A Nurturing Space for Educational Research

Student-led symposium at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development encourages innovation and experimentation.

March 02, 2015

An academic conference can be an intimidating place to float new ideas. Fortunately, students at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development have a warmer incubator for fledgling theories: the Educational Symposium for Research and Innovations (ESRI), now in its 12th year.

A student-led academic conference that spotlights student and alumni research and innovation in education, ESRI is an opportunity for students not only to present their work to peers, faculty and education professionals, but also to attend research- and practice-oriented symposia and panels on scholarship and professional development.

“It’s really one of our signature programs,” said GSEHD Dean Michael Feuer.

This year’s scholarship included work on autism spectrum disorder, the leadership role of teachers in school reform and the place of single-sex education in America. 

Christopher Harriss, who has been the symposium’s student chair for the last three years, said that ESRI is an opportunity for students across the spectrum of education scholarship to interact with and learn from each other in an intellectually rigorous, but also relatively safe, environment.

“The whole point of ESRI is to make people feel comfortable exposing their own beliefs—and challenging them,” he said.

Rick Jakeman, an assistant dean of academic services and assistant professor of higher education administration at GSHED, said that ESRI is one of the few times that students and faculty get together to focus on their work. “It’s building our larger culture of developing researchers to meet the challenges of 21st century education,” said Dr. Jakeman, who also is ESRI’s faculty liaison.

Mark R. Warren, associate professor of public policy and public affairs at the University of Massachusetts, was the keynote speaker Saturday morning. The author of A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform, Dr. Warren discussed the common themes in successful community organization around education.

Advancing the quality of schools in underserved communities, he said, is “fundamentally a question of power.” Without the power to voice their concerns, stakeholders can be alienated from the schools that are intended to serve them.

“We face sometimes a profound disconnect between our school systems and the parents and the people in the communities in which they’re serving,” Dr. Warren said. “There’s often a strong attitude [among schools] that the problem is that the parents don’t care, the parents are not involved, the community is not involved. We found precisely the opposite in our research.”

Without traditional kinds of power, like money, parents and stakeholders in these school systems need to create “social capital” to surmount the obstacles posed by that deep disenfranchisement—and organizing groups are best able to provide that when they are deeply rooted in the life, traditions and issues in the communities they serve.

One of the major takeaways from his research, Dr. Warren said, is that effective reform requires a paradigm shift: instead of educational policies being imposed from the top down onto communities, the communities are invested with knowledge and empowered to use schools as a tool for advancement. Activists, deeply invested in these communities, are then able to focus less on short-term “wins” like test scores and more able to take a longer view.

“That switch, that sense of ownership in the school [is crucial],” he said. From the community’s point of view, “It’s not that the schools are deciding things, doing things to us. We’re doing things for ourselves, with the help of the schools.”