School environments are places in which students, particularly students of color, are exposed to implicit bias and discrimination that can negatively impact their academic outcomes. In this interview blog, we asked prevention scientist Dr. Chynna McCall to discuss how her career journey and her experiences working with children and families from diverse populations inspired her research on creating equitable school environments.
How did you begin your career journey as a prevention scientist?
Perhaps my most valued professional experience is serving as a licensed school psychologist in public schools in Colorado, working with children and families from racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse populations. This experience inspired me to join the Missouri Prevention Science Institute in 2018 as an Institute of Education Sciences postdoctoral fellow, where I studied how to use research to solve real-world problems. More specifically, I learned how to use prevention science to develop and evaluate evidence-based practices and interventions that prevent negative social and emotional impacts before they happen. After my fellowship, I was hired and promoted to a senior research associate position at the Missouri Prevention Science Institute. In this role, I have operational responsibilities for various federally funded grants and conduct my own grant-funded research. Presently, I am working on the development and testing of an equity-focused social-emotional learning curriculum for 3rd through 5th grade students.
What challenges did you observe as a school psychologist?
As a school psychologist, I worked in two vastly different school districts. In one, most students came from low-income families, spoke English as a second language, and the school's performance on standardized tests was significantly below average. Most of the challenges I tackled during my time there could be categorized as social-emotional; most students had unbalanced home lives, and many suffered emotional or physical trauma. Because the school district pressured teachers to improve test scores, focus on behavior and classroom management unilaterally shifted towards scholastics. The unfortunate outcome was neglecting to acknowledge the role that student behavior and the root causes of those behaviors play in affecting academic outcomes. While the second district I worked for was a high-performing one with generally high socioeconomic status, I chose to work for the school designated for those children in the district who have serious emotional disabilities.
Even though there are stark differences between the two districts, I consistently encountered a need for students to develop better relationships with their teachers, peers, and parents, develop a better sense of self, and for teachers, other school personnel, students, and parents to have a better understanding of how their practices and interactions are impacting student social-emotional and academic outcomes.
How does your background as a school psychologist influence your research?
My experience as a school psychologist has reinforced my understanding of what is needed to improve public education and what research questions are of utmost importance. Through my time as a school psychologist, it helped me define the goals of my research, which include 1) understanding the influence of prejudice and discrimination on student internal and external behaviors and outcomes, 2) understanding how school personnel expression of prejudice and discrimination influence student internal and external behaviors and outcomes, and 3) determining how to most effectively develop an equitable school environment that positively influences marginalized and minoritized youth outcomes.
My research examines how school environment—including the prejudicial and discriminatory thoughts and behaviors of school staff, students, and guardians—influences identity development, identity expression (for example, racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, and intersectionality) and internal and external behaviors. The objective is to use this knowledge to create a school environment that facilitates prosocial student identity development. My research hinges on my observations and experiences as a practicing school psychologist to focus on how to shift differential outcomes observed in public education due to experiences of discrimination both in and out of the school setting.
In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
I believe schools at every level of education are microcosms for the greater society. How students traverse through the school system dictates how they will navigate through the macrocosm of society. How students navigate the school system can be improved if school systems are equipped with the tools that allow staff to prepare the students better academically, socially, and emotionally. These tools are essential for students who are having a difficult time because of cultural, linguistic, psychological, or physical differences from their peers. It is crucial for the research community to continually advocate for positive change in our education system, work towards better understanding student needs, and develop effective and efficient tools that better promote student growth and outcomes.
I also believe that researchers who study school environments must explicitly study bias. We have to look at whether and how school professionals are becoming aware of and challenging their implicit biases, as well as how students are becoming aware of bias and how they deal with it—either by internalizing it or challenging it. We also must look into how challenging or accepting bias affects students emotionally, behaviorally, and academically.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
See your perspective and experience as assets. Your perspective is underrepresented and is needed in making necessary changes to education and education outcomes. When you view your perspective as something of value, you are better able to determine what unaddressed research questions need to be asked and to move education research in a direction that is more inclusive of every student.
This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here, here, and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. As part of our Black History Month blog series, we are focusing on African American/Black researchers and fellows as well as researchers who focus on the education of Black students.
Dr. Chynna McCall is a Senior Research Associate with the Missouri Prevention Science Institute at the University of Missouri. Prior to this position, she was an IES postdoctoral fellow in the Missouri Interdisciplinary Postdoctoral Research and Training Program training program.
Produced by Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), postdoctoral training program officer, and Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and predoctoral training program officer.