From journalism to research and evaluation: a research journey
11 May 2018 - BY QSR International with Dr Anupama Shekar
Dr. Anupama Shekar shares her story of following her passion for ensuring equitable access to quality education, no matter a child’s economic circumstance, and how it took her from a career in journalism in India, to post-doctoral research in the U.S. Her work has featured a long history of working with qualitative research and evaluation tools, including NVivo.
Dr. Anupama Shekar, PhD, is a qualitative researcher and program evaluator with a passion for the field of educational research and evaluation. She is currently an Evaluation Consultant with the Center on Research and Evaluation at the Simmons School of Education and Human Development at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas. Her prior experience includes working as the Director for Evaluation at Teaching Trust in Dallas, Texas, an education leadership non-profit organization. She also worked as an associate researcher, and prior to that a post-doctoral research associate with WIDA which is a national and international prek-12 language development and assessment program housed at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Before undertaking her postdoctoral work, she earned her PhD at the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also assisted in the development and evaluation of WIDA’s data literacy program known as LADDER for English language learners. Funded by the US Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition, this project essentially helped participating schools make data-driven decisions about English language learners.
Prior to coming to the U.S., Anupama received her Master's degree in journalism at the Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication and worked as a print journalist for the New Indian Express, a national mainstream newspaper in Tamil Nadu, Southern India. In her role as a print journalist, she focused on public educational leadership and policy issues in South India, where her journey in education began. The school leaders she met served children from low-income families. They greatly impacted her and she was inspired to leave journalism and study educational leadership and policy.
A journey in education leadership and policy research
Anupama recalls why she felt compelled to change careers. “It was the initial encounter that I had with several children from low-income communities,” she said. “They really awakened my interest in studying education leadership and policy formally and improving the public school system in India.”
“Many years later, the first story I wrote for The New Indian Express in 2006, still remains on my desk, “ she said. “It continues to keep me focused on why I began this journey and the importance of working to improve the lives of children from low-income communities anywhere in the world.”
A 14-year-old girl said that she had to work to feed her mother and brothers, and could not go to school. That really stuck with Anupama. Although education is a fundamental right of children under the Indian constitution, thousands of underprivileged children still have no real access to a school or quality education. “At that point I started developing an interest in research and evaluation in education leadership. I wanted to study successful school leadership practices and leaders who advocate for children from low-income groups despite the odds,” Anupama said.
It was when Anupama’s doctorate studies and WIDA work began that NVivo came into the picture. Her professors and other researchers used it, and her own research involved writing up case studies of school leaders in public schools in Tamil Nadu, Southern India. Previous research in the U.S. had examined the contribution of parent involvement in children's educational outcomes, but very little was focused on the role of school principals in fostering parent, family and community involvement practices.
Her analysis of previous research led her to design an exploratory, qualitative, cross-case study and informed her research questions: how do public school leaders in Tamil Nadu foster parent and family involvement? And what are the similarities and differences across schools?
“I used NVivo 9 to explore the initial transcriptions of interviews, contextual observations and field notes. It gave me an initial understanding of all the data and how the school heads initiated and supported parent involvement practices at their schools,” said Anupama.
While NVivo helped gain an initial understanding of the themes in her data, Anupama also used a traditional and manual coding process while interrogating her qualitative data to unpack the complexities in her qualitative case studies.
“Manual coding helped me analyze the story of each headmaster and headmistress and see patterns. I needed to get close to the data to figure out the leaders actions more deeply,” she said. “I also used memos, and documents, and artifacts. I sort of let the curiosities as a researcher take over. I feel moving between manual and software coding really helped me with my dissertation analyses and to triangulate my own thinking and findings,” said Anupama.
She notes how innovative uses of qualitative data helped her accomplish a richer understanding of experiences in the case studies. “The main study findings were that the school heads’ over time created a continuum of overlapping actions that helped foster effective parent involvement. I was really able to get to the core of the school heads’ actions through usage of multiple analyses techniques and constant reflection on the qualitative data. As a qualitative researcher, you really commit to spending extended periods of time to get to the heart of the story” Anupama said.
During her work at WIDA during her doctorate studies, the WIDA’s LADDER project convened many focus groups, as well as individual interviews and mixed methods evaluation. “Each year we produced a program evaluation report and wrote up findings, so NVivo was useful as one of the tools that helped us identify themes and patterns,” said Anupama. “WIDA still offers the LADDER program, and I was there when they were developing the whole program from the ground up,” she said.
When Anupama moved onto her postdoctoral work, WIDA’s Teaching and Learning team were trying to understand best practices in professional learning and professional development. One large project involved multiple qualitative open-ended questions. Anupama found her prior experience helpful. “NVivo was a great tool for me to use then because we were working with a lot of diverse data and it ended up providing great insights,” she said.
Most recently she worked as the Director of Evaluation with Teaching Trust, an educational leadership non-profit in Dallas. Teaching Trust offers high quality training and support for future school leaders, school leadership teams, and teacher leaders to ensure that children in low-income schools across Texas have access to an excellent education.
“Teaching Trust has a strong alumni base and educators who graduated from Teaching Trust programs are out in the field driving positive change for students,” said Anupama. “The Teaching Trust Alumni Network team always gathered and used data effectively to drive their programmatic decisions. In this case, the team was trying to understand through qualitative data, the impact of the Teaching Trust alumni programming from the participant's point of view and how future programming might be improved and changed,” she said.
The Alumni Network team conducted qualitative focus groups of current and former participants. “After every focus group, our team met to extract meaning from the data — the impacts of Teaching Trust programming on participants, personal leadership, student and school outcomes, and what it really meant to be part of the Teaching Trust community,” said Anupama.
The team used both manual and software coding techniques with their qualitative data. “We took a grounded theory approach by listening and gathering data, and bridging perspectives to really unpack the themes and patterns” said Anupama.
“My former colleagues used pen and paper, and I used NVivo to code,” Anupama said. “There is a lot of power in combining multiple qualitative coding techniques because that adds to the validity and reduces researcher isolation. We presented the lessons learned and techniques on the collaborative qualitative approach in a webinar to the American Evaluation Association.” she said.
A passion for qualitative insights
Anupama’s career has evolved through her interest and passion for educational research and evaluation and ensuring people have equitable access to quality education, no matter their background or economic circumstance. Her appreciation for the importance of qualitative research and evaluation has been at the heart of her work.
“Qualitative data tells you something that numbers cannot, and helps you dig deeper to explore the complexities and find powerful insights,” she said. “As a qualitative researcher and evaluator, my challenge has been to find meaning in data, to keep asking why, and to continue digging,” said Anupama.
Anupama also hopes to continue sharing the power of qualitative research and evaluation through her website and blog in the near future. “There is a renewed energy in qualitative research and evaluation that is really exciting. There are people around the world who use qualitative data in very different ways in their work. I think it will be valuable to hear and share their stories as continual learning is the core of qualitative work.”
Next steps in career
Anupama hopes to use her learnings in qualitative research and evaluation at her current work at the Center on Research and Evaluation (CORE) at the Simmons School of Education and Human Development at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas.
“I am excited to be doing projects for CORE and collaborating with their diverse and strong team of researchers and evaluators led by Dr. Annie Wright. They are at the forefront of conducting rigorous research and evaluation that focuses on examining critical issues around children, families and communities.
CORE is constantly striving to push boundaries and was selected as one of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s expert evaluators nationwide. This shows the focus CORE has on issues around diversity, equity and social justice. I am honored to be learning as a researcher and evaluator with this incredible organization.”
You can follow CORE’s work on Facebook and Twitter.