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Annenberg Institute rebuilds from scratch following University review

Institute integrates with University, focuses on education inequality research

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 4, 2019

The Annenberg Institute recently moved into 164 Angell St., along with several other University programs. This new space will allow the Institute to increase collaboration with the University’s Department of Education.

Two years after the University decided to shift the Annenberg Institute’s mission, the institute — previously called the Annenberg Institute for School Reform — has begun rebuilding itself with a new focus on research and educational inequality.

About two years ago, the University chose to transfer the entirety of the Annenberg Institute’s programs and most of its staff to other universities in an effort to align the Institute more closely with the University’s strategic plan, The Herald previously reported.

While it has made some progress to actualize its new mission, Annenberg is operating under a tentative two-year timeline to implement the institute’s large-scale initiatives and projects, said Susanna Loeb, director of the Annenberg Institute and professor of Education and International and Public Affairs. Annenberg still has work to do before the institute is “in steady state.”

A New Mission

Loeb’s appointment followed a 2017 University review of the institute, which resulted in the University’s decision to shift Annenberg’s focus away from school reform and community mobilization and toward educational inequality research, said Provost Richard Locke P’18. Warren Simmons, the former executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, as well as four former Annenberg staff members told The Herald they did not support the University’s decision to shift the institute’s focus, The Herald previously reported.

The University’s “core competence is research and teaching, not capacity building for community groups,”  Locke said. He chaired the 2017 review committee made up of “faculty, senior University administrators and Annenberg Institute staff,” according to the committee’s executive summary. The institute’s new focus will allow it to “build stronger intellectual ties with academic departments” and University groups than before, Locke said.

The new mission is also more compatible with Building on Distinction — the University’s strategic plan — as it advances “academic excellence in areas of pressing societal importance, such as … educational equity,” wrote Marisa Quinn, chief of staff to the Provost, in an email to The Herald.

“We’re trying to think about (educational inequality) fairly broadly,” said Ellen Viruleg, managing director of Annenberg. Among potential areas within educational inequality research, the institute may focus on the educational access, teacher effectiveness and outside-of-school opportunities that shape student achievement and early life, Viruleg added.

The new mission is “a different lens on how to approach the work,” Viruleg said. “We hope to do the same level of quality work that’s been done before … in a way that’s respectful and empowering to folks who do the work in different ways.”

Currently, Annenberg is refining its research strategy and direction, building partnerships with the University and local schools and expanding its staff. The institute is also working to obtain research grants from the Spencer Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as working to determine how much of its work will be supported by the institute’s endowment, Viruleg said. The endowment currently supports about 75 percent of work at the Institute, she added.

Annenberg’s website currently lists a staff of 29 people; however, only two staff members have remained with the institute since its transition — Stacey Ferreira, financial and operations specialist, and Mary Arkins Decasse, program coordinator. Ferreira did not respond to The Herald’s request for comment.

The institute is looking to hire “between five and ten folks (for)partnership work and other Annenberg initiatives,” which will be complemented by roughly three to four postdocs and three to four visiting faculty a year, as well as several undergraduate and graduate students, Viruleg said.

Creating Local Partnerships

Annenberg is building a partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Education and is “trying to make sure that the agenda” is mutually beneficial, Viruleg said.

Annenberg does not have “community organizers on staff, like some of the good work that was being done” in previous years, Viruleg said.“I don’t think we’ll be doing (community capacity building) locally or across the nation,” she added.

But the institute is looking to “directly engage with” community organizations and start a dialogue on how its research can “be a meaningful part of the solution. But first we need to figure out what’s already underway and how we can build on it,” she added.

The Providence Public School District is interested in partnering with Annenberg to study “personalized learning (techniques that) they have … implemented,” said Jing Liu, a postdoctoral research associate at Annenberg. As the institute has had just “one meeting with Providence Public Schools,” the partnership is “still in the very initial stage,” Liu added.

The “specific topics” within Annenberg’s new research direction — as well as a significant portion of the staffing — will in large part depend on the status of the agreements made between Annenberg and its partners, Loeb said.

University Integration

A large part of the institute’s new mission is to “build stronger intellectual ties with the academic departments, because before (the transition) there was very little interaction” between the Annenberg Institute and the rest of the University, Locke said. The institute and the University Department of Education now share the second floor of 164 Angell Street, which allows them to collaborate further, Locke added. The institute is also working to integrate faculty from departments like  economics, political science, Africana studies and sociology into its work.

Over the long term, the institute aims to become a hub for information about education initiatives at the University. “We could start to think together more systematically about whether we’re responding to the needs of the local area” and have a general unified goal, Loeb said. But the institute is “not there yet,” she added.

The institute is also building connections with a new public policy center run by Adjunct Associate Professor David Yokum, as well as the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, Loeb said.

Liu and Kathleen Lynch, another postdoctoral research associate, have been developing an “undergraduate fellow program in education and social policy,” Liu said. This program will train eight to 10 undergraduates in the “developmental skills” needed to be effective research assistants, Liu said. The training will begin summer 2019, and applications for the fellowship closed March 1.

Research and Projects

While the institute is still developing its overall research direction and strategy, members of the research team have been working on their own projects. All of the researchers currently on the Institute’s staff have “focused on issues of (educational) inequality” like teacher effectiveness, school finance and health, Loeb said. Loeb herself is directing a set of studies on “parenting for young kids” and has partnerships with schools in Los Angeles, Miami and Dallas; she also has “studies going internationally in the U.K., Denmark and rural China,” Loeb added.

“We’re still trying to put some of (the) pieces together,” Viruleg said. But Annenberg is committed to its goal of conducting “grounded … rigorous research to influence peoples’ lives,” she added.

This article appeared in print under the headline, “Annenberg Institute rebuilds after mission shift.”

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