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Alumni Spotlight on Mindy Kornhaber

CRP Bulletin/Noticiero interviews Mindy Kornhaber, associate professor, Department of Education Policy Studies, Pennsylvania State University

Alumni Spotlight:  MINDY KORNHABER 

CRP: Describe your experience in civil rights research or policy prior to joining the CRP.

Before the Civil Rights Project, my primary civil rights research experience was through graduate course work. As a master’s student, which was a bit before Gary [Orfield} came to Harvard, I did a research project on METCO, a voluntary desegregation program that was instituted between Boston and several of its suburban communities in the mid-1960s.  I interviewed the head of METCO, Jean McGuire, and others from that era who sought to secure better educational opportunities for Boston’s African American students. This project led me to delve into bound volumes of the minutes of Boston School Committee. That, in turn, allowed me to see that some events at Boston School Committee meetings which were reported by those I interviewed never made it into the minutes.  From this primary document research, I came to a sharp realization that the “official” history had edited out the viewpoints of minority participants.  It was a crystallizing moment for me – one which made me wonder in what other official ways the voices and rights of some citizens were suppressed.  During this project I read Gary’s work, Must We Bus? and so I was eager to take classes with him and happy for the opportunity to be his advisee.


CRP: How or why did you first become involved with the CRP at Harvard?

The Civil Rights Project was launched as I was working on my dissertation. My dissertation examined segregation in gifted programs. It also entailed case studies of three very different school systems whose approaches to gifted identification had moved away from a heavy reliance on standardized tests and toward more holistic assessments.  Not long after that, Gary asked if I was interested in joining the Civil Rights Project, which was then involved in issues of testing and equity – as well as many other things.


CRP: Describe the most memorable projects you were involved in there and what most stands out about those projects?

The project that I spent a good amount of time and energy on while at the CRP was the commissioning of papers, writing and organizing meetings that led to Raising Standards or Raising Barriers: Inequality and High-Stakes Testing in Public Education, a book (published by Century Foundation Press) which Gary and I co-edited. Perhaps because it generated such a concrete end product, the project as a whole is memorable. But, for visceral impact, I’d have to say the most memorable incident was a Capitol Hill briefing on high-stakes testing that the Civil Rights Project co-sponsored with the American Youth Policy Forum in January 2000. Several of the eventual contributors to Raising Standards or Raising Barriers participated, as did Chris Edley [co-founder of the CRP with Gary Orfield]. During that very briefing, a U.S. district court in Texas ruled against the plaintiffs in a case called GI Forum, Image de Tejas v. Texas Education Agency. The plaintiffs had challenged the constitutionality of Texas’ use of its TAAS test as a graduation requirement since that resulted in the denial of a high school diploma for disproportionately high percentages of Texas’ African American and Latino students.  Someone came into the briefing and handed the decision to Chris, who became clearly angered as soon as he started to read it. It’s fair to say we were stunningly disappointed with the court’s ruling and saw how much more work we needed to do to ensure that testing systems were not used to harm students who are already poorly served.  


CRP: What was the most valuable lesson you took away from your CRP experience?

The most valuable lesson, and one which I have heard Gary talk about several times in recent years, is that the advance of civil rights is not linear and not secure. Vigilance and sustained effort are necessary to protect and further civil rights. 


CRP: Did the CRP experience impact your professional development or trajectory? 

Yes, and in a variety of ways.  But let me fast forward: it prepared me to work with my brilliant younger colleague, Erica Frankenberg, another alumna of the CRP and Gary Orfield advisee, with whom I have been teaching a graduate level course, “Civil Rights and Education,” at Penn State.


CRP: Tracing your experience after CRP, what were some important milestones along the way? 

I’m not sure if I have a good answer to this question, because right after the CRP I went to work at Penn State and my most important work at Penn State has happened in just the last few years. Along with developing a course in Civil Rights and Education with Erica—a course that is surprisingly rare in U.S. universities—I’ve been conducting research on issues of equity and the Common Core State Standards reform. The Common Core is the latest standards-based reform and said to be “state led,” though it co-exists with the zombie version of NCLB (I’m writing this on Halloween….). In the course of this research, my grad students and I developed a useful conceptual framework that synthesizes almost five decades of scholarship on equity into three clear chunks. This appears in a 2014 article published in Education Policy Analysis Archives. We have also now just submitted an article that maps and graphs the flow of money for the Common Core into, through and around school districts. This makes clear that few funding streams and low percentages of funding for this reform actually land in districts. In turn, the reform as a whole may become less defensible.  Instead of pouring funding into standards-based reforms which have not enhanced equity, the federal government and states should attend to policies that show more promise, including social policies beyond the educational sphere.

Alongside these research projects, I have helped to tackle some practical civil rights problems together with Erica. For example, a former head of Pennsylvania’s State Department of Education had agreed to fragment and reconfigure two school districts partly on the basis of petitioners’ claims about test scores. This fragmentation would have increased racial isolation in one of the districts. Fortunately, our expert reports prevented that decision from going forward. 


CRP: How would you describe your niche in education research? 

For many years, I’ve been guided by a central question: How might institutions and the policies surrounding them enhance human potential on a more equitable basis?  This question put my research work in a niche crammed with educational policy, civil rights, cognitive development (a discipline I’ve spent a good amount of time with in graduate school), and standards-based reform.  


CRP: What advice would you give a student or beginning professional interested in civil rights research and/or policy?

1.     Try to be mentored by Gary Orfield!

2.     If you are starting on this path without a law degree, find ways to get some grounding in law. 

3.     Learn how to write concise policy briefs.


Kornhaber Bio

Mindy L. Kornhaber is an associate professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University. She focuses on issues of educational equity, testing policy, and standards-based reforms. She received an Ed.M. in human development and Ed.D. in administration, planning, and social policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 
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