Student Spotlight: Ed Policy Doctoral Candidate Starts as a Student Teacher, Now Studies Policies to Support Teachers' Development

By Leslie M. Booren

Jessalynn James, an Ed Policy Ph.D candidate, talks about her work on teacher assessments and the culture at EdPolicyWorks

Jessalynn James

4th year doctoral candidate in the Education Policy program at the Curry School of Education, a researcher at EdPolicyWorks, and a VEST pre-doctoral fellow.

Hometown: East Haddam, Connecticut

James, Jessalynn 220.jpgQuestion: How did you start your career in ed policy and end up at UVA?

James: I went to NYU for undergrad wanting to be a teacher, but when I was first placed in a school I realized quickly that I wasn’t going to leave my teacher preparation program fully equipped to be a teacher. That experience woke me up to deep issues of inequity in schools and classrooms, and so I took a step back and put that career plan on hold. Instead, my first real job was working for a health policy research foundation. While working there, I started pursuing my Master’s degree in public policy and realized that a lot of the issues my colleagues were tackling in healthcare—poverty, access, accountability, and training—applied back to education, which was where I was really passionate. I then transitioned to a job where I could develop my research skills in an education-related context, managing data and research projects for a small non-profit specializing in educational assessment. Realizing, however, that I was most interested in understanding how we measure and develop effective teaching, I ultimately chose to attend UVA and work at EdPolicyWorks.

Question: What ed policy work are you doing now?

James: My previous work in educational assessment before EdPolicyWorks has in part inspired my current research looking at the transition to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the new CCSS-aligned PARCC exam in the Washington, DC Public Schools (DCPS). The old test was a traditional, standardized assessment, whereas the PARCC exam uses more complex question formats with the intent of better measuring students’ conceptual knowledge and depth of understanding. I’m examining if teachers look different across the tests in terms of their contributions to student learning, and whether certain teaching practices are more important for student learning on one test than the other. If there are teachers who look significantly different across the tests, it may reflect differences in how the exams capture effective teaching and could highlight teaching practices that are more important for student learning under the Common Core. I’m also looking at whether teachers’ practices changed as a result of the transition to the new assessment—either due to a shift in their instructional emphasis or potentially a drop in their teaching quality if they struggled to adapt to the new expectations implied by the CCSS.

Question: Why is this work important or what is the long-term impact?

James: There’s a huge body of research that inspired me to study this topic, and much of it is focused on the fact that teachers really matter. Research has found that not only do teachers matter, but they matter in the long term—having a good teacher in third grade means that students have higher income 20 years later. It is a really big equity issue if students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have equal access to high-quality teachers. Less-experienced teachers often end up with the least-advantaged students, likely creating teacher quality and experience gaps that can have direct effects on children’s development and other outcomes. I hope that some of my work may help teachers perform at their best—mitigating disparities in students’ access to high-quality teachers.

Question: Why was UVA the best place to do this work?

James: EdPolicyWorks is one of only a few places that has active research partnerships with educational systems focusing on teacher quality, and that also allows its doctoral students to be hands-on in both the partnership and the resulting research. I’ve seen firsthand how DCPS is thoughtful about incorporating what they learn from our research into their policies. The faculty here are really well connected in the research community and well respected by practitioners who work for the state and in districts. There’s a cumulative intelligence and inspiring passion that everyone here has for the work that they do. EdPolicyWorks is a tightly-knit, thoughtful group of faculty, students, and research staff, and I think that they do a really great job of supporting and enhancing each other’s work. These experiences have been invaluable in my training and as I start my new career.

James is also an IES pre-doctoral fellow in the Virginia Educational Sciences Training (VEST) program.

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.