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IPR-Led Multidisciplinary Education Training Expands

Predoctoral program will partner with local high school for applied research


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Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach (left) discusses the Multidisciplinary Program in Education's fall speaker series with two of its newly accepted graduate students, Elizabeth Debraggio and Richard Morel.

Northwestern University’s Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences (MPES) received a $4 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), its third since the program’s creation in 2004 to train doctoral students from different disciplines in state-of-the-art education research methods. The ninth cohort will start in the fall, and it will be the first to participate in a unique research partnership with Evanston Township High School (ETHS).

“We want people to do useful and usable research,” said IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, who directs the program. She noted how hard it is to train people who can combine cutting-edge methodology, ask and answer important questions and then translate their research so educators can use it. “That’s a tall order, but that’s what we want,” she continued, “and looking at our MPES alums, that’s the type of work they do.”

Additionally, the new partnership with ETHS will provide an out-of-the-classroom experience that Schanzenbach says is rare for graduate students.

“We’re going to send in teams of graduate students who will try to answer an applied question that they have,” she said. “It’s extremely unusual for a graduate student to have an opportunity like that, and it’s really exciting.”

Northwestern was one of five universities that IES awarded the 2014 training program grants to; the others are New York University, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Virginia.

The three-year training program allows Northwestern PhD students from a number of different disciplines to pair multidisciplinary coursework, which Schanzenbach considers a necessity to study education well, with conducting research with affiliated MPES and IPR faculty and completing the ETHS applied research practicum. Schanzenbach hopes the practicum will improve upon a program that has already produced 52 alumni.

Alumni of the program credit it with giving them a knowledge base to understand education policy issues from multiple perspectives, as well as providing a community of fellow students and faculty with related interests.

Aaron Sojourner (PhD, Economics ‘09), an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, said the multidisciplinary approach of MPES was an ideal fit for him.

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The ninth MPES cohort will start in the fall of 2014. 

“I wanted to understand how to help people reach their potential and live lives where they have more control and agency, and that depends on skills and human capacity,” Sojouner said, noting his appreciation for being able to take a variety of classes all focused on important policy and human development issues. “So where do those things come from? That’s what got me interested in education as a field.”

Vivian Wong (PhD, Human Development and Social Policy ‘10) is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, who credits MPES with bringing together a heterogeneous education research community.

“I think different disciplinary perspectives have their strengths and weaknesses,” Wong said. “It’s important to have an understanding and an appreciation of the ways in which researchers from different disciplinary perspectives approach education research. These are important skills for collaborating and working with people from various disciplinary backgrounds in order to improve the overall quality of education research.”

Wong, a methodologist focused on evaluation of education policies, was named the 2010 IES Outstanding Predoctoral Fellow, selected for her work on regression discontinuity designs conducted with her thesis adviser, IPR social psychologist Thomas D. Cook.

“The questions I worked on were embedded in real-world problems that researchers encountered in an evaluation setting. In this case, it was about appropriate methods for evaluating No Child Left Behind,” Wong continued. “That’s a nice opportunity to have—to have your methodology work grounded in solving problems that applied researchers actually face.”

Columbia University assistant professor Elizabeth Tipton (PhD, Statistics ‘11) said her experience since graduating has shown her how rare the skills provided by a multidisciplinary background are.

“When I was in graduate school, [IPR statistician and education policy researcher] Larry Hedges, my adviser, always said there was a very small number of people who could do both—be a statistician and have a background in education research,” Tipton said. “Being on a hiring committee at Teachers College, I’ve found it is true. I think the skill set I got in MPES is not one that many people have—being able to do statistics and know something about a content area.”

The MPES alumni also credit the program for creating a community that would change and shape their research during and after their time at Northwestern.

“The most long-lasting part of it has been building a network of people,” Tipton said, noting she still frequently consults and collaborates with fellow MPES participants and faculty. “I don’t think I would have met other people with this combination of interests without a program like this.”

Sojouner agreed with Tipton, saying he still seeks advice from his fellow MPES students on his current work. He added, “If I hadn’t gone into the program, I don’t think I would have been able to work on these topics as much as I have. It got me invested in the area of education and helped me to build expertise in this area—and that has influenced the kind of questions I’m equipped to handle and make contributions in.”

The ninth MPES cohort will start in September, with students from human development and social policy, statistics, and psychology. In all, 20 IPR and School of Education and Social Policy faculty either teach or serve as mentors for the program. For more information on the program, go to http://mpes.sesp.northwestern.edu/.

Photo credits: P. Reese (top), S. Drey