Dr. Saroja Warner, Director of Talent Development and Diversity at WestEd, was the cochair of the 2022 Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) Conference along with Dr. Nathan Jones of Boston University. The theme of the 2022 conference was From Reckoning to Racial Justice: Centering Underserved Communities in Research on Educational Effectiveness.

In this Q&A, Saroja reflects on the theme of the conference, how she and her cochair made the conference more inclusive, how this effort affected the tone and tenor of the event, and what needs to be done to ensure that educational effectiveness research fully engages the communities it seeks to support.

Why did you feel that 2022 was the right year for a focus on centering underserved communities in educational effectiveness research?

Quite frankly, because it’s just time. Data collected over the last three years demonstrates that inequities in educational outcomes that have existed for decades for particular groups of students (BIPOC, students from low-income backgrounds, non-native English language speakers) have continued to increase. And the pandemic only contributed to this phenomenon.

For decades educational effectiveness research has focused on addressing inequities that impact particular groups of people. Unfortunately, despite best intentions, the approaches and methods being utilized are often deficit-based and frame the very people researchers purport to want to help—those underserved by the systems—as the problem. Research designs typically have focused on figuring out “what’s wrong with” underserved groups rather than examining what’s wrong with the system.

Then there’s the moment that we find ourselves in. Over the last several years, conversations, interest, and attention to issues of race in our country have proliferated for many reasons. Among them are the politics and policies of the nation since the 2016 election, the surge in racial and identity politics, and the national spotlight shone by the media on social injustice, including the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, among others. Not to mention disparities across sectors, including access to health care, access to clean water, the impacts of COVID, and more.

The conversation was inescapable. We needed to acknowledge that research on educational effectiveness cannot address, or redress, inequities impacting BIPOC students, students from low-income backgrounds, and non-native English language speakers if it continues to fixate on those groups as the variable in a research design that needs to be changed or adjusted. As researchers, we must focus on systems change and on approaches that are inclusive. We must work in partnership with the communities we aim to serve, informed by approaches and methodologies that come from those communities and are led by researchers who are “of” those communities.

Is this a moment SREE had been moving toward?

I believe it is. From 2011 to 2020, SREE conference themes focused on discrete issues in educational effectiveness research and in relation to rigor—and on rigor in research as defined by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). We needed to examine the methodologies that are not culturally responsive and sustaining or informed by critical race theory and the paradigms that have not been effective or impactful in supporting educational equity—because if they were, we would have achieved equity by now or at least be much closer than we are.

In 2021, SREE held up the mirror, took a good look at itself, and started a conversation with its membership about what they needed to do differently. Unfortunately, that year’s conference, The Fierce Urgency of Knowledge: Education Evidence for Reimagining and Reckoning, was virtual, and that format limited what could be accomplished.

In 2022, we were able to come back together in person. Nathan[GL1]  and I felt this was a prime opportunity to push the membership and the field even harder by addressing issues of race, injustice, and inequity through the conference theme and agenda. We intentionally identified researchers and scholars of color and asked them to pose questions, present their work, and to be on the stages and at microphones during the conference.

Where do you think the largest deficits or oversights have been in this area of research with regard to focusing on underserved communities?

As I said earlier, a huge deficit is not conducting research that results in changes to systems, because the assumption has been that something is wrong with those who are underserved by systems.

Another deficit is the lack of funding for researchers of color to conduct research that utilizes approaches and methodologies that are culturally responsive and informed by critical race theory, as well as participatory research that engages communities in the research design and as experts about their experiences and the solutions needed.

Have you seen any “bright lights” or exemplary work in this area that you’d like to call forward?

Much of the work being produced by our QuantCrit (quantitative critical theory) scholars is deeply impressive. I also want to recognize scholars who are using culturally responsive research paradigms. A lot of the bright lights are today’s doctoral students and recent graduates.

It’s exciting to be in conversation with junior researchers, particularly those who are BIPOC, about their approaches and their use of QuantCrit to design research studies that are participatory and that involve partnering with communities of color. They recognize that people in communities of color are the experts on how they’re treated by the systems and on the solutions for fixing those systems.

The bright lights are the new generation of researchers entering the field and profession—shout out to the institutions of higher education that are increasing their diversity by creating onramps for more BIPOC scholars to be trained and to get the credentials they need to be able to go change the world. Higher education is coming to realize that they have to do a better job of bringing in candidates of color, investing in and developing them, and giving them space to develop equity-centered and race-centric paradigms.

My favorite part of the conference was talking to the graduate students who attended, hearing their insights and thoughts, and seeing their new energy. My cochair and the Board president noticed too. They mentioned observing energy they’d never seen before.

Did this year’s conference feel different than past SREE conferences?

Absolutely. When Nathan and I debriefed, we noted several changes. Graduate students told us they felt welcomed and included. And people who had attended past SREE conferences said they noticed a difference in the kinds of sessions that were held, the types of research presented, and the content and tone of the conversations people were having about the conference. Some people just noted that there was a difference in who was on the main stage this year—more people of color represented among speakers and presenters. We’re very gratified that we heard from many attendees that they appreciated being provoked to think in new ways and that they found it rejuvenating to hear new ideas and perspectives from researchers who have not typically engaged with the SREE community. I hope SREE leverages the momentum of this year’s conference and accelerates the pace for the change needed to achieve racial equity in education.