Empowering students through research
Doctoral candidates work closely with professor to evaluate charter schools
UTA's five-year study of the performance of charter schools in Texas will likely affect legislative attitudes about the charter school style of public education. Much of that research has been conducted by a succession of doctoral students working under the direction of Professor Del Taebel in the School of Urban and Public Affairs.
Graduate students and professors often collaborate on academic projects. "But when such partnerships influence state and potentially even national policy on something
-SUPA Professor Del Taebel
Graduate students and professors often collaborate on academic projects. That's nothing new.
"But when such partnerships influence state and potentially even national policy on something as important as public education strategies, they operate in an often politicized, pressure-cooker situation that demands extreme attention to detail and absolute fairness," Dr. Taebel said.
Some background: Charter schools are public schools set up by individuals, groups of individuals or organizations, sometimes even by universities. Though state funded, they have no taxation powers.
"They were started on the grounds that they might be more innovative and able to break loose of so many of the regulations that are imposed on traditional schools," Dr. Taebel said. "The hope was that they'd be able to provide both a higher quality of education and competition for the other schools."
But since charter schools were so new five years ago, there was no sense of how to fairly evaluate academic progress. UTA was one of three state universities asked by the Texas Education Agency to cooperatively develop an evaluation system.
It has been a growing job as more charter schools came online. In the first year, 17 were evaluated. Five years later, the number is 160 and still growing.
Over the past five years, three doctoral studentsChristine Brenner, Susan Chaison and Theresa Danielhave been graduate assistants on the evaluation project, all working with Dr. Taebel.
"The graduate assistants were part of the entire process, including meetings between the three universities involved in the research," Dr. Taebel said. "They were participants, not observers, and since they were dealing with the study on a daily basis, they were able to make valuable ongoing contributions."
The outcome of the project is one thing, the value of the experience to the students another.
Brenner, the original graduate assistant, is now Dr. Brenner and a professor at U.T. El Paso. She helped design the original survey instruments that were directed at principals or headmasters at charter schools.
"I was also the former school board president of the Aledo school district," Brenner recalls. "A lot of the issues were familiar, except that instead of listening to people talk about our public education problems, I was studying them."
More importantly for Brenner, her graduate assistant role with Dr. Taebel established a precedent for her own relationships with students.
"With Dr. Taebel you really didn't get the feeling of 'me professor, you student,' but you came away instead with a sense that you were really a co-worker, albeit a sort of junior partner," she said. "I think professors have to do more than teach. They must empower students."
At the same time, Brenner realized that work of this significance would be put under a political microscope. "Dr. Taebel knew it was crucial not to have an agenda of performance expectations and provided the guidance to make it so. I like to think that kind of mentoring has been my model for working with my students today."
While it was Brenner who helped design evaluation surveys, it has been Daniel who did much of the statistical crunching. The holder of three master's degrees, Daniel is virtually a pro at this kind of work. "Instead of the term 'older student,' I prefer to think of myself as an experienced student," she said with a laugh.
As such, she isn't looking for mentors.
"Which is not to say that it isn't incredibly helpful to have someone who's been down the path, as Dr. Taebel has," she said. "He has a high level of professional competence and confidence. So our relationship has developed into something that's part student, part peer. Being part of this project has also definitely increased my research expertise."
Incidentally, the nitty-gritty of the charter school evaluation is that while some students do well in such systems, students at public schools generally outperform students with similar backgrounds at the state's less-regulated charter schools.
What the TEA and the Legislature eventually do with all of this information is up to them. But obtaining the essentials needed to make such decisions wouldn't have been possible without the data collected, crunched and evaluated by UTA graduate assistants.