By Sarah Fister Gale

Allison Davis and the research he conducted during his 36-year tenure at the University of Chicago shined a spotlight on inequities in public education and laid a foundation for research conducted by UChicago faculty to this day.

Davis joined the Department of Education and Committee on Human Development in 1942 and spent his career studying the negative effects of racism and the inherent caste system on the education of black students. His research uncovered cultural biases in IQ tests that unfairly stigmatized black children; led to the development of the federally supported Head Start program, which provides early childhood education to at-risk children; and directly influenced proceedings in the Brown v. Board of Education case arguing against public school segregation in 1954.

Davis’ legacy influences many current faculty whose research focuses on education, social justice, and the African American experience.

“What I've always remembered about Professor Davis is his thoughtfulness, shared passion, and clear commitment to understanding and authentically representing children of color,” says Professor Margaret Beale Spencer, the Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education in the Department of Comparative Human Development.

Spencer notes that Professor Davis was one of the half dozen African American teachers from kindergarten through graduate school from whom she received instruction. At the University of Chicago, he was one of three who directly impacted her career.

She was drawn to his approach to studying education in underserved communities, and using education to maximize youngsters’ development. “I identified with the strategy of using cultural insights to maximize educational outcomes,” she says. Spencer received her PhD in child and developmental psychology from the Committee on Human Development at UChicago and, along with the significant influence of others, has continued to embrace the insights to build on his research throughout her career. “He understood the role of context, development and culture on children's personalities. I was able to use that perspective and added an emphasis on contributing cognitive processes, as well.”

Other professors see threads of Davis’ work in their own research. For example, Michael Dinerstein, assistant professor in the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics and the College, studies the economics of education in different communities. He joined the faculty in 2015, and while he never had a chance to work with Davis, his research into education markets, competition for students, and how schools react to changes in policy all tie back to Davis’ work. “In urban settings, the types of options available and the education outcomes are pretty different by race or ethnicity,” Dinerstein says.

He believes Davis laid a groundwork for understanding the long-term benefits of early education for all children, which is reflected in the work Dinerstein does today.

Stephen Raudenbush, the Lewis-Sebring Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Sociology, sees similar links to Davis’ work. Raudenbush studies educational inequality, and he created a statistical framework to track childhood development within social settings, including classrooms, schools, and families. “The fact that the university is located in the city of Chicago plays a crucial role in the founding of sociology as a discipline,” he says. “Although Allison Davis was in Education and Comparative Human Development, his work was a very important part of that.”

Margaret Beale Spencer: Don’t fix the kids, fix the system

Spencer attributes Davis, and other African American and female professors, with giving her the encouragement she needed to build an academic career when such support was scarce for a woman of color. Spencer had originally planned to become a medical doctor with a specialty in pediatrics; however given that period, the lack of racial and gender diversity in medical related fields left her feeling like an outsider.

“Not only was I the only woman of color in my five-year undergraduate pharmacy program, additionally, I was only one of two students of color,” she says. “You get used to the minority status issue in regards to race, but the lack of women, as well, was a little unsettling.”

After completing her undergraduate work earning a B.S. in Pharmacy, she regrouped. Her new husband launched his PhD program in organic pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Kansas, during which she took two courses in psychology while obtaining certification in pharmacy. She was then recruited into the social psychology doctoral training program by her research methods instructor, Grace Heider, wife of the social psychologist, Fritz Heider.  She was extended a fellowship and enrolled in the PhD psychology program at KU. However, given the completion rate of her husband’s doctoral training, she had time to complete only the Master’s degree.

When her husband received job offers in Chicago, Spencer’s thesis advisor, Dr. Frances Degen Horowitz, encouraged her to pursue her PhD at UChicago. “That opened the door for me to work with and to be instructed by three highly influential African American professors, including Allison Davis.”

Spencer completed her PhD at UChicago, and took faculty positions at Emory University and the University of Pennsylvania, before returning in 2009 to the Department of Comparative Human Development.

The doll study

Throughout her career, her research has included a focus on racial attitudes, preference behaviors and the self-esteem of black children who exhibit biases towards white stimuli. Her dissertation was based on the Doll Study conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, illustrating that a majority of young African-American children show a preference for dolls with white skin instead of black skin; reviewers of the Clarks’ research concluded the response patterns as representing a “pernicious effect of segregation.” The study was used to successfully argue the Brown vs. Board of Education case which eventually overturned “separate-but-equal” segregation in schools.

“I was incredibly interested in issues of race and children's development,” Spencer says.  In her Masters Thesis at KU she replicated the Clarks’ study using mechanized dolls and obtained similar data.

The findings of bias were once again demonstrated as part of her UChicago dissertation which demonstrated the same preference pattern but were interpreted differently given the identified role of social cognitive processes and included, as well, self esteem assessment.

She was invited to replicate and share the results of the study on CNN as well as in the ABC special, “Black in White America.” Both independent projects and airings helped to promote the reality that when children are exposed to conditions of racial inequality and bias they repeat—when asked—their responses represent observed and verbalized biased attitudes and behavior.

Spencer goes on to emphasize that, given children’s developmentally appropriate cognitive egocentrism, young black children do not necessarily internalize those opinions as expressions of self esteem; their responses simply represent their context linked exposures to biased values. Such positive interpretations of Black children’s behavior and development suggested a particular type of resiliency which, up to that point, had not been a consideration concerning the normal human development of children of color.

Starting with the interpretations concluded by reviewers from the Doll Studies, generally inferred for children of color were beliefs of black self-hatred. It impacted the Brown v Board of Education 1954 Decision which was implemented to support assumed Black child psychological benefits from integrated education with Whites.

Spencer’s reinterpretation of the Doll Studies set the stage for new theorizing about the humanity and normal development of children of color.

During the subsequent decade post dissertation completion, she went on to create the Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory (P-VEST). P-VEST is an identity-focused cultural and ecological sensitive systems theory of human development. Unlike most theories of human development, it is inclusive to minority and majority group individuals’ everyday experiences and acknowledges that all humans face challenges. But it is also accommodating of the fact that given conditions of inequality, certain humans are exposed to different levels of support and, thus—for some privilege, as well—which then precipitate differently patterned coping processes, she explains.

“What Allison Davis would add is that given the context and the methods of coping in the moment, those coping strategies become redundant and internalized as an identity.”

Now she is working on strategies to scaffold good outcomes through culturally sensitive and context-relevant programs. She points to a well-funded project she worked on at Penn in which her team financially compensated more than a thousand lower income high school students across multiple ethnicities for maintaining high academic performance.

In the program, A and B students received monthly stipends for maintaining good grades; while C and D students received payments if they attended after school health promoting-focused programming. It had a big impact, she says. Many C and D students began earning Bs and higher grades, and internalized new identities as health promoters for their peers, families and communities.  

She’s using those lessons learned to encourage students’ heightened participation and engagement in STEM learning through a collaborative program that makes use of digital turntable technology and a UChicago generated curriculum. The private sector-academic collaboration represents an “arts” imbued effort for promoting “STEAM” (i.e., “arts” innovated STEM learning and programming).  In collaboration with ThinkLive, Inc.!, a small business recipient of a NSF SBIR Phase II award led by Charles Spencer, and with initial funding to Spencer for her UChicago efforts from the Spencer Foundation, her team is developing culturally relevant curricula. Middle school students make use of DJ equipment technology as linked with specific curricula for enhancing engagement in math and science learning.

As another aspect of her Urban Resiliency Initiative (URI), she is also developing assessments for teachers and police officers to evaluate their own identification with those they are committed to teach and support. Anticipated findings from assessment tools will aid self-interrogation of supportive adults (e.g., in contexts of teaching and policing) leading to improved relationships with youth. The developed assessments will function as supportive tools for decreasing youth vulnerability.

Ultimately the assessment findings should assist parents as they socialize and support their students’ resiliency; for policing and teaching professionals, the assessment findings should improve the character of support provided youth.

“As humans, we unavoidably confront challenges,” she says. But by teaching authority figures to recognize their own efforts as potential unintended challenges, the process can minimize the high vulnerability of many urban youth contributed to by socially structured challenges and risks particularly detrimental to male urban youth of color.

“My ultimate agenda is not to fix kids; in general, our youth are fine,” she adds. “Alternatively, it is critical to fix the character and increase the efficacy of the adults in the lives of children.”

Stephen Raudenbush: Statistical models for academic success

Raudenbush came to academia later in life. After receiving his Bachelor’s degree in 1968, he spent two years in the army before seeking a teaching position in Boston. He ended up in an MIT-led teacher-training program focused on how teacher’s expectations shape student outcomes, which had a profound impact on his career plans. “I became deeply interested in educational inequality,” he says.

It motivated him to go to grad school at the age of 33, and to eventually complete a PhD. In his dissertation, he created a framework called the Hierarchical Linear Models in Education, which uses statistics to measure trends in academic and social development to draw clearer lines between statistical models and theories about how kids learn, grow, and develop. “Rather than treating individuals as independently responding to interventions, we see them as being embedded within these social settings,” he says. He believes the framework helps the statistical models to be more reflective of the setting to make them more realistic.

Raudenbush received his doctorate at Harvard in 1984, and after teaching at Michigan State and the University of Michigan, he joined UChicago’s Sociology Department in 2005. His desire to join UChicago ties to the work Davis began decades prior. “A big reason that I was interested in coming here was the exciting work going on in Chicago in education,” he says.

He was drawn to UChicago’s Urban Education Institute (formerly the Center for School Improvement) which strives to create stronger links between education research and practice, in order to foster greater equity and excellence in all public schooling. Within the Institute is the Consortium for Chicago School Research, through which researchers study groups of Chicago Public School (CPS) students throughout their education, and now offer teacher training using lessons learned to help teachers better address the needs of all students. “The consortium has been a remarkably productive enterprise, and very helpful to the City of Chicago and CPS in shaping policy,” he says.

Raudenbush is the founding chair of the Committee on Education, a new mechanism for interdisciplinary research and teaching. The committee conducts social scientific investigation of questions relevant to education, and brings together people from various disciplines to study the ways in which the social institutions of schooling interact with the tasks of youth development.

The committee is a reflection of UChicago’s collaborative cross-departmental culture, with interdisciplinary members from economics, psychology, comparative human development, sociology, public policy, and healthcare, he says, “They are all distinguished in their own disciplines, but share a common interest in child and youth development, and the roles of families, schools, and classrooms.”

A double dose of algebra

His work with these organizations has led to several real world studies, and published research, including The Ambitious Elementary School, (University of Chicago Press 2017), which he co-authored with Lisa Rosen, executive director of the UChicago Science of Learning Center, and Elizabeth Hassrick, assistant professor at the A. J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University. The book explores the impact of two innovative charter schools attended by African-American children on the South Side of Chicago. Teachers in these schools collaborate in a highly disciplined and self-conscious way to promote ambitious learning for every child. The team tracked students who were selected to attend the schools via lottery and those who were not. “The effects of attending these schools were remarkable,” he says. The study found the schools had a significant positive effect not only on mathematics but also on literacy. Inequality in literacy has been found historically difficult to change once children enter school, he says. The team also found that the impact remained strong into middle school, and actually increased. “It is a very important result because in many interventions, promising early effects tend to fade out as kids grow older.”

He’s in the midst of conducting another multi-year study on the impact of a program called ‘Double Dose Algebra’, in which high school students who score below a cut point in standardized math tests are assigned two periods of math -- a regular algebra course and a math review. “Ninth grade algebra has historically been a major gatekeeper for who graduates from high school and whether they go to college,” he says. 

An analysis of the student’s long-term progress in the program found the extended instructional time significantly increased the probability of their completing a college degree. “We are very excited about these results,” he says. “It is another example where we see sustained long-term effects.”

Raudenbush notes that some people believe this kind of in school intervention breaks with the UChicago tradition of pure scholarship, moving more in the direction of vocational training, but he disagrees. “This is a quintessential University of Chicago project," he says. “Our commitment is to produce knowledge about teaching and learning to make schools better, especially for the kids who are least likely to get good schooling.”

He believes the only way to achieve that goal is through collaboration between researchers and educators. “A lot of the best ideas about how kids learn are in the minds of expert practitioners,” he says. “As scholars, we have the opportunity to learn from practitioners and to really understand the theories that are implicit in the best practice.”

Michael Dinerstein:

Dinerstein joined UChicago as an assistant professor in the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics and the College in 2015, the year he completed his PhD at Stanford. As an applied micro-economist, he uses economic data to understand education markets, and how charter and private schools and other educational alternatives impact school choice options. “It's an exciting area in that a lot is changing at the moment,” he says.

Dinerstein studies many aspects of these academic trends, including the impacts of public school choice on student outcomes and the role networks play in charter school expansion. “It's a market that affects everyone and it's arguably one of the most important for life outcomes, yet it has been underexplored on the economic side,” he says. “That's what drew me.”

The challenge in studying the economics of educational markets is that schools don’t have the same profit-driven goals of private organizations. However, there are similarities, he says. For example, schools likely want to maximize capacity to make the best use of resources, which means they want to attract more students and lower attrition. But what happens when a new charter school opens nearby? “You might get a lot of the competitive interactions you might expect in a standard market with a profit-maximizing business.”

There are also arguments to support creating schools with smaller populations to meet specific needs that aren’t met in big public schools, and to offer variety in school choice to improve outcomes. Though measuring the impact of such options is challenging, he notes. These schools are typically judged based on student progress, but that can be affected by the types of students they attract, or their unique needs. “The types of information (schools) release are not what many economists would choose.”

Building on Davis’ work

Dinerstein doesn’t just study what’s happening in education markets. Like Raudenbush, he sees his role as part academic researcher, and part policy influencer. “As the researcher, one of the best roles is to study an important question, figure out what is going on, and then think about how things could change,” he says.

For example, he recently studied the impact on test scores when schools in low-income New York City communities received additional money for schools. At first glance, the conclusions appeared straight-forward. “They got more students and their test scores went up,” he says. But funding changes usually don’t produce such large enrollment and test score responses, so he wanted to determine what was different. Deeper analysis found that when the schools got more money, they became more attractive, which drew students from private schools. That resulted in some private schools shutting down, which reduced school choice, but also potentially improved the environment of the public schools. “If you get enough active parents in a school it can be a tipping point,” he says.

The point is that there are no easy solutions. “I try to use sorting patterns and economic modelling to understand what’s happening in these communities, and whether people are better off or worse off. Often the answers are nuanced.”

Dinerstein also participates in policy research in collaboration with Chapin Hall, an independent policy research center focused on research to benefit children, families, and their communities located on the UChicago campus. Chapin Hall conducts studies, and works with the Mayor's office and the Department of Family and Support Services to drive appropriate policy changes particularly around early childhood development. “One of their key policy areas is to guide what they call community-based organizations for early childhood education,” he says. 

Chapin Hall is currently helping to analyze the costs and benefits of Universal pre-k for four-year-olds in Chicago, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel approved before the end of his term. While the benefits of pre-k are largely acknowledged, policy makers need to understand how the program will be funded, where the space and teachers will come from, and what impact it will have on private providers and community day care organizations, he says. “There is always the question of how they should allocate money, which economists are well-trained to analyze.”

While the education system is far from perfect, Dinerstein is optimistic about the trends he’s seeing. “Even in my short career, I've noticed much more emphasis on (educational reform) than there had been in the past,” he says. This growing interest is generating more data, making it easier for education economists to generate conclusions that inform good policy. “There is a feedback cycle, which is one of the reasons I got into this field.”


Davis’ legacy lives on

While they are studying different aspects of education, Spencer, Raudenbush and Dinerstein all see strong links between Professor Davis’ work and their own research interests. “Allison Davis had a very positive view of children and understood the role of the context as well in their development,” Spencer says. She’s excited to continue the work he began so many decades ago.

They also see him as a powerful reflection of the academic culture and history of UChicago. “I think of our work as being a modern-day expression of the tradition that includes Allison Davis, St. Clair Drake, and members of the Chicago School of Sociology,” Raudenbush says. “It's hard to think of another location in the world where there's been more productive study of social relations and social inequality than Chicago.”

Dinerstein points to Davis’ 36 years at UChicago as another positive reflection of the university’s supportive academic environment. “His tenure at one school for so long is very telling,” he says. “We have a lot of faculty who've stayed here for a long time, which I think is a nice legacy.”