MDRC’s K-12 Education Research: Past, Present, and Future


In the beginning, MDRC was known primarily for evaluations of state welfare-to-work programs. Since then, MDRC has brought its unique approach to an ever-growing range of policy areas and populations. Recently, MDRC celebrated 25 years of working in the field of K-12 research — collaborating with teachers, school leaders, and districts to improve students’ prospects for success. Join Leigh Parise as she talks with Fred Doolittle, MDRC Senior Fellow, and William Corrin, Director of MDRC’s K-12 Education Policy Area, about how the organization expanded into education and the lessons they’ve learned from 25 years of research.

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Leigh Parise, MDRC Associate Director of Program Development and Senior Research Associate: Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Welcome to Evidence First, a podcast from MDRC that explores the best evidence available on how to improve the lives of low-income people. I’m your host, Leigh Parise.

Did you know that MDRC is celebrating 25 years of doing education research? It’s very exciting! I’ll be talking to Fred Doolittle and William Corrin, the heads of our elementary and secondary education research teams, and we’ll be discussing how we first got interested in education, a few of our most game-changing projects, and the future direction of our research.

Fred Doolittle and William Corrin, I am very excited to be having this conversation with you today. Where I would like to start is to have you tell us about how the K-12 policy area came to fruition and what it was you hoped to accomplish?

Fred Doolittle, MDRC Senior Fellow: At the time we entered the field, I think we were very focused on the difficulty of helping young people who had left the system without credentials improve their lives. And we were also conscious of the high dropout rates, especially for low-income students in many urban school districts, and the importance of having educational credentials. I think that we felt that there was an opening for us to make a contribution, because there was an active debate in education research field about whether the type of educational research that had been done was providing good guidance for what to do and whether particular things were effective or not.

There was a long tradition of educational research that provided suggestions about what to do but was not really based on research methodologies that provided strong causal evidence. We entered the field at a time when there was more appetite for that, and we’re part of the group that built a record that you can, in fact, do educational research about the effectiveness of programs that really does provide strong causal evidence of whether something works or not. A lot of our early work was trying to build more and more rigorous research methods to provide that kind of causal evidence about what really does work. And that, I think, has been one of the major changes in the education research field over the last 25 years.

Parise: I know that, in the beginning, MDRC was very focused on secondary school reform and comprehensive school reform.

Since then we’ve expanded our research into the earlier grades and have worked to improve kids’ core academic skills — especially in reading and math. We’ve also widened our interests to include a broader set of outcomes — for example, students’ social and emotional development. And we’re doing different types of work beyond RCTs [randomized controlled trials] — really meeting our partners where they are in terms of what evaluation methods are feasible and appropriate and being more explicitly focused on informative feedback and technical assistance.

The make-up of our staff has also influenced the way we think about our research. William, can you talk about the people who work in our K-12 policy area and what their experiences have been?

William Corrin, MDRC Director of K-12 Education Policy Area: Sure. So, what’s sort of lovely, in my opinion, about my colleagues in K-12 education is the range they cover in terms of both research experience and practice experience. A large number of our staff members are actually former teachers or administrators, or worked for school support organizations, and have had multiple years of experience in the field trying to deal, as practitioners, with the types of problems of practice that we hope to provide information about.

At the same time, we’ve increased the number of people that bring different depths of methodological experience to the table and folks who have had opportunities while they’re here to actually get further education, to get smarter about stuff. So, whether that’s working on natural lottery-based studies, or people who have more experience with designs like regression discontinuity, or folks that have had to partner with states on data acquisition as opposed to districts — it’s given us a broader palette of research experience that complements the practitioner experience.

Parise: Right. And you yourself are one of those people, aren’t you?

Corrin: Indeed. You speak the truth. Many years ago, I taught social studies at an alternative high school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. And I worked for a few years as a district administrator with the Evanston public schools in Illinois.

Parise: Right. And I have to admit that one of the things that was really attractive to me about MDRC was, almost exactly eight years ago, I met the two of you. And we were having a conversation, and you talked a lot about how important it was to have people who had experience in the classroom. I had been a teacher in Brooklyn, and I thought a lot about the supports I got — and that I didn’t get — and the needs of my students. And I so appreciated that MDRC really seemed to value having people like that on the team here. And that is certainly one of the things that I have appreciated over my years here.

Fred, when you talked about some of the earliest work that we did, you mentioned Career Academies, and I’d love for you to talk a little bit about some of the most game-changing evaluations that you think we’ve done in K-12. And maybe Career Academies could be a good place to start.

Doolittle: I think it is. It was a study that we did, starting before 2000, that focused on schools-within-a-school that had a career theme. Tried to create a smaller-scale environment in which students attended high school and strengthened the relationship between students and adults in important ways. It was one of the first random assignment studies in secondary school systems, which was unusual in itself. And we were very fortunate to be able to continue follow-up for 12 years, which is extraordinary. And we’re in the process of extending that even further.

What we discovered was that Career Academies, in our study, didn’t have big impacts on the traditional educational outcomes of students. But what it did have was long-term, very substantial impacts on employment and earnings — especially for young men of color. And this set of findings has extended well past high school and is really an extraordinary finding, given the difficulties many young men of color have in the labor market. So that’s one that has really stayed with us. We’ve continued to extend follow-up because we’re really interested in it.

And it’s also had an impact on policy, because it has provided evidence that Career Academies can make a difference and been part of an expansion of Career Academies nationally, so that there are now more. And new generations of Career Academies have come forward to try to build on what was learned earlier. So that’s one that really has been a pathbreaking evaluation for us. Partly because it was methodologically interesting and partly because of the striking findings.

Parise:  One of the things that I find so interesting about the Career Academies work is the way that that now connects to a lot of other work that MDRC is doing in the field of career and technical education. We’ve built this very large portfolio that goes across K-12 and postsecondary and the workforce areas — that I feel is really rooted in some of those early findings.

Corrin: I think that’s true. And what’s interesting about that larger portfolio of career technical education [CTE] work is it also represents some of the diversity of projects that we’re doing now. Some of those projects include supporting CTE nonprofit organizations as they figure out how to be better learning organizations — what kinds of data are most useful to them, how can they make best use of it, are there specific topics where either they don’t have the time or the capacity to do a deep dive, and can they benefit from having an objective outside organization like ours tackle that topic, interview people, generate sort of formative memos that they can funnel back into their practice? And I think a lot of that was possible because of the earlier Career Academy study and the research that was done there.

Parise: Great. I’m glad you described some of that work, because I think people are often surprised when they hear that MDRC engages in that type of formative work. They think about MDRC doing a lot of large-scale randomized controlled trial studies, but it’s certainly true that the work that we do is much broader today.

Corrin: I think another project that may be worth highlighting is an evaluation we did of a program called Reading Partners. And what’s interesting about Reading Partners is that it is certainly an organization and a program that’s focused on improving the reading skills of elementary students. What’s special here is that this isn’t classroom-based instruction; Reading Partners provides volunteer tutors to provide extra reading support to kids. And so it’s encouraging that we’re able to learn that Reading Partners was able to have a positive impact on the reading achievement of kids through this kind of supplemental support.

Because when you think about schools as complicated organizations — where sometimes making wholesale change in curriculum or instruction across classrooms can be time- and labor-intensive and [require] certain levels of staff buy-in that you spend a lot of time securing — knowing that there are other pathways to support students and help their achievement that maybe are more easily ready fit inside a school environment can be a powerful thing to know. In addition, by having a volunteer base that you’re drawing on for staff, there’s some efficiencies of cost.

More and more, we will be pressed in the education world to be thoughtful about the cost and resources required to support students and [about] what is feasible within a number of constraints — how much money, staff time, et cetera, you can put towards an educational challenge.

Parise: Right. And that educational challenge in particular feels so critical for students who are in elementary school. If you can support them and get them to a place where they are more capable and fluent readers by the time they’re getting into the upper grades of elementary school, and the time they’re ready to go off to middle school, that really feels like you’re making a big difference for those students and changing their educational experience.

Parise: William and Fred, what excites you about doing research in K-12?

Doolittle: I’m excited about the kids. The potential of the kids, the young kids’ interest in school — [they] have not become yet jaded by the experience that they’ve had. I’m also excited by the possibilities, the potential of students in the secondary system who have not yet found their way, but really have great potential. And I’m also excited by the commitment of the staff in these schools to take on this difficult work. And it feels like helping those different folks live a more fulfilling life is really valuable work. I just find it interesting.

Corrin: [In] my time working as a practitioner, you see a lot of potential in the colleagues that you have and the students that you’re serving in a school district. I think as exciting as that work was for me, one of the reasons why I switched over to focusing on doing education research is the hope it provides; that if you really learn that something makes a difference — or that something’s important — that there are avenues by which that knowledge can create larger-scale change.

Whether it can lead to policy changes that will be more encouraging or supportive of proven best practices, whether it will lead to school districts or program organizations being able to do their work better, especially focused on the idea of things that will really make a difference for kids. I think a lot of us who work in education feel great about the opportunity to work closely with young people and see them develop. Yet pretty much all of us, when we apply ideas and practices with the best of intentions, [we find that] not always are those intentions fulfilled. Having a knowledge base that helps us distill which of those attempts that we’ve made are most important puts us in a position to make a bigger difference for young people down the road.

Doolittle: And I also have to admit that one of the most fun parts of working in primary schools is being introduced to students as Dr. Doolittle. That is a real hoot.

Parise: What direction is the K-12 policy area heading in?

Corrin: We have also started to broaden the range of things that we do in K-12 education. We are working harder, for example, with education-oriented nonprofit organizations to support their own learning and help build their capacity to use data better, to do analysis more carefully, to get better and more accurate answers to questions they’re asking, and to be able to do some of that independently over time. If organizations like that are doing their work smarter, with better information, the goal is that they will then be serving the populations of students they serve that much better, and with that much stronger information.

All of this, I believe, is around the issue of how do you help people have the best information possible in a given situation to make the best-informed decision possible about what to do to support students and young people?

Parise: Talk to me about how we’re collaborating more with experts in other fields.

Corrin: The other thing that’s exciting for us in K-12 education at MDRC is that we have the opportunity to also work with folks that focus on early education — what happens in pre-K and three-K and how to think about that onramp and that transition. It means that we get to work with our colleagues in postsecondary education to understand what kinds of transitions are happening for students as they go from high school to college. It means we get to work with our colleagues in employment and training to think about how is high school aligned with — or not aligned with — the needs and demands of the workforce?

What can we be doing so that our efforts are complementary with those groups? That diversity of knowledge and topical expertise here puts us in a great position to make sure our work is always connected to other places in the life trajectory of individuals. I think we’ve also seen in the organization increasing breadth in the types of skills that people have. So we do more data analytics work. Being able to work with our Center for Data Insights and play a role in connecting them to a school district or to a nonprofit organization — where they can dig in on helping that agency or that organization, understand what data has, what other data might be useful to it, whether there are ways to better organize that data, how that data could be used in real time to support decision-making about kids — is super exciting.

The other area that we’ve been partnering with is our Center for Applied Behavioral Science in systems that are increasingly more choice-oriented. We gave the example earlier of Small Schools of Choice, where high school students are picking what schools they go to. But this happens in multiple districts at the middle school level, sometimes at the kindergarten level. Behavioral science can help us think through [questions like]: Are there better ways to support folks who are making these decisions and give them the best information possible? All of these things make it really exciting when we look at the future of K-12 education work at MDRC: the fact that we are both getting better at — and have the ability to do — a broader kind of work in partnership with other areas of the organization.

Parise: Yes, that’s something I’m really excited about, too — thinking about the various ways in which we can support what’s happening in the field throughout the education pipeline and really do work that is relevant to the needs of practitioners and policymakers.

Well, thank you, William and Fred, for having this conversation with me. It’s so great to hear about the evolution of our K-12 work, and I’m really excited to see what the next 25 years holds!

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About MDRC’s “Evidence First” Podcast Series

Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Join Leigh PariseMDRC’s Associate Director of Program Development and Senior Research Associate, as she talks with experts about the best evidence available on education and social programs that serve low-income people.