Stephen Raudenbush

A War On Inequality, With Education As The Weapon

Stephen Raudenbush is quantifying schools in order to improve them.

For over a half century, Stephen Raudenbush has been committed to improving education, particularly for disadvantaged children. The Civil Rights movement heavily influenced the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Sociology and Chairman of the Committee on Education, as he grew up in the late 1950s and ‘60s, particularly how it impacted school segregation.                                                     

“When I went to college and studied things like stratification, I saw how schools in so many ways regulate who goes where as an adult. I became interested in the role of school in society and the idea that you learn how to be in society by being in school,” says Raudenbush.

After graduating from Harvard University and spending time in the Army, Raudenbush went to work in the 1970s as a student teacher at a high school in South Boston, a violent area in turmoil as schools began to be desegregated. “I was there the last year that it was an all-white school,” says Raudenbush That experience made me think hard about school and inequality.”

After receiving his masters of education, Raudenbush decided to pursue a doctoral degree. “At the ripe age of 34, I needed a trade and I realized that I loved math and I thought statistics would be really cool. I’d have something that would be of value, and I could be engaged in all sorts of projects with people interested in school and stratification,” he said.

This was the path that led Raudenbush to develop what he’s possibly best known for: hierarchical linear models (which, to put it simply, is a statistical framework for students who share social settings, like the same school, classroom, or neighborhood).

Raudenbush’s latest project is co-authoring the 2017 book, The Ambitious Elementary School, with Elizabeth Hassrick, AM’05, PhD’07,and Lisa Rosen, executive director of the UChicago Science of Learning Center. The aim of the book is to articulate, in layman’s terms, what makes the University of Chicago Charter School (UCCS) so successful in producing high levels of reading and math achievement.

One of UCCS’ methods that seemed to pay off was frequent assessment of children’s skills—every 10 weeks or so. “The idea was that, the entire school is responsible for the outcome of every single child. How well every child is doing is open to inspection by other teachers and the principal,” Raudenbush says, as opposed to the more traditional model where “the idea that teaching is a personal craft and you do it in the privacy of your own room.” At UCCS, “If there’s an area where a bunch of kids are not moving forward, there’s a collaborative problem solving. Let’s figure out how to push it forward,” whether it’s increasing instruction time in a particular subject from 45 minutes to three hours, or approaching after-school tutoring.

Raudenbush and his co-authors worked with UCCS teachers and leaders to articulate the model for other schools “so each school doesn’t have to invent a good model from scratch, so you have tools, you have practices, you have stuff that works.” Raudenbush hopes the successes of the UCCS schools can have a ripple effect across the country. “In some sense the existence of the Urban Education Institute [whichled to] the first school created the infrastructure for the second.”

Chicago is the ideal place for researchers to discover how to improve struggling urban schools, says Raudenbush. “It’s a famously segregated city with a very large number of kids who live in deeply disadvantaged neighborhoods due to loss of industrialization, high rates of unemployment, and a history of very ineffective schools.” But with that said, Raudenbush adds that, “Chicago schools have made some very significant progress over the last 10-15 years, which is quite remarkable. Chicago has always been the center of a lot of interesting reforms. The University has been deeply involved in studying Chicago schools and the kids who attend those schools for a long time,” he says.

Raudenbush is happy that the legacy of education at Chicago is thriving: the Committee on Education’s Institute of Education Science, which has been in place since 2005, program has produced 11 assistant professors at prominent universities throughout the U.S. since 2005 and also hosts a popular education workshop. And now, Raudenbush says, “We have a new group of 24 students, a very diverse group of students, who are all interested in inequality in urban schooling, how to make urban schools better, and how to study that process.”

Not long ago, Raudenbush gave a talk titled “Does Schooling Increase or Reduce Social Inequality?” He says  that “Schooling is very important for academic learning for low income kids, because they’re learning an academic language which they might not have learned at home,” he says. “They might learn language at home that’s perfectly useful for the context of neighborhoods and communities, but to move into an academic world where things are published in standard English, having the academic vocabulary and syntax is important.”

The short answer to this question of whether schooling reduces inequality, Raudenbush says, through this research as well as through his life’s work, is a resounding yes.

--Claire Zulkey