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Associate Professor Allison Skerrett’s research includes examining the educational experiences of transnational youths, students who live across two or more countries, for some of whom formal schooling across different countries is part of their transnational lifestyle. Since 2016, she has been part of a 10-member International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA), advising the Scottish government on issues related to education and inequity. Her second two-year appointment begins in September.

The following is a Q&A in which Skerrett explains her work with the ICEA and its potential to impact education in Scotland as well as her own research and teaching.

How have you applied your research interests within your work in Scotland?

The Scottish government’s goal for the ICEA is to provide them with the best evidence-based advice on improving their education system, and educational and social outcomes for all K-12 students. A major focus of the Scottish government’s educational improvement plan is increasing all students’ literacy achievement and, in particular, closing (an ideal) the achievement gap between students living in poverty and those with more advantages.

I have been able to draw from my research on Allison Skerrett with the council in Scotlandadolescent literacy to broaden our conversations about literacy achievement. For example, I have spoken about the significance of ensuring that the literacy curriculum students receive in school connects to the ways in which students use literacy in their personal, social, community, and work lives. I have also advised the Minister and Deputy First Minister of Education and their staff that there are multiple approaches to reading instruction and that teachers must be knowledgeable about when and how to draw on different approaches. Additionally, I, along with the entire council, have advised that curriculum policy must provide the flexibility as well as support for teachers to be decision-makers in their classrooms based in their knowledge of their students and their needs.

Participating in the ICEA has given me an insider’s perspective on how pivotal empirical research and expertise drawn from many contexts can be in helping policymakers understand the changing landscape of education and educational knowledge, and be willing to work toward educational improvement. In short, my work on the ICEA encourages me greatly to press forward with my research with the hope that it, along with other research in this area, certainly can ultimately influence educational policy.

Much of the work in Scotland seems focused on the disparity in academic performance between low-income and high-income students. How have you applied your expertise in transnational students and their education?

Scotland, like many other world nations, has a growing population of students that are sometimes labeled as migrant or refugee students. I have asked questions of our Scottish colleagues about whether and in what ways this particular demographic of the student population is in need of or receiving special consideration in policy and practice. The Scottish educational culture is very much grounded in conversations about inequities stemming from poverty and while the recognition of the entanglements of class, immigrant status, and other social differences is acknowledged in education and society, these intersections or transnational students in particular have not been a major part of policy conversation.

I keep raising discussions about transnationalism and student diversity more generally with educators I interact with and asking questions and providing insights about the diversity that exists within student populations and why it’s important to attend to those differences when seeking to improve educational practice and student learning.

How have you and the group begun addressing the equity gap between students?

In our first term (2016-2018) as a group of international education advisers, the council strongly recommended against standardized assessments as a way to “measure” and “close” the “achievement gap.” I place all these words in quotation marks because of the problematic beliefs and educational practices such ideas have propagated in many contexts, including in the U.S. The council worked with the Scottish government to consider the kinds of data they needed about student performance and how that data would be used by schools and teachers and urged the government to stay the course with a commendable flexible national curriculum already in place, Curriculum for Excellence.

Allison Skerrett being interviewed in ScotlandIn short, based in our experience we urged the government to do nothing that would make teachers and students feel a restriction of literacy and numeracy curriculum because of national testing but be clear that data would be used to guide individualized instruction for each child while all students continued to experience a curriculum with broad learning goals (academic, social, and civic) with continuing flexibility for teachers to innovate how to teach in ways that helped students accomplish those goals. I believe this was one of our most important early achievements because we know that once particular students have been identified by a particular measure of being on the “wrong” end of the “achievement gap” that schooling can quickly become a soulless experience that actually pushes students out of school, psychologically and physically, achieving the very opposite of equity.

Over the first two years of our term we have also advised the government on how to make Scotland a stronger school and teacher-led educational system with strong professional learning supports at all levels of education and with minimum legislation. The committee’s first full report on our advisory work with the Scottish government was recently published on June 26, 2018.

Based on your research, how can teachers and policy makers better understand the educational needs of multicultural student populations?

I think seeking out the voices of students, families, and communities is key to understanding the educational experiences, cultural strengths and resources of diverse student populations, and their expectations of education. Doing so will provide insights to teachers and policy makers about how to be thoughtfully responsive in ensuring that diverse populations experience an education that is representative of who they are and are becoming and support them in meeting their goals. Beyond inviting these parties into conversations into educational policy conversations, I believe that teachers and policymakers need to better understand diversity by actually spending a great deal more time in communities and schools (in the case of policymakers) to truly understand the strengths and needs of diverse students, families, and communities. One positive outcome of those interactions is that teachers and policymakers will be exposed to the richness and strength of diverse students and their communities allowing them to view these communities from an appreciative perspective and as partners, rather than a narrow view of them being in need of “help.” It will promote thoughtful development of educational experiences that are in alignment with who students are, what they know and can do, and where and how they need and wish to grow.

Final thoughts

Being a member of Scotland’s ICEA has been one of the most unique and important professional learning opportunities for me. As researchers and teacher educators, we often view educational policy making at a distance. We may analyze, critique, and commend policy and their affects, and teach our students how to negotiate with curriculum policy in their teaching but few of us have the opportunity to actually participate in educational policy making at a national level with government officials who create them.

It has been tremendously encouraging to work with a national government deeply interested in dialogue with a range of educational scholars and who are sincerely careful that policy serves the goals of educational justice and does not cause unintended harm.

Skerrett is Louise Spence Griffeth Fellow for Excellence in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.

It can be difficult for those with a fine motor disability to complete certain gestures. An undergraduate researcher is studying how different forces or force combinations may be more strenuous to conduct than others. By having volunteers perform specific motions, his research has the ability to assist physical therapists in demonstrating therapy processes to patients.

Pinching motor skills apparatus

Motor Skills Apparatus

Jacob Vines, senior Kinesiology and Health Education student, was awarded the Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the Office of Undergraduate Research for spring 2018. His novel exploratory project titled “Digit Force Magnitude and Inter-digit Force Coordination Effects on Performance of a Complex Low-Level Force Pinch” examines motor function in adults.

Inspiration for Research

While working in the Motor Coordination Lab led by Professor Lawrence Abraham, Vines was inspired to pursue this research after seeing the crossover between the research of hand and finger motor control and the process of rehabilitation of hand and finger injuries in physical therapy.

Research Overview

In his research project, volunteers perform a complex coordination task to determine the dexterity of right-handed adults aged 18 to 30 years with no known neurological or musculoskeletal disorders of the right hand or arm.

Photo of Jacob Vines

Jacob Vines

“The complex coordination task was to use the right thumb and index finger to move a cursor counterclockwise around a diamond shape that was placed in four locations on the computer screen (up/down/right/left). For this task, force with the index finger moved the cursor vertically and force with the thumb moved the cursor horizontally,” said Vines.

“The choice of doing the index finger and thumb is to imitate general fine motor control like unbuttoning a shirt, and the use of the diamond task is to have varying forces between the thumb and index finger, which occurs in everyday life activities,” said Vines. “By using different finger combinations or a different task, the result would change completely from the current study. It would also not be as applicable to everyday life activities.”

Advice for Students Pursuing Undergraduate Research

Vines credits the research with helping guide him in pursuing a professional career. He has been able to better understand the process of scientific research as he decides whether or not he wants to pursue physical therapy and research different physical therapy techniques.

He advises students who are interested in conducting research to “formally and confidently email different labs doing research that you find interesting. Also, talk to any professors who teach classes you enjoy and ask if they have any open undergraduate research positions.”

Our faculty in the College of Education is devoted to improving educational opportunities for marginalized groups, through research of inclusive learning practices.

Black students often face educational disadvantages that prevent them from achieving academic success. This is due in part to limited research that allows teachers to better connect with their students.

As we close out Black History Month, it’s an important opportunity to take a look at examples of the work our faculty have done to expand research and support the success of African American students at all grade levels.

Repository for Research into Education of Black Males

Photo of Dr. Louis Harrison and Dr. Anthony Brown

Professors Louis Harrison and Anthony Brown

African American males face many obstacles in education: disproportionate dropout, expulsion and suspension rates, overrepresentation in special education, and underrepresentation in gifted education.

So how can existing research be easily accessed?

Professor Louis Harrison and Associate Professor Anthony Brown have established The Black Male Education Research Collection to assist researchers, journalists, and policymakers with researching the issues of black males in education. BMERC is a collection of scholarly articles from peer-reviewed journals, interviews, reports, and monthly videos that cover a wide variety of topics from the nation’s top scholars on black male education.

Book Highlights Early 20th-Century African-American Education Intellectuals

Keffrelyn and Anthony Brown

Keffrelyn Brown and Anthony Brown

Associate professors Keffrelyn Brown and Anthony Brown answer questions regarding their book about three black education leaders’ ideas. “Black Intellectual Thought in Education: The Missing Traditions of Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G. Woodson, and Alain LeRoy Locke,” analyzes the contributions of these education leaders and a counternarrative for black students.

For Men of Color, High Academic Motivation Does Not Bring Academic Success

Composed of 453,000 student responses nationwide, the Aspirations to Achievement: Men of Color and Community Colleges was produced by the College of Education’s Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) to analyze the academic outcome for men of color in comparison to white male students. This study questions the negative effects of stereotyping and academic testing readiness among different races of men.

“Despite Black and Hispanic males reporting higher aspirations to earn a community college certificate or degree than their White peers, only 5 percent of those who attend community colleges earn certificates or degrees in three years, as opposed to 32 percent of White males,” says Kay McClenney, CCCSE director.

Caring for Black Male Students Requires More Than Good Intentions, According to Education Study

A student holds up a book in a classroom

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Studies show that black male students are struggling in school because they lack a connection with their teachers. Assessing how to better engage with students is a beneficial way of encouraging learning.

Assistant Professor Sepehr Vakil describes the use of politicized caring, “when teachers acknowledge the ways schools reproduce racialized and gendered stereotypes. These teachers then cultivate relationships with marginalized students in ways that acknowledge their oppression and their developmental needs as children and as learners.”

Valentine’s Day is a day for romance—cards and chocolates, flowers and dinner dates. It’s a day to celebrate love and affection.

But are men really that into it? Or are they just going along to keep their partners happy?

Aaron Rochlen researches men and masculinity, with a focus on men’s mental health. He’s a program director and professor in the Department of Educational Psychology in the College of Education. He offers his perspective on how Valentine’s Day is perceived by many men who identify as heterosexual. He also discusses why it may be hard for some men to express their feelings openly.

Is Valentine’s Day an Obligation?

“Speaking in broad generalizations, women in relationships are perceived as embracing the romantic element that Valentine’s Day reinforces,” says Rochlen. “Women may be seeking an emotional connection they don’t always receive, or at least not as much as they’d prefer, from their male partners.”

“My sense is that men have this same emotional capacity, but accessing and expressing emotions may be more difficult to many guys,” says Rochlen.

The pressure to express that emotion may add to a sense of obligation some men feel about making a big deal about Valentine’s Day.

Rochlen says that personally, he’d rather not be on a timeline for expressing closeness and generosity. “When men feel there’s a specific date to express emotions—like Valentine’s Day— hanging over them, it’s tricky. Many guys would rather take out their partners for dinner or be romantic at other points in their relationship, when it comes more naturally or spontaneously, instead of being dictated by a calendar.”

Rochlen says he’s seen that pressure from family, friends, and even significant others can influence a man’s perception of masculinity.

“Men often are reinforced by culture to equate love with sexuality versus relational closeness and affection,” says Rochlen. “Men are socialized in troublesome ways to be sexually dominant and demonstrate power over women.”

There’s Hope

Yet men may feel that they scorned for being too masculine, but ridiculed for not being masculine enough. This Catch-22 can influence how they see Valentine’s Day.

However, Rochlen says he’s noticing a cultural movement that’s redefining masculinity—it’s becoming more acceptable for men to express their vulnerable side, even with each other. “There’s a shift toward men deciding ‘let’s embrace each other—metaphorically and literally.’”

Rochlen’s recent op-ed in Psychology Today, “A Positive and Refined Masculinity,” takes a look at how physical and emotional contact among men is changing. He references the NFL’s 2018 Super Bowl commercial featuring Eli Manning and Odell Beckham, Jr. “It shows us a different message of masculinity — one of playfulness, creativity, closeness with other men.” The NFL wouldn’t have considered airing an ad like this even five years ago.

Photo of Aaron Rochlen

Aaron Rochlen

Rochlen says the NFL may be opening up a new playbook on masculinity that a lot of men could follow.

Are we seeing men’s perceptions of Valentine’s Day changing? Maybe.

As more men begin to think it’s acceptable to express vulnerability and care, maybe their perception of Valentine’s Day will shift too. Says Rochlen, “And that would really be something to celebrate.”