Does It Work? Curry’s VEST Fellows Apply Science to Improve Education

With schools under increasing pressure to achieve quantifiable results, many of them do something counter-intuitive: They launch new programs without much proof that these approaches will work.

“Despite decades of research in education, there are still many policies and approaches to teaching that are widely used but have surprisingly little basis in research,” said Sara Rimm-Kaufman, a professor in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

Rimm-Kaufman co-directs a program that seeks to better inform those policy decisions through science-based research. The Virginia Education Science Training Fellows program is designed to train Ph.D. students for careers in the education sciences with a focus on research that impacts policy and K-12 educators.

The program, which launched in 2004, recently received its third round of grant funding from the Institute for Education Sciences. The $4.8 million renewal will allow approximately 25 new VEST Fellows to join the program over the next four years in tackling some of the thorniest issues vexing educational policymakers today.

“Our fellows choose tough questions,” Rimm-Kaufman said. “What strategies are best to teach math to students from immigrant backgrounds who are just learning English? What are the essential elements of adult-youth mentoring relationships that help youth become leaders or promote students’ motivation to learn? What policies work best to differentially retain the most effective teachers in low-performing schools?

“Ultimately, each of our fellows will develop a line of work with clear impact for education.”

Members of the entering class of fellows are enrolled in Ph.D. programs in educational psychology and applied developmental science and education policy. The fellowship covers tuition, insurance, a stipend, travel expenses to present research at conferences and support for other research activities. It also provides a unique set of opportunities and requirements that fellows must complete on top of the academic requirements of their Ph.D. program.

This year’s fellows are being mentored by 41 faculty members drawn from the Curry School, the College of Arts & Sciences and the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

The fellows take a multidisciplinary approach to their work that is enhanced by connections across the University.

“This award has enabled the University and Curry School to not only contribute to the training of top-notch young scholars working on significant scientific problems in public education, but also to foster a level of interdisciplinary and cross-school, cross-department connections that are often tough to build,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School and the primary investigator on the grant.

Fellows and mentors consider the economics and policies shaping education; the sociological factors impacting children, families, educators and communities; and the psychological experiences of children and adolescents and the adults – parents teachers, mentors – who support their growth, Rimm-Kaufmann said..

Over the last 10 years, the program has evolved to bring a unique focus on how education research impacts policy and K-12 educators and leaders. The latest cohort of fellows will draw upon relationships with school districts and practitioners, such as the District of Columbia Public School System, Fairfax County Public Schools and the Virginia and Maryland departments of education.

VEST Fellows Mindy Adnot and Veronica Katz, enrolled in the education policy doctoral program, have been at work on a project with the D.C. Public School System that has served as one of the catalysts for this new focus.

Adnot and Katz both chose the Curry School to work specifically with Jim Wyckoff, a professor of education policy and co-director of the VEST Fellows program. When they arrived, Wyckoff was beginning a research project in partnership with the D.C. public schools in the city’s IMPACT program, an innovative and somewhat controversial program for assessing teacher performance and improving teacher quality. Adnot and Katz quickly got involved in the project.

“Initially, much of our time was spent preparing data from the school system for analysis,” Katz said. But their level of involvement quickly increased. “We are now taking the lead on group research projects while simultaneously pushing along our independent research.”

Adnot and Katz find themselves frequently taking the train to Washington to meet with school officials to discuss the IMPACT research and their own research projects.

“Both Veronica and I completed capstone projects by tackling specific policy analyses that were of interest to different stakeholders within DCPS, but were not part of our team research agenda,” Adnot said.

A research apprenticeship always has been, and will continue to be, the VEST program’s core experience, Wykoff said.

Fellows work on a variety of research projects, taking leadership roles. Faculty support the fellows and work with them to attain high levels of scholarship. Fellows present and publish their work as academics, but also communicate their findings to policymakers, administrators and teachers.

Adnot believes the VEST program has shaped her perspective on what she will do next.

“I want to do applied research that is valued and will be used by policymakers and practitioners,” Adnot said. “Our experience with DCPS has shown me that there are districts who are seeking to continuously improve their policies and practices, and see research as a tool for doing that.”

This grant award brings to the Curry School 15 years of continuous support for the VEST Fellows program.  

“That we have been awarded another cycle of funding speaks volumes about the training environment here at the University, the interest in education among doctoral students and affiliated faculty, and the rigor of the work our students produce,” Pianta said.

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

Curry School of Education