How 2 Nashville education leaders are teaming up to solve for equity

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools partners with Vanderbilt on equity research
By: | October 15, 2021

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is bringing some formidable resources to bear in its efforts to eliminate long-entrenched equity problems that have beset urban districts.

The school system has partnered with Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development to form the Nashville Partnership for Educational Equity Research to conduct research design to ultimately improve outcomes for underserved and marginalized students, says Paul Changas, the district’s executive officer for Research, Assessment & Evaluation.

“Like any large urban district, we have significant achievement gaps for English-leaners, students with disabilities and the economically disadvantaged,” Changas says. “We also have gaps in terms of disciplinary incidents, particularly with regard to race and ethnicity.”

While specific initiatives have not yet been established, Metro Nashville leaders are also prioritizing expanding access to gifted, advanced placement and other accelerated academic programs so they fully reflect the district’s racial and ethnic demographics.

The district and the university have long collaborated on research, and a key to this latest, more ambitious project will be to also tackle decades-old equity and public policy issues that students face outside schools, says Marcy Singer-Gabella, associate chair of Peabody College’s Department of Teaching and Learning.

“The inequities are systemic and located in the community, in hosing practices and access to health care,” says Singer-Gabella, a professor of education who is the faculty director for the new partnership. “Policy decisions made in the 1940s and ’50s continue to play out in terms of racial segregation because racism is baked into educational practices.”

In one project, researchers plan to more closely link academic and educational outcomes to where students live so they can determine the impact of local crime rates, access to transportation and housing conditions.

“All of these challenges become the responsibility of the schools and we don’t invest in schools to take care of them,” Singer-Gabella says.

The partnership intends to engage community stakeholders in finding and supporting the solutions, such as improving public transportation so students don’t run the risk of becoming chronically absent.

Another goal will be to build the district’s capacity to conduct research to continue to solve equity problems. This will also require improving lines of communication within the district so the findings of the research reach principals and teachers, says Christine Stenson, Metro Nashville’s director of research and evaluation.

The district intends to begin with small pilot projects and then ramp up the solutions discovered to better ensure they can be implemented with fidelity, Stenson says.

“A lot of times research doesn’t make it into the classroom,” Stenson says. “We’re going to spend time trying to figure out how to communicate to everybody but also how to get input in terms of making sense of the results.”