Long before Ruth Lopez Turley knew what sociology was, she was studying it. Growing up in Laredo, a town on the U.S.-Mexico border and one of the poorest in the country, she observed great disparities in educational success — noting that while most white students were academically successful, most Hispanics were not. She carried this observation with her while attending Stanford University as an undergraduate. “My first sociology class discussed poverty and inequality and that really captured my attention because I honestly didn’t know that there were people who studied these things,” Turley said.
When her professor highlighted her hometown in a lecture, Turley was hooked. She didn’t want to just study educational inequality, she wanted to change it. Now well versed in the field, Turley serves as a sociology professor at Rice, director of the Houston Education Research Consortium, associate director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and founder of the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships.
“We’ve known about extensive inequality for a long time and yet we’ve made very little progress in closing the gaps,” Turley said. “Our educational system is reproducing and perhaps even exacerbating socioeconomic inequality.” After Turley graduated, she went into research, but soon realized research in the traditional, academic model wasn’t pushing the needle enough to be impactful. “I thought that research mattered and I was wrong about that,” she said. “I later discovered that it can matter, but you have to make an explicit effort to make it so. It doesn’t happen naturally.”
Turley believes traditional research is set up for the creation of knowledge and if it just stops there — a crucial step is missing.
Houston Education Research Consortium
After her tenure promotion at another institution, Turley decided it was time for her to do research differently. “I wanted to do research that mattered, research that was used,” she said. “I came to Rice specifically, because I needed a change of pace. I wanted an opportunity to do research in a different way.” She founded the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC), a research practice partnership between Rice and the Houston Independent School District (HISD) that aims to produce rigorous research to close the socioeconomic gaps in educational achievement and attainment in Houston.
HERC works together with district leaders to jointly develop research questions and conduct research in a manner that is most useful. “We’re trying to change the way we do research by working directly with district leaders from the very beginning — before the start of any research project,” Turley said. The organization is in constant communication with district leaders working on a variety of projects, including school discipline, college advising and early childhood education. “There are many different challenges that HISD — and many other school districts — face, but often they struggle to apply research that is published in academic journals,” she said. “Either the information is not that accessible to them or it is research that is conducted elsewhere. They want to base their decisions on research that is conducted here.”
She began developing questions jointly with HISD leaders, focusing on a local site and selecting questions relevant to that context, working in a long-term alliance trying to solve long-standing problems and focusing on informing district decisionmakers directly. “By working with decisionmakers, I can see direct results and change from my research,” she said. “A lot of the educational policymaking in the U.S. takes place at the state level, so if we really want to have an impact, I think that working with state education agencies is the next frontier.”
Spike in College Applications
While reviewing data that the school district had shared, Turley and her team noticed huge discrepancies in the number of college advisers available to high school students and a lot of inequalities across schools in terms of the ratios between advisers and students. Furthermore, they learned that often students receive college advising from guidance counselors, who have a slew of other duties under their roles. With some funding from Houston Endowment, the district matched those funds to hire 28 college advisers and placed them throughout high schools in the district. “We were asked to monitor their impact and we collected a lot of information,” Turley said. “We interviewed all of the college advisers, we interviewed students and we tracked all of the college application rates. And in one year, the college application rates among high school seniors in HISD increased by about 20 percent.”
Next, HERC is working to improve the college enrollment rate, college completion rate and even workforce entry rates. “As the largest school district in the state and one of the largest in the country, an observed increase of 20 percentage points is huge,” Turley said. “This is a multiyear project, but the early signs are encouraging.”
Shaping the Future of Educational Equity
A couple of years ago, Turley pushed to launch a national network of research practice partnerships, like HERC, in other parts of the country. “I consulted with several of the partnerships — Chicago, New York City and Baltimore — while I was working to develop HERC,” she said. “And now we’ve been working to support other partnerships that are developing.” The national network, which is headquartered at Rice, now has 22 participating partnerships. “I see this as a social movement, frankly, among people who do education research who are now focusing a lot of their energy in making their research matter for schools, school districts and state education agencies,” she said.
Turley believes her work is changing the field of educational equality. “We are really working hard to not only identify social problems, but to solve them,” she said. “With my work through the consortium, we’re working to take a third step, implementing those solutions.”