Last year in a shiny glass room one floor above the Brown Bookstore, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform hosted an event: “Advancing Equity through Research-Practice Partnerships.” The Institute brought in Ruth Lopez Turley, founder of the Houston Education Research Consortium, to present on the power of research grounded in community partnerships — a worthy and pertinent topic.
However, one central irony stood out as the elephant in the room: The Annenberg Institute had just undergone a push in the opposite direction.
The Annenberg Institute should heed Turley’s call and focus their research on the Providence community.
The story of Brown’s Annenberg Institute begins in 1993. Former Chair of the Education Department Ted Sizer — a name famous in education philosophy for his vision of student empowerment — created the Institute and executed an agenda of progressive school reform. After Sizer left, Warren Simmons stepped in as executive director with a focus on putting “racial equality and social justice in the forefront of the mission.” Under his leadership, the Institute expanded its reach into the community with a New England-Based Community Organizing and Engagement program.
However, in the last three years, the Institute has undergone a swift transition away from engagement work — and away from its Providence community entirely. Last year, Brown transferred all Annenberg programs to other universities. Since then, the Annenberg Institute has become an education research juggernaut, producing 44 publications in 2018 and 2019 alone. Yet while these works touch on important issues such as social-emotional learning and racial disparities in school discipline, not one of them deals directly with education in Providence.
Brown initiated the transition away from engagement to better integrate the Institute into the rest of the University’s academic focus. After the decision, Provost Richard Locke P’18 explained to The Herald that, at a university like Brown, “it is not one of (our) core competencies to do capacity building for communities. What we do is research and teaching, and it’s through our research and teaching that we have an impact (on) the world.”
I’m not writing to argue with Locke’s claim that Brown shouldn’t work in community capacity building, though I think one could make a case that it should.
I’m writing to make a case that the Annenberg Institute’s renewed focus on research is compatible with helping the Providence community. It creates an opportunity to provide necessary and time-sensitive analysis on issues facing the city’s school district.
Remember Ruth Lopez Turley? The one who the Institute invited to speak on research-practice partnerships in their shiny new glass building? Her work provides a model that the Institute can follow. Rather than developing research questions and searching for the optimal settings to test them as most researchers do, Turley works with partners in her area such as the Houston school district to develop questions relevant to education in her city and then shares the results with local decision-makers.
The Annenberg Institute should seek to imitate Turley’s research-practice partnership model. As Locke said, research is what Brown University does best. So why not leverage that asset to make an impact in its immediate community?
To be fair, the Institute has made strides toward a research-practice partnership model. Their program, titled “Annenberg Institute at Brown Research Partnerships,” includes “strategic partnerships” with the San Francisco Unified School District, the Providence Public School District, the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. But while there is ample information listed on the Institute’s website for the San Francisco and Miami parternships — including current studies and working papers — there is no research listed in partnership with the Providence Public School District or the Rhode Island Department of Education. The Institute’s first course of action when looking to uplift communities should be its own. By forming meaningful partnerships with local practitioners and publicizing that information, Annenberg could use its research focus to address necessary questions in Providence.
Such a move could not come at a better time. The Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy released a report on the Providence Public School District in June that revealed startling problems in Providence schools — from heavy teacher absenteeism to structurally unsound buildings. The report prompted a state takeover of the school district. As the state now starts on its path to address structural problems through reform, it would benefit from a research institution that can evaluate the district’s programs and run analyses to guide its new directions.
Brown University has an obligation, as well as an incentive, to do what it can to support Providence schools. As an institution enjoying nonprofit status, Brown receives tax relief in return for the presumed benefit that the University brings to the community. But Brown needs to hold up its end of the bargain.
In 2007, the University pledged to establish a $10 million endowment for Providence schools. The $10 million promise came as a response to recommendations from Brown’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. On the committee, students and faculty explored Brown’s complicity in the slave trade and advised the University on how it could counteract some of the negative effects of its past. The committee made recommendations such as allowing Rhode Island public school teachers to enroll in one Brown course per semester free of charge and including tuition waivers to Masters of Art in Teaching students who commit themselves to working for at least three years in local public schools.
Many of these recommendations have not come to fruition. In fact, last year the Univerity canceled the elementary education track of its MAT program. And over a decade later, Brown has managed to raise only $1.9 million of the $10 million sum. While University leadership has told The Herald that its current investments in the PPSD exceed the potential returns the endowment would have generated, many of these investments in the district predated the creation of the fund and the University nonetheless failed to live up to its stated promises.
Each institution and program at Brown must do what it can to support Providence. In the case of the Annenberg Institute, this means transitioning its research focus toward the research-practice partnership model at a local level. They should join Ruth Lopez Turley’s National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships. Such a transition will take legwork. The Annenberg Institute must be ready to commit fully. As Turley emphasized in her talk, partnership is a long-term collaboration. Of her institute’s relationship with its partners, she said, “we’re not just dating, we’re married.”
Asher Lehrer-Small ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.