How can Houston’s education pipeline produce a strong workforce?
What’s the best way to address segregation facing Houston-area schools?
How can we improve bilingual education in one of the most diverse parts of the country?
And how can we develop programs that serve all students in metro Houston, even as the region faces rising levels of concentrated poverty?
Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research will explore the answers to those types of questions, and more, thanks to a $10.7 million, seven-year grant from the Kinder Foundation announced today. It’s the largest contribution the Kinder Institute has received since philanthropists Nancy and Rich Kinder endowed the Institute with $15 million in 2010.
The funding will support the expansion of the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC), a unique partnership between the Kinder Institute and the Houston Independent School District. Since 2011, HERC has brought together Rice University education researchers and HISD decision-makers to improve education quality through analysis. The idea is that by connecting researchers and policymakers, the district can better understand the challenges it faces and identify the solutions that best serve Houston students.
The grant will allow HERC to extend its reach beyond HISD. While the work with that district will continue, HERC’s mission is now broader. It will conduct research in school districts across the Houston area, with a focus on studying issues of regional importance.
“We don’t simply want to duplicate what we’ve done with HISD,” explained Ruth N. López Turley, director of HERC and a professor of sociology in the School of Social Sciences at Rice. “This is something different. We want to develop a regional research agenda.”
HERC is currently in the process of identifying partner districts across Greater Houston. Districts have shown great interest in participating in these regional efforts, and HISD is eager to collaborate.
“This is a great opportunity for Houston area school districts to partner with Rice University and the Kinder Institute to produce world class research that will inform the work we do with students each day,” said Scott Muri, superintendent of Spring Branch ISD in west Houston.
The funding will allow HERC to hire 10 new research and administrative staff members who will pursue the regional work. It will also support the cost of equipment needed to maintain the huge volume of data that will form the backbone of the program.
Expanding HERC’s reach beyond HISD could have a transformative effect on the region’s education system. Though the inner core of Houston lies entirely within the boundaries of HISD, the outer reaches of Houston include some of the largest districts in the state, many of which – until now – haven’t been studied by HERC researchers. Reaching them is critical if Kinder Institute and HERC are to have broad impacts on the local education system and the resulting workforce.
HERC’s goal is also to provide a venue for districts across Houston to share best practices and ideas about education innovation. For example, earlier this year, HERC published an analysis of HISD’s pre-K programs and found they greatly increase students’ chances of being ready for school. Other districts may be interested in knowing what they can do to ensure their pre-K programs are effective too, Turley said.
Turley said it makes sense to analyze major topics like segregation at the regional level, as opposed to the district level. “We know there is a lot more segregation between school districts than within school districts,” she explained.
Segregation, in particular, is an important issue for districts to study because it can have wide-ranging effects. It impacts the performance of students, the types of teachers and administrators schools can recruit, and funding. Segregation is expected to be an area of focus for HERC research. “Schools’ racial composition is important,” Turley said, “and we need to understand it better and see what we can do about it.”