Luis A. Huerta with Isaac Solano

Dr. Luis Huerta/ TC file photo

Dr. Luis Huerta

Dr. Luis A Huerta is an Associate Professor of education and public policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research and scholarship focus on issues of decentralization related to school choice reforms, as well as the impact of school finance inequities on implementing school reform. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. In this conversation with Isaac Solano, a graduate student in the Education Policy and Social Analysis department, the two discuss the ways in which Dr. Huerta’s current research stems directly from his experiences as a third grade teacher.

Isaac Solano

Thank you for agreeing to talk with me today. Let’s start off with you discussing what your areas of research are and your scholarly areas of interest.

Luis Huerta

Sure. I work in two areas.

Over the past 18 years, I have engaged, mobilized an organizational sociology lens—institutional theory specifically—to examine how schools in a decentralized environment have evolved, specifically charter schools. I have also applied that lens to other market choice models. One of my main questions is whether the devolution of public authority in communities that start decentralized schools, has influenced the creation of new types of schools. But more importantly, as these schools evolve, how does the broader institution of public schools affect how decentralized schools evolve over time. The punch line for my work, based on my findings, is that the decentralized authority that many schools were granted over time has become re-centralized as a result of the standards and accountability regime that all schools are supposed to follow, which have reinforced the rigid, scripted bureaucratic rules that already exist in the institution of public schools—thus stymieing and limiting new forms of organization and governance models in schools.

The other work I engage is in school finance. Most of my work in school finance is actually not about issues of measuring funding inequities within districts or across districts or states. Instead my research is about trying to untangle the research that has been engaged in this area over the past 30 years. Much of the school finance literature has been singular in its functionalist approach of using production functions to measure the relationship of inputs to outcomes without taking into account how resources are activated, and what happens in the process of schooling. Research has ignored instructional conditions, and a variety of different variables associated with students, and how these additional variables might be related to outcomes. Specifically, much research has attempted to account for a causal relationship between dollars and outcomes without disentangling what is in that black box.

Isaac Solano

So, charter schools and school finance issues are definitely “hot button” topics amongst many scholars and public policy people. Could you talk about how you have navigated your professional journey to study these things? Your journey both before you were a professor, and how you navigated the world of academia?

Luis Huerta

I was an elementary school teacher for about 6 years in the Central Valley of California. As a teacher I was in a district that was actually yielding the highest per pupil revenue of any district in California–upwards of $12-13K per kid when most other districts were receiving $5,500 or less. We were receiving more than two and a half times what the other districts were receiving in the early 90s. Yet, our kids’ academic achievement was abysmal. We were serving a mostly Latino migrant population that worked on farms. This was an administrator top-heavy district, where four or five of the top administrators were making over $100,000 in those years, an exorbitant amount for a district that had fewer than 2,000 kids. But that, for me, was an impetus for examining how dollars were distributed to schools, how they were used, and to what ends. Through my own curiosity, I started looking deeper in to these issues. I became a union steward for the district very early on as a young teacher, and that allowed me to begin understanding the governance process, interacting with the many superintendents who were in this district, and getting directly involved with leadership.

That was an important impetus that led me to graduate school because I realized I had some bigger questions to tackle and I wanted to dig much deeper. My Masters thesis examined how the taxation process worked in California, specifically Proposition 13. Then I became interested in broader policy issues. My primary interest when I arrived to graduate school was economics and school finance. In my first semester at Berkeley, the two people I was hoping to work with were on sabbatical, however, another professor took me under his wing–Professor Bruce Fuller–a sociologist. He said, “Hey, until those other guys get back from sabbatical why don’t you come work with me on a project about decentralization and charter schools?” That was 1996, about five years in to the movement and there wasn’t a whole lot of attention being paid to charter schools then. In 1996 there wasn’t a single research article published on charter schools. Charters were still somewhat nascent and people in the field were assuming that charter schools were just going to last a few years and then go away—academia wasn’t paying attention to what was becoming the most important decentralized reform that we have ever engaged. Here we are almost 25 years later and research has been plentiful. Most of the work has focused on comparing achievement outcomes of charter and traditional school students. That research has waned because the same questions are being asked, the quality of data has not improved, and the results are still mixed. New research is starting to examine what some charter schools actually do as school organizations—from teaching and learning practices, to governance structures, to resource use—that may result in better schools. This is research that is focused on process—these process issues are what I have been examining in my own research of charter schools. We will see what direction charter research takes in the coming years.

Isaac Solano

Would you discuss the turning point in your career, whether it was at the K-12 level or at the graduate school level, where you decided that you wanted to be a professor so that you could study these phenomena from an academic standpoint.

Luis Huerta

I’ll describe two.

As a practitioner, a turning point for me was realizing how my training as a practitioner was really strong in preparing me to engage students in the classroom, developing and delivering curriculum. I was trained well how to teach, but I realized very early on as a teacher that my teacher certification program did not prepare me for work with parents, the community, and district leadership, and, more importantly, how to decipher how policy affected me in the classroom. For me, when I realized that–and this is as a result of some of my work as a union steward and working with administration in this small district where I worked–is when I realized that I felt like half a teacher. So much of my work transcended the classroom and was in the community and beyond. For me, that really was an impetus to study education policy. That was the only way that I felt I was going to be a better teacher for my students, and a better teacher for the parents of my students as well.

Then when I was in grad school, the turning point for me was when I realized that the process of engaging in research is more then just solving the riddle. It’s not just about creating a question and going out and collecting data that will allow you to understand the question. Rather, it’s about the broader traditions that inform why we even ask some of these questions, and why these traditions—in economics, political science, sociology, and other areas—influence our methods. The turning point for me was the discovery of how theory can inform policy research and also the policy making process. The tools that we have from the disciplines of economics, political science, and sociology, are very powerful and allow us to predict how policy makers plan to implement reforms and what might result after a reform is implemented. In the context of research, these frameworks give us diverse lenses through which to approach different policy issues.

Isaac Solano

So, with that said, do you ever miss being an elementary school teacher and would you ever return back to the K12 system as an educator?

Luis Huerta

I think initially when I left I did miss teaching because at the end of a day of engaging research during my initial training, I didn’t feel the same impact that I had with students at the end of the day of teaching, whether it was something small from helping a student learn how to read (I taught 3rd grade) or engage a math problem. Those small successes with students were something that I felt at the end of every day. When I shifted to research, and dedicated myself to longitudinal projects that take months and months to collect data and conduct analysis of results, I wasn’t seeing those daily celebrations of success. But I realized over time that having an impact in academia is a different type of impact. For example, I still consider myself to be an educator and one that potentially has an influence on what goes on in K12 classrooms as a result of my research. Even though I may be several steps removed from the classroom, I do think that my research has the potential to inform what goes on in those schools and classrooms.

Isaac Solano

So, would you ever return back to the K12 system as a teacher?

Luis Huerta

I can say with certainty, no, because I’ve dedicated too many years to my role as a researcher and academic. There are times when I miss being in that environment, however I have had the benefit–with the exception of my sabbatical year a few years ago–of being in schools every single year since leaving teaching. I arrived at Teachers College in 2002, and over the last 13 years every single year I’ve had a project that involved going in to classrooms. It is really important for me to stay grounded in what’s going on in schools.

Isaac Solano

Back to charter schools and school finance, where do you see these areas of research and public policy moving in the next ten years?

Luis Huerta

I think that research is beginning to explore more of the black box of what happens in schools, aiming to discover if the so-called “high preforming charter school” really is high performing, and tease apart what some of the practices are that result in high performance. I had the opportunity to write about this issue in The Times recently, where I focused on recent research that reports how some “high performing charter schools” have disproportionately high suspension rates as a result of some of the “no excuses” philosophy they practice. When you compare the high suspension rates of some charters to charter and traditional schools with lower suspension rates, this is an issue that can have an impact on student achievement scores. The high suspension rate charters are only testing the surviving kids that remain in some of these schools, whereas all other schools have to work with all comers, and all levels of disciplinary issues with students.

My hope is that research can continue to inform policy; however, there are times when policy makers are engaging in implementation of new reforms completely independent of what empirical research may be telling us. Also, many new players in the education field­—hedge funds, foundations, and other external groups—are now engaging in direct lobbying of policy makers and are having an important impact on how policy makers may be developing new reforms. This is an issue that I think academia can mitigate. Researchers and academics need to be better about how we disseminate our work and engage the public and make sure that the research we conduct is not for internal purposes only. Whether we are being funded by a foundation or public funds, we have a responsibility to disseminate our findings to the broader public and make our findings accessible in order to inform the wider debates. Sometimes academics are too comfortable in simply engaging research to solve the riddle, and not bothering to inform the broader process through dissemination of their work. I think that becomes a bit too insular. There are many lost opportunities where good research could influence wider debates. What I am proposing is not advocacy, because advocacy has a very different flavor, but I do think that disseminating research and making findings accessible to a broader audience is something that academics should embrace. How and whether advocates want to use that work, well, that’s up to the advocates. But we need to be a bit more proactive in disseminating information to a broader audience.

Isaac Solano

So I have a few more questions before we wrap up, but this is a follow up one. You did a great job in describing it from an academic standpoint, but from a policy standpoint where do you think charter schools will be 10 years from now?

Luis Huerta

I think the charter school experiment will continue to flourish. Not as a result of any measurable achievement gains that these schools may be realizing—because the research continues to show that student performance may not be any different compared to traditional schools—but instead I think they will continue to flourish as a result of the support that they are getting from outside the public sector. I am not just talking about the financial resources, but the political reinforcement that they are getting that will continue to open up the gate for charter schools to expand.

Isaac Solano

Back to what you do here at Teachers College, what would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?

Luis Huerta

I think the most rewarding part is engaging with students. Learning from students while also hopefully transferring my own knowledge to them–challenging assumptions and engaging debates where we develop new knowledge. Collectively engaging in that process continues to be the most rewarding part of this being a professor. In addition, working with colleagues who also collectively engage in the process of developing new knowledge. It is an amazing privilege to be a part of an academic community, where we challenge and support each other in the process of developing new ideas,

Isaac Solano

It’s been a big topic, especially in the K12 level, so I figured I’d ask you, do you think that tenure at the university level, for university faculty professors, will ever be reformed like it’s being reformed now on the K12 level in states across the United States?

Luis Huerta

I think tenure at universities will continue to remain safe, or not influenced by the same pressures and calls for reforming K12 schools. This is an issue where we can draw a distinction between the institution of K12 schooling and higher education. I think that so much of the discussion around tenure in K12 is linked to a widespread idea that the state has a monopoly over public schools and has yielded a bureaucracy that has failed schools, etc. I think that there are forces that are battling teachers unions right now, trying to redefine teacher quality and even challenging ideas around whether teachers in certification programs should be taught developmental and behavioral theory, or child psychology, etc. Many of the critiques of traditional systems are that teacher education should simply focus on the technical elements of delivering instructions. That is a very simple and overly rational approach that is missing so much of what teaching is about, and what makes up the wider process of teaching.

I don’t think we see those same forces playing out or advancing against the tenure system in academia simply because of the belief that in academia there is supposedly a more objective measure of what quality is, as measured by the existing tenure process linked to the meritocracy. I think that may distinguish the two institutions in the debate over tenure. I’m not saying that this system guarantees quality in teaching and research, but it may be seen a system with more objective measures then the tenure process used in K12.

Isaac Solano

This is my last question, and thank you again for agreeing to do this. As you close, what advice would you give to up and coming academics who want to pursue a career in academia.

Luis Huerta

I think anyone who is trying to decide whether to go in to academia needs to engage in a couple of exercises before thinking about when is the right time and why academia is the correct choice. First is the exercise of weighing where you are in your professional development and trajectory and trying to figure out whether it is the right time. Before you try to engage doctoral studies, where you will be required to make a unique and original contribution to whatever domain you choose to study, I think the important question you need to ask yourself is whether you have the sufficient professional experiences that have assisted you in understanding the domain to which you hope to contribute. Second is whether you have the academic background that can assist you in engaging doctoral training and develop the questions that might lead to a contribution in your domain of interest. And third, consider where you are in your personal life because doctoral studies can be a very selfish venture. Doctoral studies will demand that you spend many selfish hours in solitary thought. I frame it as a selfish venture because it demands a level of time that will often affect both family and social responsibilities. Granted, finding a balance is important, but anyone considering this route needs to know that doctoral studies will present high demands on your time. Once you enter doctoral studies, it’s really important to challenge yourself and be honest about your own assumptions and always be open to having your assumptions challenged. It is a humbling process, and I think if you see yourself as someone who already has knowledge and ideas so fixed in your mind that you don’t allow yourself to be humbled, then you are limiting yourself from engaging new opportunities to learn.

Isaac Solano

Well, Professor Huerta, thank you for spending your time with us today.

Isaac Solano

Isaac Solano

Isaac Solano is a second year Masters of Arts candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University. His emphasis is K-12 Education Policy. He has been involved in Education Policy work at various levels.  In 2011, Isaac founded The College Boot Camp Program.  Its purpose is to motivate high-need, inner-city middle school students to apply to college. Since the program’s inception, it has been taught in three different school districts in the metropolitan area of Denver.  It was also recently introduced to a school in the Chicago Public Schools. In the past, he has also interned for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington DC and the Denver Public Schools Foundation.  During these experiences he was responsible for conducting community outreach, managing the alumni profiles and attending congressional briefings on Capitol Hill.  Recently, Isaac has published commentaries in the Washington Post and the North Denver Tribune. Once he finishes his education, Isaac hopes to conduct research on the public schools throughout Metropolitan Denver, and in time run for municipal office. It is no secret that his dream is to be elected mayor of Denver, Colorado.

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