted in the coexistence of an illegal coca economy and an incipient legal coca market. Yet, little is known about the interfaces between legal and illegal markets, and the lived schooling experiences of educators and students. Drawing from contemporary theories of the state, political economy, and emergency education, the proposed study will examine how two global responses to coca production—the War on Drugs and the Drug Policy Reform movement—shape school life. It will analyze the effects of illicit and licit coca markets on school management procedures, curricular decisions, and educators and students. Designed as a comparative case study, this research combines archival work with interviews and in-depth participant observation. It focuses on (1) how educators and students make sense of the political influence state and non-state actors exert over schools; and (2) how they perceive coca-related activities intersect (or not) with key aspects of school life. By highlighting the intersection between state-market configurations and schooling, this research has implications for education policy and the education of children and youth distributed across the drug supply chain. This study has been funded by the National Academy of Education (NAEd)/Spencer Post-Doctoral Fellowship.

Understanding marginalized youth’s secondary education experiences: A mixed-methods study of Colombia, India, and Malawi

Nancy Kendall

A global consensus is emerging around the importance of providing marginalized youth with relevant secondary schooling. Currently, powerful stakeholders are defining and prescribing notions of relevance that do not incorporate the experiences, needs, and aspirations of marginalized youth themselves. Global models of relevant secondary education that lack youth perspectives will be at best irrelevant and at worst counterproductive, yet they have the power to shape national policies and secondary education opportunities for the 1.5 billion youth living in developing and emerging economies and in fragile states. At this historic moment, youth-centered research that analyzes a diverse range of marginalized students’ experiences can play a key role in shaping discourses, policies, and practices to support relevant secondary education. With funding from the Spencer Foundation, Drs. Chudgar, Kendall and Luschei are conducting a two-year mixed-method study in rural and urban public secondary schools in Colombia, India, and Malawi, where they have strong research networks and where youth face distinct sources of marginalization, including violence and displacement, extreme poverty, HIV/AIDS, and climate change. Drawing on the common and contrasting insights emerging from these diverse contexts and youth, Drs. Chudgar, Kendall and Luschei aim to deepen understanding of and make visible marginalized youths’ schooling experiences, needs, and aspirations to inform improved global and national secondary education discourses, policies, and practices.

History and Humanities

Education for Imprisonment: Youth, Race, and Incarceration in the World’s Prison Capital

Walter Stern

This project explores the United States’ systematic confinement of youth of color through the experiences of Gary Tyler, a black teenager whom an all-white jury convicted of first-degree murder following a 1974 racial brawl at his desegregating high school in Destrehan, Louisiana. Despite significant questions about Tyler’s guilt, his insistence upon his innocence, and robust activism challenging his conviction and the broader criminalization of black youth, Tyler spent more than four decades in prison. He secured his release only after the US Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that its 2012 ban on mandatory life sentences for juvenile homicide offenders applied retroactively. Tyler’s story, therefore, provides a window into Louisiana and the nation’s long history of racialized punishment. Since understanding that history involves looking beyond a single individual or moment, this book project takes a long view of Tyler’s life. It situates his experiences within a historical arc stretching from the late-eighteenth-century proliferation of slave labor camps throughout Louisiana’s river parishes to the 2016 decision that enabled his release. Focusing on the criminalization of youth of color within and outside of schools, it seeks to illuminate the historical circumstances that fueled mass incarceration and Louisiana’s reign as “the world’s prison capital.” Dr. Stern has received support for this project from the Spencer Foundation, the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane University, the Historic New Orleans Collection, and the UW–Madison Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education.

This on-going project has so far resulted in two publications. The first, “The Hidden Politics of High School Violence,” appears in New Perspectives on the History of the Twentieth-Century American High School, ed. Kyle P. Steele (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). The second, “School Violence and the Carceral State in the 1970s: Desegregation and the New Educational Inequality in Louisiana,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Southern History.

The Calculating Boy: The Amazing World of Zerah Colburn

William Reese

Reese is currently researching and writing this book. Born in 1804 in Vermont, Colburn was a math prodigy who was exhibited throughout the United States after his talent in arithmetical calculations appeared in 1810. He traveled with his father throughout Europe between 1812 and 1824 and attended prestigious schools in Paris and London. He also performed on the stage in various theatrical productions in England and Ireland. Returning to the United States in 1824, he underwent a religious conversion during the Second Great Awakening; he became a Methodist minister and a professor of ancient and modern languages. Based on research in numerous archival collections in the U.S. and Europe, the book will explore the life of America’s first child celebrity.

Capital of Mind: The Idea of a Modern American University

Adam Nelson

Capital of Mind chronicles the parallel emergence of a new institution—the modern university—and a new ideology—market liberalism. Specifically, it explains how “the idea of a university” arose during the early nineteenth alongside the unprecedented social changes wrought by the first industrial revolution. Shaped by a desire to foster the mass production and mass consumption of “useful” knowledge for members of a new middle class, the university sought to make the United States more “competitive” on the world stage and maximize its capacity for material as well as mental production.

A Marketplace of Ideas: The Economy of Higher Education in Early America

Adam Nelson

A Marketplace of Ideas uses insights from the new history of capitalism to show how the market revolution of the mid-eighteenth century penetrated American colleges and pulled scholarship—or the products of intellectual labor—into the sphere of transatlantic commercial relations. It explains how “useful ideas” became “salable goods” that could be factored into an international balance of trade, and how American scholars viewed the resulting commodification of higher education with a mixture of fascination and fear. Along the way, it uncovers the roots of the modern economy of knowledge.

What Happened to the Public Schools in Washington, D.C.?

William Reese

Reese is currently researching and writing this book. Funded by a major grant by the Spencer Foundation, it analyzes how federal policies have shaped governance, academic standards, and race relations in the nation’s capital since the nineteenth century. Why has a school system in the shadow of the most powerful government in the world not become world-class? Based on an array of primary sources, it will be the first single-volume history of the Washington, D.C., public schools, from their origins in the early nineteenth century to the recent past.

Social Sciences and Education

Building Democratic Decision-making for Educational Change

Erica Turner

Much of education research has identified policy making that is driven by inequitable race and class structures in schools and society, and the inadequacy and harm of typical school policies. But, what are the discourses and political processes supporting challenges to the traditional politics of educational decision making and the forces of racial capitalism? With a goal to “deepen democracy, build stronger communities, and make public budgets more equitable and effective” (Participatory Budget Project, nd) and a track record of doing so, participatory budgeting (PB) is one promising alternative to the market- and accountability-based efforts of the last 30 years. However, the reality is that schools and communities lack the time, research and other resources to develop these kinds of projects on their own. In this project I work with local communities to develop and begin study of such an effort. This project builds on my previous scholarship and extends my study of race talk, racial capitalism, and inequality in school districts by investigating race talk and consequences of an effort that is intentionally structured to disrupt racial capitalism and traditional patterns of inequity in policymaking by promoting equity-minded, participatory, and democratic processes in which racially and socioeconomically diverse group of students, families, and educators co-construct policy problems and solutions.

Embracing Complexity: The Diverse Efforts to Address Racial Inequity in One School District

Erica Turner

This large-scale study explores the complex processes and outcomes of policy racialization in one school district. I build on three years of ethnographic data that trace the linked stakeholders, discourses and processes involved in constituting policy across three distinctly racialized issues — bilingual education, “gifted” education, and racially disproportionate discipline—and the consequences of these racialization processes for equity. To date, this research has illuminated how a constellation of stakeholders in and out of schools, local enthusiasm for restorative justice, state and federal anti-gun control measures, multi-level budget cuts, racialized poverty and trauma, and a shortage of teachers of color, became bound together through a therapeutic discourse that works with and responds to white supremacy and neoliberalism. This work contributes to theoretical understandings of policy formation as occurring within unique constellations of racial capitalism that extend beyond “the local.” I am currently working on a book project that analyzes and compares the racialized construction and consequences of all three policy issue areas. Taken together, this project will contribute to understanding the different constellations of policymaking around each policy; the convergences and specificities of policy racializations; and the consequences of these for educational equity and democracy. This project has been supported by NAEd/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Exploring factors that shape education & workplace training on essential 21st century competencies: A translational study in four high-STEM job regions (National Science Foundation)

Matthew Hora

The EMPOWER project is a mixed-methods study focused on documenting how employers, postsecondary educators, and students define, teach/train, and learn 4 skills  – teamwork, oral communication, problem-solving, and self-regulated learning.  Designed in response to growing views of these skills as “soft” and easy to teach and learn, the study draws on theory and method from the learning sciences and cultural anthropology to provide a more critical and culturally informed perspective of how these skills are conceptualized and used in 4 STEM professions: computer science, nursing, petroleum engineering and advanced manufacturing.

Exploring Race and Opportunity in Community-based Spaces

Bianca Baldridge

This study analyzes how anti-Black racism is reproduced within community-based spaces in predominantly white cities that espouse a liberal and progressive ethos. Through discourse analysis of local media coverage, interviews with youth workers, and focus groups with Black high school youth participants, this study challenges liberal and progressive claims of social justice in education within predominantly white cities that reify anti-Black racism.

Mobilizing Youth Voices for Racial Justice

Bianca Baldridge

Baldridge is a co-principal investigator of a research study and youth program that brings together youth organizers across three institutional spaces – the Madison Metropolitan School District, the University of Wisconsin, and local Madison-based community-based organizations to build social capital, generate new insights about organizing against racism, and facilitate meaningful progress toward racial justice in Madison.

Online internships amidst the Covid-19 pandemic

Matthew Hora

This 1-year (2020-2021) mixed-methods project is funded by the National Science Foundation (DGE #2032122, $145,000) via the 2020 CARES Act to examine the following research questions: (1) What are the demographic characteristics of past (2015 to early 2020) and current online interns? (2) What types of tasks and mentoring are experienced by online interns? (3) What is the impact of an online internship on student career and academic development, professional networks, and transferable skills? (4) Do online internships expand opportunities for students from rural areas and/or low-income, first-generation students who often have challenges finding and pursuing traditional internships?

The COVID-19 pandemic has made face-to-face internships untenable for many workplaces, with stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements, resulting in a large influx of college students to vendors on online modalities seeking these opportunities. However, there is little research on the quality of online or micro-internships, and higher education professionals have little knowledge about their students experiences with these new forms of work-based learning and their subsequent impact on students career and academic development. The study will be the first empirical study of online internships and represents a significant contribution to the fields of experiential learning and workforce development. Given the likelihood that online internships and some form of social distancing will continue, generating rapid scientifically rigorous findings on this topic is a time-sensitive concern for U.S. higher education.   In addition, the study will critically examine the claim that online internships will solve the equity and access problem that has long plagued work-based learning programs, which include several obstacles to access for rural, low-income and first-generation students.

Precarity in the Metropolis: Leveraging Sociopolitical Development for Black Youth Amid Educational and City Restructuring

Bianca Baldridge

Baldridge’s current study examines the relationship between community-based youth work and shifting landscapes within cities and neighborhoods as a result of neoliberal education restructuring and/or gentrification. Through critical race spatial analysis of metropolitan cities undergoing neoliberal education restructuring (e.g., school closures, for-profit charter expansion) and/or gentrification, this study examines how youth workers in community-based organizations enact and leverage sociopolitical development for Black youth participants to disrupt school and neighborhood inequality exacerbated by the broader the political economy shaped by neoliberal logics of education reform and neighborhood “redevelopment.”

The College Internship Study: A Longitudinal Mixed Methods Study Exploring the Impacts of College Internships on Student Outcomes at HBCUs

Matthew Hora

This three year (2019-2022) longitudinal, mixed methods study is funded by the National Science Foundation (DGE # 1920560, $1,489,273) to investigate college internship design, implementation and student outcomes at six Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).  In partnership with the Career Pathways Initiative of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF-CPI), the study builds upon two bodies of literature – the learning experience as a form of situated and experiential learning and developmental processes of racialized vocational identity.

Drawing on surveys of students and interviews with faculty, employers and students over three years, the study conceptualizes the internship experience as being comprised of three elements – participation and access, program design features, and student outcomes and experiences. The research questions are: (1) How, if at all, does internship participation vary by students? demographics, academic programs and performance, and life/employment situations?; (2) What, if any, are the major barriers for students to access and then persist in an internship?; (3) How, if at all, are internship program features associated with students? satisfaction, career-related self-efficacy beliefs, sense of adaptability, and employment outcomes? and (4) How do cultural aspects of HBCU campuses, students’ racial identities, and professional cultures of the disciplines and employers collectively impact student experiences with the internship.

The Dark Side of Data Use: Understanding Systemic Cheating in Atlanta

Erica Turner

This project investigates the raced and classed macro-contexts and consequences of test-based accountability policy through the high-profile case of the 2009 Atlanta test-cheating scandal. It centers the perspectives and experiences of students, families, and community members in disinvested, Black neighborhoods that have been most impacted by high-stakes testing in Atlanta. In centering actors who are marginalized by race and class, the project considers the relevance of macro-contextual analyses of racial capital and the racialized policy consequences that go unrecognized through traditional “top down” policy evaluation perspectives. I have found that pervasive experiences of race and class exploitation and Black educators’ attempts to alleviate systemic inequalities through daily practices of care for students, critically inform study participants’ analyses that test-focused education, unequal school systems, and the mistreatment of Black communities constitute the “real” cheating they experience. This finding provides a corrective to official claims that high-stakes testing is a “colorblind” mechanism of equity and that test-cheating by Black educators is a primary threat to Black students’ learning and wellbeing. Furthermore, while researchers commonly analyze policy outcomes in terms of “achievement gaps,” I am using recent theorizing on suffering to explore the affective costs of high-stakes testing policy and practice. The project has been supported by grants from the Spencer Foundation and from UW–Madison.

The Effects of Tulsa’s Early Childhood Education Programs on High School Outcomes

Amy Claessens

Established by the Oklahoma State Legislature in 1998, the universal pre-K (UPK) program provides free, high-quality pre-K services to all four-year-old children irrespective of household income.  Oklahoma was the second state to establish a UPK program, and its penetration rate – estimated at 74 percent – is one of the highest in the U.S.  This project examines the longer-term impacts of UPK.  Students from the early cohorts of UPK are now in the later high school grades. The study examines whether or not attending UPK is related to longer-term success measured by high school course taking, graduation/drop out, and standardized test scores.  This project also examines if particular sub-groups of children benefited more from attending UPK. It will add to the growing understanding of the longer-term impacts of more modern early childhood education programs. (Funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation)

Social Connectedness, Network Embedded Inequality, and Disparities in Education Outcomes (AERA-NSF Grant)

Ran Liu

This 1-year project is funded by a grant from the American Educational Research Association (AERA) which receives funds from the National Science Foundation ($25,000; NSF-DRL #1749275). Using big social networking data, it aims to develop three sets of measures of network characteristics at the county level: 1) network heterogeneity; 2) network-embedded socioeconomic resources; and 3) network-embedded inequality structures. Linking these measures to county-level data on student academic performance and disparities, this project will examine four research questions: 1) Are counties with similar levels of socioeconomic and education resources more connected, thus reinforcing inequality of resource distribution? 2) How is county network heterogeneity associated with county average student academic performance and performance disparities across class, gender, and racial groups? 3) How are county embedded social network resources associated with county average student academic performance and disparities? 4) How are county embedded network inequality structures associated with county average student performance disparities?

Understanding Declines in Regulated Child Care Supply and Subsidy Use in Wisconsin

Amy Claessens

Wisconsin (WI) has experienced a drastic decline in the number of regulated early care and education (ECE) providers operating in the state in the past 15 years. Although fluctuations in the market are to be expected, the persistent decline in the number of providers has been coupled in recent years with a decline in the number of children receiving child care subsidies through the WI Shares subsidy program. These declines are concerning not only because it might force some children into low-quality or unsafe care environments, but also because it may result in higher prices for the care that is available as well as lower levels of employment for parents who cannot find affordable ECE.  Claessens is leading a partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families to examine these changes. The partnership will use existing data sources to describe changes in the supply of regulated ECE providers and WI Shares participation across counties from 2005-2019 and to examine how within-county changes in economic, demographic, and ECE policy-related factors relate to changes in ECE supply and WI Shares participation. To triangulate and complement their findings, the partnership will collect new data to obtain a more in-depth understanding of reasons why licensed providers close and why Shares-eligible children do not participate in the program. To address these questions,  the partnership will conduct qualitative interviews with recently-closed, licensed providers and with a brief telephone survey of parents with subsidy-eligible children who do not use the program. (Grant #90YE0217, Department of Health and Human Services, ACF, OPRE)

The Unequal Care Burden: Gender Inequality in Increased Childcare Time During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ran Liu

School and childcare facility closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a dramatic increase of childcare burden at home, which is shouldered disproportionately by women than men. Leveraging nationally representative survey data and anonymized mobile tracking data, this study examines the impact of school and childcare facility closures on gender inequality in the increased childcare burden during the pandemic. It also investigates the potential intersectionality between gender, race, and class in shaping gender inequality during a crisis. The following research questions are examined: 1) Are there gender disparities in increased childcare time during the pandemic? 2) Do gender disparities in increased childcare time vary by race and household socioeconomic status? 3) Do counties with more closures of schools and childcare facilities suffer from more severe gender inequality in increased childcare time?

Variation in Math Instruction Across Schools and Grades

Amy Claessens

This project aims to improve our understanding of early math instruction and how to provide children with the best mathematical opportunities in these early and important years of school. Claessens with colleagues from University of Colorado and University of Michigan collected data on kindergarten, first-, and third-grade classroom instructional experiences in a large urban district through direct classroom observations. The goal is to compare instructional practices across grades and across schools within the same district serving students from very different economic backgrounds. Claessens and colleagues are also coding curricular materials to provide new and valuable information about the alignment of mathematics content across the early elementary grades (kindergarten through grade three). Through classroom observations, they will provide insight into the extent to which mathematics instruction in kindergarten varies across schools.  By coding three different widely used early mathematics curricula, the team will explore the extent to which instruction is likely to vary depending on the curriculum program that has been adopted. (Funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation)