EPW Student Spotlight: Jessalynn James

Jessalynn James
Ph.D graduate (2019) in the Education Policy program at the Curry School of Education and a current Post-doctoral Research Associate at Brown University
Email: j[email protected] 

Question: Why did you choose the Curry School of Education?

Jessalynn JamesJames: There are several reasons why I chose UVA's education school to pursue my PhD. One significant reason was the faculty who make up the education policy program. Specifically, Jim Wyckoff was doing exciting research on just the topics (teacher evaluation, teacher development, etc.) that I was interested in. Second, the faculty in the education policy program had formed robust researcher-practitioner partnerships that provided rich data on topics that were of immediate importance to the field. I was particularly excited about the partnership with the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), and I was fortunate, once admitted, to be able to work with Jim Wyckoff using the DCPS data to answer important questions about teacher evaluation, turnover, and development. Third, I was drawn to the rigorous quantitative focus of the program, which fit my methodological interests. And finally, but no less important, it became immediately clear to me while researching programs that the faculty, staff, and students at EdPolicyWorks had developed a uniquely warm and supportive learning community.

Question: What are you working on now and on what type of research?

James: I am currently working as a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. The projects I am currently engaged with build on -- or expand directly from -- the work that I did as a student at EdPolicyWorks, with a focus on teacher recruitment, retention, and development. For example, I am currently writing a paper with Matt Kraft and John Papay (both also based at Brown) on ways that the teaching supply varies across and within different content areas. We examine in particular the temporal dynamics of supply, and the extent to which schools take advantage (or not) of early hiring to elicit larger applicant pools and attain better teachers. I also continue to work with Jim Wyckoff even after having left EdPolicyWorks. We have been working on a project, with Eric Taylor (at Harvard) and Courtney Bell (at the University of Wisconsin), that explores teachers' skill development over their early careers. And of course I am continuing to build on my dissertation research that examined the implications of a major testing transition on teachers' effectiveness in the classroom.

Independently, my research focuses uses rigorous quantitative methods to evaluate policies that target teacher quality and student learning at the K-16 levels. I have extensive experience in designing, implementing and evaluating rigorous causal studies, as well as quasi-experimental evaluations of policies and programs that are critical to education policy. My passion for creating high-quality educational systems for teachers and students stems from witnessing how such education can transform lives while growing up in India.

Question: Why is this work important and how will it be impactful in the future?

James: In spite of a surge in rigorous teacher-related research over the past decade or so, we still have substantial gaps in our knowledge of teacher labor markets, the contexts that help teachers improve, and policies that might increase the equitability of learning opportunities for students across different geographic and demographic settings. For example, with the work I have been doing with Matt Kraft and John Papay, we are hoping our research will point to ways that schools might improve the efficiency of their hiring so that we don't end up with such large disparities in children's access to good teachers. My other research, with Jim Wyckoff, Eric Taylor, and Courtney Bell, is revealing patterns in teachers' early-career development that we will be digging into further to understand what types of professional development or other policy interventions might best facilitate teacher's learning. Currently, teachers do an extraordinary amount of learning and development on the job; the hope is to find ways to front-load this skill development so that novice teachers are better equipped to begin teaching closer to their ultimate potential.

Question: In what ways has EdPolicyWorks influenced you?

James: Aside from being my primary training ground, the community of students, faculty, and staff at EdPolicyWorks has modeled for me what rigorous and thoughtful research should look like. They have also demonstrated an extraordinary amount of intellectual and professional generosity that I aspire to replicate in my own career. I am also grateful to continue to collaborate with my former classmates, professors, and advisors even after I have formally left EdPolicyWorks.

Question: If you could give one piece of advice to incoming Ed Policy students, it would be...

James: to take full advantage of the resources the education policy program has to offer as you develop your research agenda and begin your academic career. These include: excellent courses and rigorous training, thoughtful and generous mentoring (including from faculty who may not be directly advising you), the friendship and kindness of your classmates, the diversity of expertise that EdPolicyWorks researchers possess, and a rich network of EdPolicyWorks's external collaborators and peer scholars.

EdPolicyWorks is a joint collaboration between the Curry School of Education and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. EdPolicyWorks brings together researchers from across the University of Virginia and the State to focus on important questions of educational policy and implications for the workforce.