Warren Simmons
Warren Simmons delivered a major address at the AERA annual meeting in April 2016 urging researchers to collaborate across disciplines. [video & transcript]


1193 AISR senior fellow Warren Simmons delivered the Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., on April 11, 2016. In addressing the largest gathering of scholars in the field of education research, Simmons urged researchers to collaborate across disciplines and beyond the borders of academia to produce research that supports a systemic, place-based approach to issues of equity in education.


Key Messages

  • Research on equity and race in education needs to go beyond the “Hershey bar test” – which simply confirms the existence of inequity that communities of color know from lived experience – to address achievement and opportunity gaps systemically.

  • Educational policies around equity need to move beyond colorblindness to solutions that address institutional racism and cultural influences on teaching and learning, and that recognize culture, race, ethnicity, and community as central to systemic reform.

  • “Education is the triangle that connects students, families, and society”: research needs to take into account the interconnected nature of educational systems rather than viewing education as disconnected from larger issues facing families, communities, and U.S. society as a whole.

  • Partnering with practice-centered networks and organizations allows researchers to integrate knowledge across disciplines and translate knowledge into tools and strategies for true reform.


Full Remarks

Increasing the Relevance of Education Research: Building a Place-Based Agenda for Obtaining Equity and Excellence

by Warren Simmons

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In December 2015, I stepped down as executive director of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR) – a position I held for 18 years. For the moment, this concludes a professional career beginning in 1980, when I left the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC) at UC-San Diego to join the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Washington, D.C. Throughout my 35-year career, I’ve labored to ensure my work passed a standard set by my esteemed colleague, Dr. Luis Moll. In 1978, I gave Dr. Moll a draft of my dissertation, and his assessment of my research was, and I quote, “I could have told you that for a Hershey Bar.” I interpreted that to mean that my complex and comprehensive research on the cultural salience of materials on the classification behavior of low- and middle-income black, white, and Latino youth, simply confirmed what he and I knew from our experience: social and cultural context matters in teaching and learning. 

1189 AERA 2016: Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture - Warren Simmons (1:18:05)

This lesson and Dr. Moll’s standard have guided my thinking and work as I transitioned over the years from researcher to policymaker, district administrator, and philanthropist, leading the Philadelphia Education Fund and AISR, a national reform support organization. As an African American male from the baby boom generation, race and ethnicity influenced my understanding of education and how to improve it in the U.S. For me, race is a deeply cultural phenomenon, and I have always been aware that my conception of and response to being an African American is contextual, i.e., grounded in part in my own beliefs and values in relation to those held by other groups and the larger society. In short, I have always been more at peace with my cultural identity in predominantly Black and Latino settings where there was less dissonance between my conception of myself and how others saw me. This explains how I managed to graduate from Macalester College and Cornell University with a combined total of two white friends – a testament to my determination to avoid Claude Steele’s (1997) “stereotype threat,” the risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.

As my career and cultural maturity progressed, I pursued research and policy solutions focused on race and culture in predominantly white institutions that often minimized their impact on educational outcomes and practices, or treated race, ethnicity, and culture as demographic characteristics devoid of cultural concomitants.

Politically, the reduction of race and ethnicity to demographic rather than cultural phenomena can be traced to several factors, most notably the backlash against affirmative action and the Equity Era (1964–1980) buttressed by the Coleman Report and several negative evaluations of the impact of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1964 on the performance of disadvantaged youth conducted during the 1970s and 80s. It can also be traced to the race fatigue that many of us in the equity research community have felt while serving as the scholarly equivalent of Sisyphus, dutifully conducting our research and sharing our findings to a larger community eager to find technical explanations and solutions to problems rooted in institutional racism, education, housing, employment, and other sectors affecting the well-being of children and families. In this manner, the “no excuses” school of education reform has treated the achievement gap as something that can be overcome primarily through individual effort and accountability, and/or by dismantling school systems and spreading choice even in midst of gross inequities in school funding and learning opportunities.

But our collective failure to create a systemic response to equity that addresses the political, cultural, and technical causes of the achievement gap can also be tied to the difficulty that policymakers, advocates, and practitioners have in translating the findings of education research into tools and strategies that produce results at scale, particularly in urban school districts and communities. Let me explain what I mean here at both the political and technical levels.

The Hershey Bar in Urban Education Research

When I accepted a position at the NIE in 1980, I was excited by the prospect of applying the knowledge I had gained at the LCHC. A year later, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and the NIE came under the leadership of a former textbook salesman from New Hampshire who directed me to delete the word “equity” from any NIE-produced materials. He also insisted that I build a research agenda focused on “proving” the superiority of private schools, vouchers, and religious education, to name a few of his desired findings. While this was the most ideologically blatant attempt to negate the importance of equity in education research that I experienced early in my career, the publication of A Nation at Risk represented a subtler narrowing of the meaning of education, its major challenges, and thus, solutions. 

As David Berliner observed in The Manufactured Crisis (1996), tying school quality to the performance of the nation’s economy narrowed both the purpose of schools and the measures used to gauge their performance. And paradoxically, a national standards movement that established, in policy at least, a high bar for all students substituted excellence as a stand-in for equity, in essence equating a goal with its means. Many of us who hoped the standards movement would focus attention on opportunity gaps were chagrined to see school, student, and teacher accountability rise to become the primary levers of change, with little consideration of race and culture except as demographic factors. In this manner, teacher quality can be anchored primarily in pedagogical content knowledge and fiscal equity is largely a matter of narrowing funding gaps between high- and low-poverty schools and districts; necessary ingredients, of course, but insufficient to discern how teacher effectiveness is mediated by the culture and language of both the teacher and the students, or how additional fiscal resources might be used to invest in supports that are responsive to the values and aspirations of students of color and their families.

Raising the banner of high standards for all, then, reinforced colorblindness as a suitable stance on equity, and privileged technical solutions over ones that recognized and addressed institutional racism and cultural influences on teaching and learning. For example, AISR and Boston’s Center for Collaborative Education conducted two recent studies on the achievement of Black and Latino male students in Boston Public Schools (BPS). The research team (Tung et al. 2015) found the same kinds of gaps in performance and opportunities that the Black Male Achievement Committee in Prince George’s County unearthed 25 years earlier (Simmons & Grady 1990) – the Hershey Bar or Sisyphus Effect. However, my colleagues took the research one step further by analyzing the characteristics of schools that beat the odds for Black and Latino males. They found that most lacked an intentional comprehensive approach to serving Black and Latino males. Educators in these schools often equated being “colorblind” – i.e., treating all students the same – as the most desirable approach to increased diversity. This in a system where Black and Latino males represent 77 percent of all males yet are sorely underrepresented in academic coursework that enhances access to Boston’s prestigious exam schools and the Mass Core Curriculum, a rigorous course of study that aligns high school coursework with college and career expectations.

To these educators, equity meant treating all students the same and/or periodically celebrating culture through “feasts and festivals.” Culture and equity then, were not pursued as resources to enhance teaching and learning, inform school design, differentiate system supports, or enhance student and community engagement. In other words, BPS, like many other systems, has struggled to develop a systemic response to decades of research on culture and learning. Schools appear to be left on their own in this regard, with periodic monitoring in lieu of ongoing, evidence-based support.

Treating culture and equity programmatically rather than systemically is reinforced by systems that designate responsibility for equity or community engagement to a single office with an important-sounding title and few resources – for example, I was once the “Director of Equity Initiatives” in Prince George’s County. Moreover, programmatic rather than systemic responses to culture and equity are reinforced by federal and state policies and initiatives that treat “best” practices as technical tools and strategies that transcend cultural and political differences. 

Overwhelmed by Specialization

My experience and our recent Boston research also illustrate another challenge for addressing cultural diversity in urban school districts: the increasing specialization of equity issues and research in the field of education. While this specialization advances knowledge in specific disciplines, it overwhelms systems strapped for resources yet charged with developing comprehensive, systemic response. There is considerable equity-related research undertaken by education researchers, but what mechanisms and partnerships have we created to help school and community-based educators translate and integrate our findings into a comprehensive systemic approach?

In contrast, districts are surrounded by well-funded reform support organizations that offer comprehensive technical solutions to the adoption of standards, assessment, school funding, school design, community engagement, and teacher preparation. While districts, funders, state education agencies, and the federal government are culpable for this weak support, education researchers and the academic institutions must also accept responsibility for making the improvement of practice secondary to the advancement of knowledge. Junior researchers who choose to become practice-centered risk undermining their careers and weakening the path toward tenure. Moreover, the departmental structures of colleges and universities divide knowledge and practice into discipline-based pursuits that increase specialization and undermine integration.

At the LCHC, I was forced to understand and integrate approaches to culture and learning in psychology with those offered by sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and economists. Since then, I have been more likely to experience these multidisciplinary, cross-sector, and comprehensive discussions about culture, equity, and learning through networks and initiatives that operate outside of – or loosely connected to – academe. These networks involve institutes and centers – like AISR, the National Education Policy CenterStrategic Concepts in Organizing & Policy Education, the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity & the Transformation of Schools, and many others – that are often university-based but community-centered, a position that is often treated with skepticism by their home institutions that somehow construe serving communities as being in conflict with or subservient to a university’s mission of advancing knowledge. As a result, these entities maintain an uneasy coexistence within institutions that undervalue the importance of practice-centered organizations that integrate knowledge across disciplines and work with partners outside of academe (districts, unions, adult and youth organizing groups, etc.) to translate knowledge into tools and strategies that improve outcomes for students, families, and communities.

I traveled to Cuba this past November, and in a casual conversation with an urban planner there, he shared something profound: “Education is the triangle that connects students, families, and society.” This triangle is weakened when our research disconnects students and schools from families, communities, and systems, and when the political, technical, cultural, and social dimensions of reform are viewed in isolation from each other.

Addressing our Preoccupation with Technical, Programmatic, and Discipline-Centered Research and Practice

In many communities, education research now faces the Hershey Bar dilemma: three decades of studies have done more to rediscover the existence of achievement gaps than address them systemically. Moreover, almost every solution we offer comes with a disclaimer: “More research is needed before broader implementation.” This stance has left policymakers, advocates, and practitioners alike jaded about the utility of education research to inform their work, and draws them to developers outside of education offering “silver bullet” solutions to their problems. Additionally, a growing body of research indicates that enhancing teaching and learning for all students will require focused and systemic approaches that address poverty, culture, and race in education, and other sectors reveal that the achievement gaps between rich and poor students are exacerbated by growing income gaps that leave poor families ill-equipped to provide their children with the enrichment experiences that enhance learning and counter the effects of their children’s exposure to neighborhoods with higher levels of violence and toxins. In the new book, Coming of Age in the Other America (DeLuca, Clampet-Lundquist & Edin 2016)the authors document the social, economic, and health hazards that youth in a poor Baltimore neighborhood must face as they attempt to engage in school. But they also share how the existences of “life rafts” in their community help young people find passions that strengthen their resilience and development. These “rafts” often involve them in culturally salient activities in the visual and performing arts, science, and technology – activities that were more likely to be offered in museums, libraries, and community-based organizations rather than in schools stripped of resources and focused on test preparation.

These studies underscore the value of taking a place-based, multi-sector approach to understanding the challenges faced by poor students of color, and the opportunities that must be marshaled to enhancing their learning and development. Additionally, this work begins a counter-narrative to the popular one that suggests our educational problems are caused largely by bad teachers, bad kids, bad schools, and broken systems. And it also reveals a path forward that requires researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to transform teaching and learning in the context of cultures and communities that have assets as well as threats.

This shift has been nurtured by many networks and initiatives including the Education Justice Network, the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, the Coalition for Community Schools, the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, the Urban Philanthropists Network, the Opportunity to Learn Network, the More and Better Learning Time Initiative, among others. Researchers aligned with these efforts work in partnership with leaders from a broader local and ecosystem that includes school and community-based educators, adult and youth organizers, union leaders, mayors and school superintendents, arts and cultural organizations, funders, and civic leaders. The narrative elements and design principles featured in this work emphasize that education’s purpose goes beyond preparing students for work to include preparing lifelong learners who make important contributions to their families, communities, and our broader society and democracy. Core elements and principles underlie this approach to research: 

  • Learning and development are enhanced when schools and districts work in sustained cross-sector partnerships that marshals the resources needed to support teaching and learning in and beyond schools.
  • Race, culture, and poverty are central forces that shape learning and development and thus should be at the center of research and policy on equity, not the periphery.
  • Participation in these sustained partnerships requires resources and training that address differences in culture and power in ways that enhance mutual respect and reciprocal accountability.
  • Partnerships that focus on achieving a broad set of outcomes that reflect the intellectual and academic development of students are connected to their families’ and communities’ cultural, economic, and social well being.

Furthermore, this work requires:

  • self-reflection, humility, and dialogue;
  • a strengths-based belief and investment in children youth and adults;
  • skillful, systematic, and compassionate attention to the impact of race, class, power, and diversity;
  • treating communities, parents, and youth as essential partners; and
  • a comprehensive vision of community revitalization as central to the learning and development of children and youth.

The Power of Place

In my recent meetings with superintendents, mayors, K–12 education leaders, adult and youth organizers, philanthropists, and civic leaders, the participants have hoped that education research and academe will embrace these principles and develop mechanisms that reward scholars for efforts that build educational systems adapted to and reflecting the diversity of communities. But this requires research that recognizes that reform is a political, social, and cultural endeavor as well as a technical one. It requires treating schools and districts as social and cultural organizations, not just collections of teachers, students, and resources responding to a set of goals established from above. Moreover, achieving scale requires a model of education that treats learning as a deeply cultural endeavor that is constructed across schools, students, families, and communities, as I learned so long ago at the Institute for Comparative Human Cognition in New York City. As the Cuban urban planner stated, education is the triangle that connects students, families, and society.

The multiple communities that form our society comprise diverse cultures with competing and sometimes conflicting values about the purpose of education and its role in the development of the students, families, communities, and society. In fact, colorblind and technical approaches to education research and reform use the cultural values of privileged elites as the default touchstones for reform. This stance undermines the ability of students from diverse backgrounds to use their cultures as a resource for learning and as a lens for interrogating differences and similarities.

A Place-Based Approach that Makes Equity Transparent and Systemic

Culture and equity are central, not tertiary ingredients of systemic reform, especially at a time when the Southern Education Foundation revealed that 50 percent of our nation’s public school students live in poverty, and that Latino and African American students constitute almost 70 percent of the enrollment in the 68-member districts of the Council of the Great City Schools.

Researchers and educators who treat culture, race, ethnicity and community as secondary rather than central to systemic reform exacerbate the growing concern about the relevance of education research and the utility of an enterprise that does more to advance academic disciplines and scholarly careers than it does to offer insights that strengthen schools, students, families, and communities.

I urge each of you – and all of us – to discuss how we can strengthen our work and build an educational research infrastructure that supports a comprehensive, culturally responsive and place-based approach to reform. There are many positive examples to build on that often operate outside the education reform mainstream, such as the National Writing Project, the National Equity Project, the Schott Foundation, the aforementioned Southern Education Foundation, and the Panasonic Foundations as exemplars, along with AISR’s efforts to support education organizing.

There are also opportunities for research to inform a growing number of community-based efforts to use technology and the visual/performing/culinary arts as resources to support student, family, and community development, such as those undertaken by DreamYard, Harlem School for the Arts, Harmony House, Collective Shift’s LRNG, and the Urban Philanthropists Network. These efforts would welcome the support of education researchers, centers and institutes to serve as partners and to work across disciplines, systems and cultures.  

As I enter the home stretch of my career, these new endeavors inspire me and give me hope that I might finally surpass the Hershey Bar standard, or at least get one with peanuts.

Warren Simmons is a senior fellow and the former executive director of AISR.


Berliner, D. C., and B. J. Biddle. 1996. The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud and the Attack on America’s Public Schools. New York: Basic Books.

DeLuca, S., S. Clampet-Lundquist, and K. Edin. 2016. Coming of Age in the Other America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

 Simmons, W., and M. Grady. 1990. Black Male Achievement: From Peril to Promise. Report of the Superintendent's Advisory Committee on Black Male Achievement. Upper Marlboro, MD: Prince George’s County Public Schools.

Steele, C. M. 1997. “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape the Intellectual Identities and Performance of Women and African-Americans,” American Psychologist 52:613–629.

Tung, R., V. D. Carlo, M. Colón, J. L. Del Razo, J. B. Diamond, A. Frazier Raynor, D. Graves, P. J. Kuttner, H. Miranda, and A. St. Rose. 2015. Promising Practices and Unfinished Business: Fostering Equity and Excellence for Black and Latino Males. Providence, RI, and Boston, MA: Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University