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Meet the New SOE Faculty Members

Five dynamic additions to the SOE community

Kara Finnigan
Kara Finnigan

Dr. Kara Finnigan

Professor, Educational Studies

Dr. Kara Finnigan is a scholar of educational leadership and policy. She has studied the implementation and impact of accountability and choice policies in U.S. public education, as well as regional educational policy solutions, with a focus on equity and racial justice. She is currently looking at connections between education and housing policies, social movements around integration in metropolitan areas, and the social networks of educational leaders around research evidence. Her work has addressed how educational policies shape access, learning opportunities, and outcomes for students of color and students living in poverty. Drawing from the fields of education, sociology, and political science, she uses qualitative and quantitative methods, including social network analysis and GIS mapping.

Before joining the SOE, Finnigan served as the director of the master’s and doctoral educational policy programs at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, where she shaped the learning experiences of students by redesigning multiple programs. She also served as a Distinguished Equity, Inclusion, and Social Transformation Fellow and Inclusive Climate Leadership Fellow, where she focused on issues relating to faculty recruitment and retention as well as new ways of supporting community engagement for racial justice at the university level. In fall 2022, Finnigan began serving as senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation.

Several of your recent projects explore social network structures in education contexts. What have you discovered about why an understanding of these structures is important?

I became interested in social network theories and methods because they help us to understand complex issues in different ways from more traditional approaches. For example, many policy strategies focus heavily on transactional aspects of educational change without paying sufficient attention to relational components. My longitudinal studies of educational leaders helped to uncover gaps in assumptions as far as whether the conditions were in place for collaborative and sustained change as well as identified the high level of churn that was disrupting the conditions for organizational learning and change to occur. Being able to map and measure the structure of these underlying relationships—in this case among educational leaders in a district and teachers in a school—is a unique contribution to policy implementation research.

In addition to studying education policy, how do you connect policymakers and others with your findings?

As an education policy scholar, I conduct research that focuses on the design, implementation, and impact of policies at all levels of the education system to improve our understanding of who is benefiting or being harmed by policies and ensure equity and justice. I see my role as a public scholar, meaning someone who prioritizes not just conducting research and being in dialogue with other scholars, but also communicating with and learning from a variety of different audiences. I have done this through writing opinion pieces and blog posts, testifying before governmental agencies, sharing my work on podcasts, serving on local committees engaged in policy change, and participating in events focused on parents or community members. Helping the next generation of policy scholars in developing the knowledge and skills to engage with and learn from different policy audiences, including policymakers, is something I value a great deal.

How do you mentor students to be justice-focused scholars?

I mentor students to be justice-focused scholars in three key ways. First, I try to ensure that equity and racial justice are in the foreground of all aspects of my work—from teaching to research to service—and try to help students see how these are centered. Second, I provide context and resources to facilitate their learning about the historical patterns and structures that are unjust and inequitable (and for whom) and work with them to develop strategies not just to navigate but to disrupt these, whether by understanding or advocating for policies, designing research, engaging with communities, or developing courses. Third, I bring critical lenses to the mentoring relationship itself and try to create more democratic spaces to exchange ideas, in contrast to the more hierarchical mentor-mentee relationship. In doing so I often uncover new understandings and practices as far as what it means to be a justice-focused scholar and mentor.


Jennifer Randall
Jennifer Randall

Dr. Jennifer Randall

Dunn Family Endowed Professor of Psychometrics and Test Development, Educational Studies

Dr. Jennifer Randall is a scholar of educational assessment and psychometrics who studies measurement issues (both large-scale and classroom-based) and the ways in which assessments take into consideration historically marginalized populations in the U.S. and abroad. She explores this through two overarching strands of research: core technical issues in psychometrics and culturally sustaining and antiracist approaches to developing assessment and measurement tools and practices.

Randall’s teaching reflects her commitment to applying her research on social justice in assessment and measurement to her own pedagogical practice. She teaches courses focused on classroom assessment, research methods, statistics, measurement, and scale development. Her instruction is guided by social justice pedagogical practices, which are centered in democracy and the ability to exercise one’s full humanity. Randall’s dedication to teaching and mentorship have been recognized with the University of Massachusetts College of Education Outstanding Teaching Award in 2013, and the NERA Thomas F. Donlon Memorial Award for Distinguished Mentoring in 2021.

Randall is also the president of the Center for Measurement Justice (CMJ), an independent nonprofit funded by philanthropic organizations. With her move to the SOE, CMJ will be affiliated with U-M, but will remain an independent nonprofit organization run by racially minoritized persons.

She comes to the SOE from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she was an associate professor in the College of Education.

How did your time as a classroom teacher shape your course of scholarly research?

I worked for several years as a preschool teacher, then as a high school social studies teacher. Contrary to the platitudes I was fed about the ways in which education can elevate, empower, and liberate, what I saw were the ways in which multiple systems (across multiple levels) seemed designed to marginalize and dehumanize certain groups of students. Racially minoritized students seemed to be especially targeted by the efforts through academic tracking, exclusionary discipline practices, and assessments seemingly designed to support deficit narratives about what they know and are able to do. Although I personally support efforts to disrupt all of these systems, my professional scholarship focuses on the latter. I believe that education spaces have the potential to be liberatory for all students and I am committed to figuring out how educational assessments can support—as opposed to inhibit—those aims.

What would it look like for antiracist assessment practices to be common in schools?

I believe antiracist assessments are a part of a comprehensive system of justice-oriented, liberatory education. Antiracist assessments can complement existing—or instigate the implementation of—antiracist pedagogical practices. In practice, this looks like large-scale design and implementation of assessments that (1) disrupt negative stereotypes about any marginalized group; (2) acknowledge sociopolitical inequities and injustices and empower students to enact change by combating these injustices; (3) allow multiple ways of knowing/understanding and performing the content; and (4) provide complete and accurate historical and contemporary perspectives that go beyond celebrating and/or protecting whiteness. Rupturing these logics will require the efforts of co-conspirators at every level—engaging with parents/families and students—to create something better.

What is the Center for Measurement Justice?

CMJ is a research center with a focus on antiracist assessment and measurement practices (which complements and supplements my own research agenda). We work with industry partners, parents, teachers, and students to develop and evaluate antiracist assessment practices and tasks. In addition to both conducting and funding research, CMJ was created to further two other goals: to improve representation in, and transformation of, the field of measurement. To increase the representation of racially minoritized scholars in the field of educational measurement, CMJ funds fellowships and internships as well as provides mentoring support for Black, Brown, and Indigenous students. In partnership with education agencies, other nonprofits, and researchers, CMJ also advocates for the adoption and implementation of justice-oriented, antiracist assessment practices at the state, local, and classroom levels.

With anchor funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we launched in January of 2022. These first few months we have focused on building the team, including hiring an executive director, assembling an advisory board, establishing partnerships, and listening to stakeholders. This fall, we will continue these efforts and release our first RFP. Ultimately, we will build a strong and powerful community of activists and co-conspirators committed to equitable and just assessment practices.


Chris Torres
Chris Torres

Dr. Chris Torres

Associate Professor, Educational Studies

A scholar of educational leadership and policy, Dr. Chris Torres’ research examines the perspectives, experiences, and practices of teachers and educational leaders in marginalized communities to understand how they are influenced by the policies, systems, and organizations in which they are situated. His work largely focuses on two areas: no-excuses charter schools and the role of leadership and governance contexts in school choice and accountability policies.

Torres uses mixed-methods research designs that include applied research conducted in partnership with the organizations he studies, with the aim of elevating and centering the voices of teachers and families, along with Students of Color and those experiencing poverty. In 2022, he received both the AERA Districts and Reform SIG Outstanding Publication Award and the AERA Division L Outstanding Policy Report Award. He was also named Outstanding Reviewer for Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (2018 and 2019) and received a University of Michigan NCID Exemplary Scholar Award (2013). Prior to joining SOE this fall, Torres served as an associate professor of educational administration at Michigan State University, where he was also the associate director of the University Council on Educational Administration (UCEA).

How did you become interested in examining school leadership, and particularly in charter schools?

I started off my career teaching kindergarten and first grade in the Bronx. After a couple of years, my principal seemed to trust me and largely left me alone, but I wanted to learn and grow as a teacher. I started looking around for other jobs and ended up at a charter school in Harlem that had a collegial environment and impressive teacher coaching systems. But I soon began to wonder why so many of the teaching staff left every year. The problem of teacher turnover at this school was similar to what I’d seen in the Bronx, but the context was so different. I was intrigued by this puzzle, and I also felt like it was a travesty that so many minoritized students were losing teachers every year to the point that it was a running joke among some of our students. I eventually applied to graduate school to better understand this problem, which led me to my dissertation work on teacher turnover in no-excuses charter schools. From there, through triangulating the literature, my findings, and my own experiences as a teacher, it became impossible to ignore how important school leadership is to teacher retention.

As Michigan and the nation face severe teacher shortages, what can be done to improve teacher recruitment and retention?

When my son was three, I remember one of his favorite teachers abruptly leaving his daycare classroom. He struggled a little after that. Before she left, I had a conversation with her. She said it made a lot more sense for her to be a nanny. Not only would she get paid more, but it would be less stressful. Another of MSU’s best childcare centers just advertised for a teaching position—this person would make in the high $20K range each year. Obviously, these examples are not from the K-12 context but the concerns about pay are similar, especially for new teachers in low-income districts. Researchers and policymakers like to point to “malleable” factors like working conditions and leadership to improve teacher supply and retention, but there’s also a lot of good evidence that concerns about pay influence teachers’ career decisions and mobility between districts. Pay is something that policymakers largely have control over.

What’s on your current reading list—academic or otherwise?

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of pop psychology books for fun. I was a psychology major in college so that’s been an area of interest of mine for a long time. Earlier this year I read a couple of books on positive psychology and right now I’m in the middle of Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty and Chatter by U-M’s own Ethan Kross.


Jeremy Wright-Kim
Jeremy Wright-Kim

Dr. Jeremy Wright-Kim

Assistant Professor, Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education

Dr. Jeremy Wright-Kim joins the SOE’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education (CSHPE) as an assistant professor of education. His research agenda seeks to identify and address structural and institutional inequities that hinder American higher education from delivering on its promise of educational equity for all students, and centers community colleges as engines for opportunity.

Wright-Kim has led or collaborated on research projects funded by the American Educational Research Association, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. A recent co-winner of the ASHE Dissertation of the Year award, he is a critical policy scholar with a focus on higher education finance and a particular interest in community colleges and open-access institutions. Wright-Kim comes to the SOE from the School of Education at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he was previously an assistant professor.

What are some of the greatest challenges you have found through your research that prevent American higher education from delivering on its promise of educational equity for all students?

American higher education is stratified by design. While this structure may ostensibly help the system fulfill an admittedly impressive array of goals and functions, it can also bake in inequality. One key example of this is the community college sector, which is a primary focus of my research. Despite being tasked with serving some of the students with the highest needs, the sector receives far fewer resources than its four-year counterparts—in effect, it must “do more with less.” Although it has the highest potential to move the needle on social mobility and educational access and success, such chronic resource stratification hinders the sector’s ability to meet these goals. Some of my current work also highlights other policy-designed constraints placed upon the sector, such as limitations to the level and type of degrees community colleges may offer. Overall, I believe better alignment between our public policies and the needs facing the community college sector would be a crucial and productive step toward educational equity.

How do you hope your research will help address inequities in higher education?

Like most researchers, my ultimate goal is for my work to have practical value. All of my interactions with policymakers and practitioners lead me to believe that we’re largely on the same page. We all want to make college more accessible, affordable, supportive, and aligned with our myriad social and economic needs. But we’re operating within real constraints, and there are tangible tradeoffs to consider with most policy choices. I hope I can help higher education leaders think through these tradeoffs with an equity-oriented mindset and enable them to make the best choices possible for their communities. In terms of my current scholarship, that means (1) identifying how to more equitably fund the community college sector and (2) exploring how certain policies, such as community college baccalaureates or stackable pathways, can help the sector address the persistent opportunity and outcome gaps experienced by the populations it tends to serve, including the lion’s share of minoritized, othered, and otherwise underserved students in the U.S.

What course or courses are you most excited to teach at U-M?

I’m fortunate to be teaching some of the introductory classes, which means I’ll have the chance to get to know many of our CSHPE students and their varying interests—it’s the multifaceted nature of higher education that makes studying and teaching it such fun. I’m particularly excited about the Public Policy in Postsecondary Education course. There are so many important policy issues facing this next generation of higher education leaders, and whether they’re policymakers, researchers, or practitioners, they’ll have a role to play in tackling them. I’m looking forward to helping them along that journey.


Ying Xu
Ying Xu

Dr. Ying Xu

Assistant Professor, Educational Studies

Dr. Ying Xu researches and designs technologies that promote language and literacy development, STEM learning, and well-being for children and families. Xu’s current projects center on artificial intelligence: in particular, natural language processing and speech technologies. She explores whether and how these new technologies play the role of a language partner or learning companion for children, thereby impacting children’s social interactions and developmental processes. She has a particular interest in designing technologies from an asset-oriented perspective with and for children and their families who speak languages other than English.

In her research, Xu collaborates closely with national media producers, including PBS KIDS and Sesame Workshop, as well as industrial partners and local community organizations. Her work has been supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Still an early-career scholar, she has already published over 20 peer-reviewed papers in premier academic venues across psychology, learning sciences, and human computer interaction. She has won five best-paper awards or nominations for her research and was selected as a Public Impact Distinguished Fellow at the University of California, Irvine in recognition of the potential of her research to significantly enrich people’s lives.

What possibilities do emerging AI technologies offer for your research interests?

Advances in speech technologies and natural language processing (think Siri and Alexa) present a variety of opportunities to carry out research in support of children’s education and development. My research focuses on integrating this kind of technology into educational media so that children can converse with AI partners capable of providing targeted guidance and scaffolding. For example, I am partnering with PBS KIDS to develop an interactive science show where the main character asks children questions about the science concepts introduced in the show and provides tailored feedback based on the children’s responses. We have found that these types of conversations between children and their AI partners enhance children’s learning, engagement, and motivation.

However, as with most technologies, conversational AI can have its own biases. Children who do not speak English at home or who simply have less experience interacting with digital devices of this sort may encounter more challenges, and therefore reap fewer educational rewards. Thus, my research also aims to identify and address such biases so that the technologies I create contribute to, rather than work against, educational equity.

How do you engage children, families, and communities in co-designing media?

I see co-design as a way of actively challenging and reducing many of the biases inherent in AI and making the technology more responsive and responsible. To achieve this goal, I always involve children, families, and community members in the research when I develop AI-powered media, eliciting their perspectives through interviews, contextual inquiries, and low- and high- fidelity prototyping, among other methods. In a project with Sesame Workshop, I used these methods to co-design e-books with Latino families. The resulting e-books are embedded with conversational AI designed to engage bilingual families in dialogues that are responsive to their values, routines, and language preferences.

The co-design process is a great way to empower those who are not traditionally involved in academic research. In addition to involving the children, families, and community members who will ultimately use the educational media, my projects attract underrepresented college and graduate students who can uniquely contribute to the research by leveraging their own background and experience.

In anticipation of starting your next professional chapter at U-M, what are you most excited about?

I’m really excited about the recently established Eileen Lappin Weiser Learning Sciences Center in the SOE. It will afford me tremendous opportunities to continue my research and use AI technologies to tackle educational challenges facing local communities. In particular, I look forward to partnering with schools and community groups in Ann Arbor and Detroit to develop new mechanisms supporting equitable learning for children in Michigan and beyond.

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