Equity Cluster Hire: An Investment With Continuing Returns

Education faculty members, from left, Bianca Montrosse-Moorehead, Jennifer Freeman, Shaun Dougherty, Jennie Weiner, Hannah Dostal, and Tamika La Salle. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Faculty members (from left): Bianca Montrosse-Moorhead, Jennifer Freeman, Shaun Dougherty, Jennie Weiner, Hannah Dostal, and Tamika La Salle. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Neag School faculty members have a long history of examining the factors that influence equitable access to education, including issues that affect learning opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds and cultures.

Through collaborative as well as individual research endeavors, Neag School faculty across each department have investigated the complexities of social justice and equity issues through a variety of lenses — from perspectives based on a specific educational discipline, such as gifted education or literacy, to such multi-level, schoolwide approaches as positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS).

Social justice and equity remains an area of focus for Neag School researchers, particularly given that the achievement gap[1] between Connecticut’s low-income and minority students and their peers is among the largest in the United States.[2] In an effort to push its focus in this area even further, the Neag School in 2013 hired a cluster of researchers committed to examining social justice and equity issues. This cluster consists of six faculty members who actively engage with colleagues across and beyond the School on a wide range of ongoing studies related to educational equity, school climate, student behavior, and more, all of which continues to build on the many research contributions made by fellow Neag School faculty in these areas.

Social justice and equity remains an area of focus for
Neag School researchers, particularly given that the achievement gap between Connecticut’s low-income and minority students and their peers is among the largest in the United States. 

The cluster “has allowed me to be among those who are focusing their energy on continuing to do studies that … tackle education’s most pressing and most difficult-to-answer questions, and that have potential to make a difference for students, educators, and schools,” says Bianca Montrosse-Moorhead, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology. The achievement gap, she adds, “is a complex problem that will require all of us to work collaboratively, and honor the unique expertise and experience we all bring to bear on the issue.”

Here, the Neag School highlights several key avenues of research work — including recent as well as ongoing studies — involving one or more members of the cluster since its formation in 2013:


In the first statewide evaluation of its kind, several Neag School faculty recently worked to explore issues of educational equity in a large-scale evaluation of Connecticut’s School Readiness Pre-Kindergarten program. Led by assistant professor Bianca Montrosse-Moorhead, the study also involved assistant professors Shaun M. Dougherty, Jennie Weiner, Tamika La Salle, and Hannah Dostal, in addition to a number of Neag School graduate and undergraduate research assistants.

The Neag School’s experts — tapped as subcontracted researchers by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering, on behalf of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee — designed and implemented the study, as well as outlined its findings, which were presented at a briefing this past September at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn.

Findings revealed positive impacts for students attending this state-funded program; in fact, on average, children who attended the program received a 50 percent boost in early literacy skills, and about a 40 percent boost in early numeracy skills, as compared with children who did not participate in the program, according to Montrosse-Moorhead.

“I believe this study will be helpful to the state as they continue to consider how best to allocate resources among initiatives designed to help close the state’s achievement gap,” says Montrosse-Moorhead, who is also participating in numerous other studies related to educational equity. These include one centered on raising the quality of science education in the U.S., and another examining the enactment of gifted and talented programs, both of which are in the data collection phase.

Learn more about the Early Childhood Regression Discontinuity Study (PDF format).

Another study, conducted by assistant professors Shaun M. Dougherty and Jennie Weiner, examines the impact of federal education policy on school performance.

“The Obama administration invested large amounts of money to support the improvement of chronically underperforming schools and districts,” Weiner says. Such funding has gone toward implementing federal policies that include Race to the Top (RTTT) — a $4.35 billion U.S. Department of Education initiative intended to reward states that demonstrate success in raising K-12 student achievement — and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was reauthorized last year by President Barack Obama as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Although these types of federal policies are intended to provide equal opportunity for all students, they often, Weiner says, end up targeting school districts that disproportionately serve students of color and at-risk populations.

“Our work centers on the fundamental question of the effectiveness of such policies and whether they translate to improved opportunities and learning for students within them,” she says. “Our findings suggest that they often do not — and that real change requires investments in infrastructure; comprehensive and coherent approaches to reform; and time.”

Weiner has also looked more closely at the experience of school leaders in turnaround settings as they attempt to implement these reform measures and enhance opportunity and achievement among the nation’s most at-risk youth. These efforts include the recently released paper “Possibilities or Paradoxes?: How Aspiring Turnaround Principals Conceptualize Turnaround and Their Place Within It” in School Leadership and Management. In addition to this study, other work on turnaround leadership and effectiveness, including the impact of gender bias on female turnaround leaders, and her recent collaboration on the Pre-K program evaluation, Weiner’s research on the opportunity gap includes ongoing research examining the impact of charter schools, among other work.

Hannah Dostal, assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, is involved in a number of literacy-related projects, one of which is focused on a framework for writing instruction specifically designed for deaf and hard of hearing students, known as Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction (SIWI).

The three-year Institute of Education Studies (IES) study, which involves students in Grades 3 through 5, finds that exposure to SIWI consistently boosts language and writing scores for deaf and hard of hearing students in these grades — regardless of their beginning language or writing proficiency.

“Supporting deaf and hard of hearing students as they develop their expressive language skills and engage in critical thinking and reasoning provides essential building blocks for literacy attainment,” Dostal says.

To learn more, access “The Writing Performance of Elementary Students Receiving Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction[1],” which Dostal co-published last year in the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. A related study on a professional development program for SIWI, titled “A Three-Year Study of a Professional Development Program’s Impact on Teacher Knowledge and Classroom Implementation of Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction” and co-published earlier this year in the Journal of Educational Research, is also available online. Dostal’s other studies in this particular area are available here.

In addition, she is engaged in collaborative work on disciplinary literacy, which involves partnerships across several universities, and a professional development partnership providing support for literacy instructional practices for literacy with Windsor (Conn.) Public Schools, among other projects.

“I think it is important to work directly with teachers in their classrooms, and to interact with children across the state, in order to ensure that research efforts are informed by, and closely related to, the vibrant, challenging realities of public schools,” Dostal says.

[1] Dostal, H., & Wolbers, K. (2016). Examining Student Writing Proficiencies Across Genres: Results of an intervention study. Deafness & Education International, 18:3, 159-169.

“Minority students represent a disproportionate number of students who are suspended or expelled from school, and who often face more severe consequences for similar behavior infractions,” says Jennifer Freeman, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology. “If we focus on teaching social and behavioral expectations just as we teach academics, we can level the playing field and improve outcomes for all students.”

Freeman has been pursuing two separate, but complementary, lines of research as they relate to improving behavioral outcomes for all students.

Awarded a 2015 Research Excellence Program grant from UConn’s Office of the Vice President for Research, Freeman is heading up an exploratory study examining the relationship between positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS); school climate; and college and career readiness in high schools across the U.S. Results will be available in the coming year.

In addition, Freeman is partnering with Brandi Simonsen, associate professor at the Neag School, to identify and test effective professional development methods for teachers to improve their use of classroom management practices. Their work has included two group case studies and one single case study in both elementary and high school settings in the past three years.

“In particular at the high school level, we often assume — wrongly — that students have the social and learning skills required to organize themselves, study effectively, negotiate with adults, and work collaboratively with peers,” says Freeman, who has to date published multiple peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and other publications related to her specific areas of research, including the Supporting and Responding to Student Behavior technical assistance guide, released at the White House last fall.

“Directly teaching and supporting students with these skills as part of an overall, multi-tiered behavioral framework can lead to positive academic and behavioral outcomes for students,” Freeman says. “However, identifying effective practices for students without also identifying implementation supports is insufficient. In order to teach students these skills effectively, teachers need support, including effective and efficient professional development and performance feedback.”

At the same time, published and forthcoming work on the opportunity gap by assistant professor Shaun M. Dougherty focuses on how educational policies and programs can address systematic differences in educational outcomes by family income, race, and disability status. For instance, Dougherty has been working to examine everything from the experiences of black student-athletes at historically black colleges and predominantly white institutions to the impact on high school students participating in career and technical education.

His forthcoming work in Education Finance and Policy demonstrates how one model of career and technical education delivery in Massachusetts substantially increased high school graduation rates, with even larger gains for students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. In a second forthcoming paper in the Review of Research in Education, Dougherty and Neag School co-author Allison Lombardi explore the centuries-old linkage between education and career preparation, including the insidious ways tracking had been used to limit educational access for lower-income youth and youth of color throughout the 20th century.

Dougherty has received significant research funding from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to evaluate career and technical education in Connecticut and to examine principal evaluation as well as from the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood to expand the evaluation of Pre-K in Connecticut[1].

“Differences in the academic performance between groups of students,” he says, “is a function of complex social conditions that are perpetuated by unequal systems of school funding, and a lack of flexibility in the way that school districts are organized.”

Since joining the Neag School in 2013, Dougherty also has teamed up with his colleagues on the recent Pre-K program evaluation as well as additional publications on student-athletes in college, federal education policy, and access to career and technical education, among numerous other published and forthcoming publications with fellow cluster member Jennie Weiner; Lombardi and Joseph Cooper, assistant professors at the Neag School; and others within and beyond the Neag School, including such colleagues as Eric Brunner and Steven Ross in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

See additional information about research relating to race, income, and disability status conducted by assistant professor Tamika La Salle in the following section.

[1] Dougherty, S.M. (PI), Montrosse-Moorhead, B. (Co-PI), Dostal, H., La Salle, T., and Weiner, J. An Evaluation of Connecticut’s Federal Prekindergarten Expansion Grant Implementation. Funding agency: Connecticut Office of Early Childhood.  (2015-2019, $836,671).

In addition to her partnership on the large-scale evaluation of Connecticut’s School Readiness Pre-Kindergarten program, assistant professor Tamika La Salle has largely focused her work on the development, validation, integration, and practical application of school climate surveys as well as the influence of culture on student outcomes.

“I see my research as being focused on two primary areas: culturally responsive educational environments and school climate,” she says.

Her efforts have resulted in numerous peer-reviewed articles in such journals as International Journal of School and Educational Psychology and School Psychology Forum; book chapters; a technical manual; as well as additional research partnerships with fellow faculty. La Salle’s school climate surveys, for instance, have been integrated into Freeman’s research in this area. These surveys are available through the Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS); La Salle works with the Center on integrating culture and climate within the evidence-based PBIS framework.

The recipient of a 2015 Research Excellence Program grant from UConn’s Office of the Vice President for Research, La Salle is also conducting research in a local school district focused on PBIS, school climate, and culture.

Beyond advancing research in these areas, La Salle is engaging in service that supports the state; taking part in school- and district-level professional development inside and outside of Connecticut to promote culturally responsive practices; and developing school climate surveys that have been used nationally and internationally.

Her work in these area, in turn, connects back to various aspects of culture, including race, disability, and income. Having not only published articles on the significance of examining culture within the context of education, but also having developed a model for examining culture and climate from an ecological framework, La Salle sees her work stemming from the examination of educational contexts through a cultural lens — and using this information to guide the ways in which educational settings are organized to meet the needs of students. Here, she says, she sees herself “at the intersection between culture and climate.”

“If our goal is to create educational environments that are conducive to positive (academic, behavioral, social, and emotional) outcomes, we must examine practices, strategies, and efforts within the cultural context of students,” La Salle says. “Making concerted efforts to create environments that are culturally responsive to the students, families, teachers, and communities in which schools reside increase the likelihood that students will experience positive school climates and have more positive school outcomes.”


Collectively, these achievements signal that this faculty cluster at the Neag School remains a key voice in national social justice and equity conversations, offering valuable, relevant, and promising insights and powerful ongoing research efforts.

[1] https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/studies/gaps/
[2] http://ctedreform.org/whats-the-achievement-gap/

Access a current list of publications showcasing the range of scholarship in this area authored by members of the cluster.