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In my work for a nonprofit organization (referred to here as "NPO" for confidentiality purposes), I've used various research methods to fulfill the organization's request for a series of projects intended to hear from the voices of real Texans who have experience with the public school system. These methods include in-depth interviews, surveys, focus groups, persona creation, and ethnographic observations.

The Challenge

My work for NPO had two main goals:

  1. Exploratory: gather data on the challenges that students, parents, and educators face on a day-to-day basis.

  2. Validate: find case studies of real people who embody trends in inequality from existing literature.

Phase 1

Street Stories

The first leg of the research involved hearing from people who are in their early adulthood, and thus have recently interacted with the public school system, as well as from parents who currently have children in school. The goal was to find people who feel like they (or their children) had been set up for success by the Texas public school system or who feel like the system failed them.

Research Design

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I traveled alone to Texas to find interview participants, but given that it was my first time in the state and I had no local network, I used “guerrilla” participant recruitment tactics—approaching people in coffee shops, outside stores, hotel lobbies, etc. I conducted in-depth interviews with 10 people in the 2.5 days I was in Texas.

 

I asked participants questions about their histories of education, family, health, and work, and took ethnographic observations throughout the course of the research. I conducted a narrative analysis of the data, treating each participant as a case study. I crafted narrative histories of each of their lives, focusing on their education and work histories, compiled them all into a report, and provided an executive summary of findings.

Key Insights for Stakeholders

Participants shared their struggles, triumphs, and hopes for their and their children's futures with me. Their experiences of the public education system in Texas impacted them throughout their lives, and below are some of the most common themes in participants' narratives of their experiences of public education. 

Tip: Hover over each category to see relevant quotes from participants.

Inaccessibility and Lack of Transparency

  • Disparities in school quality, even within the same district, made parents feel powerless.

  • Some publicly-funded magnet schools are inaccessible to students whose parents don't have knowledge of and time for the application process.

  • Parents feel like they don't know what's going on in their kids' schools.

    • Lack of communication about bullying was of particular concern.​

“Yeah there are a lot of drug problems, I really don’t know why [my sister] turned out the way she did. I mean we all went through the same divorce…it was tough on everyone."

-Natalie

"I feel like whatever he learns that day he's not retaining it, because I don't know what I should practice with him at home, I'm not really sure what they went over that day...".

-Roxanne

 

"I tried to go down to the school, and they had told me, 'You need to make him an appointment with the principal.' I tried to do that, they never did that. I did several attempts to talk to the principal, and then finally at the end of the school year, I talked to the counselor."

-Ruth, on her son being bullied

Rigidity of Curriculum

  • Participants believe that education is now structured around standardized tests.

  • Both students and parents feel like schools are doing students a disservice by not providing more well-rounded education (e.g. civics, arts).

“I can’t picture myself going to an all happy place ’cause if there is an all happy place where people are all happy, why aren’t they that way on Earth? I think we are who we are and just learn to better our souls.”

-Shelly

"I understand the premise behind, 'No Child Left Behind.' It was a great idea. But put into practice, you end up not really teaching everything that the child should learn. They’re more focused on these tests, because that’s how they get their money, that’s how they do this, that’s how they do that. So, they’re so focused on making sure that all the kids pass this test, that they’re missing out on learning other things about history or math or science, and things like that."

-Alyssa

Lack of Individualized Education

  • Students and parents feel alienated from their schools overall, as they don’t provide enough individualized attention to meet social and emotional needs.

  • Respondents believe the best way to improve public education is to give teachers the freedom to teach in a variety of formats so that all children can be successful, regardless of their preferred learning styles.  

“I brought this lady from Women in Transition with me, and she said 'Listen . . . she cannot treat you like trash. You’re not trash.' And she kinda like talked me up and I thought, 'You know, you’re right. I’m going through a really hard time right now.'...I went in and I wasn’t rude, but I was very assertive...I said, 'I will not allow you to treat me like trash.'...I’m starting to get a backbone for myself, even though I’m in a really crappy situation.”

-Lucy

"It's boring to him. It doesn't challenge him enough. So he gets bored. And he has good grades, so I think that's another thing. When they're like, 'Oh well, they're getting good grades,' so they'll let them just sit there and play, but I think that they should still stimulate their mind."

-Nene

“It’s stressful, they have to wake up so early, and they have to hurry and get ready, just like a grown up. It’s just like a job."

-Celeste

Overall, participants were frustrated that only parents who have adequate resources—enough money, enough time, the right knowledge—are able to tailor their children’s education to their learning abilities and preferences.

Phase 2

Voices of Texas Educators

NPO wanted to hear directly from educators at different levels (i.e. teachers, principals, and superintendents). I, along with two other researchers that I trained in conducting focus groups, attended a conference for educators organized by a nonprofit that partners with NPO. 

Research Design

Focus Group Interviews

  • We  interviewed 3 groups of approximately 8 participants each. Focus groups were separated by public educator role: teachers, principals, and superintendents.

  • We asked questions about how they felt when they first started their jobs and how they feel now, what particular challenges they face on a day-to-day basis, and how they feel when their schools are compared to charter and private schools.

Survey

  • We surveyed focus group participants with a paper questionnaire that asked more questions about the specific schools they work in.

  • The survey included options to be contacted for future studies, which later proved to be a successful tactic for securing participant referrals from this group for future projects.

Thematic Analysis

  • I conducted a thematic analysis of the data, focusing on challenges educators face in their daily work.

  • I prepared a report for stakeholders within the organization.

Insights

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Overall, educators expressed a deep commitment to their students and profession, but felt that school systems do not always allow them to work in ways they feel will best benefit students. The issues that these educators bring up are sticky and often bureaucratic, and NPO is not able to just go in and help change things for them. My primary recommendation, based off this research, is for NPO to advocate for stronger mentoring programs for teachers and administrators.

On trying to institute change...

“At times I would be frustrated with the way that the system is set up, because it tends to disincentivize innovation and it’s really built to maintain the status quo more than it is to truly push things forward. And as someone that’s kind of, it’s in my DNA nature, to kind of push things forward, running into the structures and the systems...I understand why they’re in place, and they’re in place for a reason, so I’m not anti-the system, but it’s that tension between knowing what needs to be done, yet being stuck in an area where you know things are not being done as effectively as they need to." -District Administrator

Phase 3

Creating Personas

I worked with a team to incorporate the research from Phases 1 and 2 in the creation of proto-personas of Texans who were unlikely successes, but who experienced key, identifiable interventions (such as having a great public school teacher) that allowed them to thrive. We used the concept of proto-personas to find real case studies of
people who embody the trends we wanted to highlight from existing literature.

 

This approach allowed us to focus our interviews on particular themes we wanted to examine in people’s lives. The proto-personas helped us hone in on the real Texans we wanted to hear from, and led to recruiting participants who exemplified these personas to further our understanding of existing education research.

Proto-Persona #1

  • Raised in poverty, exposed to crime and addiction

  • Met a teacher who invested extra time and attention and showed them what they could be

  • Graduated with honors and attended a good university

Proto-Persona #2

  • Raised in a home with domestic abuse, divorce, multiple step-parents

  • Grew up helping mother in the service industry

  • Met a theater teacher who encouraged her to pursue her interests in performing arts

  • Attended a small liberal arts college where she majored in communications and now works at a televesion production company 

Proto-Persona #3

  • Raised in a low-income household where there was constant worry about keeping the electricity on and having enough food for the month

  • Lacked parental guidance because his mom had a GED and his dad was in jail

  • Met an employer who stepped into his life, not only to provide hands-on training, but also to provide moral guidance and life coaching, encouraging him to go to college and avoid crime

  • Attended a regional public college and is now devoted to working with young people

Proto-Persona #4

  • A teacher who is going the extra mile to keep students learning during the pandemic

  • Creates lesson plans for her students over Zoom while maintaining one-on-one relationships with her students

  • Meets weekly with struggling students to keep them engaged 

Creating these personas ​helped us target our participant recruitment to find exactly the kinds of participants we wanted to hear from, as well as helped our research team communicate with stakeholders more clearly about what they were looking for from our research.

Impact

The research I have worked on for NPO has been for internal use, as my findings have helped to expand NPO's thinking on how to advocate for stronger public schools. This internal research helps inform the foundation’s decision-making in their community partnerships, investments, and advocacy.

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