The long view

Education researcher takes longitudinal approach to studying school inequity

Catherine Compton-Lilly didn’t set out to conduct long-term research studies of student achievement. She was an elementary school teacher and graduate student in Upstate New York, concerned about some of the students in her inner-city school and working on her dissertation.

She found herself staying late at school many afternoons, frustrated as she tried to figure out why some of her students struggled to read and write. She knew something wasn’t working, and her dissertation turned into a larger, long-term study that tried to put the puzzle pieces together.

That study turned into a career for Compton-Lilly as a teacher and researcher, doing longitudinal studies that follow groups of children through elementary, middle and high school. She has published four books describing her experiences in a high-poverty community, following eight of her former first-grade students through high school. She now is in her ninth year of following students of immigrant families in the Midwest.

“The thing that drives me is working to identify the kids that are underserved — the kids who aren’t getting out of schooling what they should be able to get,” she says.

Now the John C. Hungerpiller Professor at USC’s College of Education, Compton-Lilly continues her research on inequity in schools and with immigrant families, with plans for a long-term project to follow a single school.

Parents want to be good parents ... but sometimes their lives aren’t set up in ways that they can do all they want to do for their kids.”

Catherine Compton-Lilly, professor of education

“Inequity in our society is not something that happens in first grade or eighth grade,” she says. “It’s a cumulating process that occurs with many small challenges that kids face or situations that are difficult. Racism plays a part in it. Poverty plays a part in it. Underfunded schools play a part in it. And health services play a part in it.

“All of these things help to explain inequity. Inequity is a long-term process that eats away at children’s souls and a family’s very fabric. Parents want to be good parents, and they love their kids dearly, but sometimes their lives aren’t set up in ways that they can do all they want to do for their kids.”

Her work involves thinking about ways schools can be structured so that teachers and administrators are more aware of students’ experiences and a stronger network of support can be fostered.

“I think education is flummoxed in some ways. We’re teaching like we did 50 years ago,” Compton-Lilly says. “One of the reasons is we’re always thinking about short-term outcomes — the next test scores, the next year’s growth.

“We need to break away from that mindset and start thinking about kids as learners and thinkers and people with histories and visions of their own futures. Then we can start to redefine education as something that’s not just about meeting a set of standards or passing a set of tests, but as more about who children want to become. Then we can open opportunities for them and help them be more engaged in the educational experiences we offer them.”

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about