Each year, IES recognizes an Outstanding Fellow from its Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences for academic accomplishments and contributions to education research. Sade Bonilla, the 2019 awardee, received her doctorate in the Economics of Education from Stanford University. She is currently an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where her research focuses on K-12 education policy with a particular emphasis on high school to college transitions, career and technical education, and educational inequity. Sade recently presented her research and received her award at the 2022 IES Principal Investigators meeting in January. In this blog, we’ve asked her to share her career journey and recommendations for current and emerging education researchers.
How did you become interested in a career in education research?
My interest in educational inequity and reform efforts in public education stemmed from my personal experience as a Latina from a working-class family attending urban public schools. I was attracted to the field of education policy and research as a first-generation college student because the field seeks answers to questions that are intensely personal for me: what works for poor minoritized kids? In other words, how can policy be designed and implemented such that kids like me were not an exception. There were several key adults in my educational career that believed in me and told me about opportunities—such as opportunities for financial aid to attend private colleges—that shifted my life trajectory. When I arrived at college, I took public policy and education courses and read articles on so many different topics. I was floored that asking and pursuing the answers to questions that one finds interesting could be a career.
What inspired you to focus your research on understanding the effects of local and state educational policies aimed at eliminating structural inequality?
My interest in investigating how contemporary educational reforms impact the trajectories of traditionally underserved youth stems from my personal experience and the knowledge of how historical and current policies—school segregation, redlining, justice system, etc.—serve to reinforce social inequality in schools. Schools are a cornerstone of our formative experience, and they are also central to communities, civic discourse, and career preparation. Given that schooling is so integral to how we learn to navigate society, I have been interested in understanding which policies and programs allow students to have agency to create their own paths.
What do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
When I started graduate school, I received the advice to read the literature extensively and think about where I could add value in terms of advancing our understanding of certain questions. As I sought to figure out which questions to ask and answer, I drew on my personal experience and those of my family members to think about how students succeed in high school and choose a career path that may involve postsecondary education. I found it helpful to think through how first-generation families like my own navigate high school and the transition to college. This also led me to realize the importance, as a quantitative researcher, of speaking with people in the field. I have really enjoyed pursuing researcher-practitioner partnership research and have been learning about examples of youth participatory research that I hope to support someday as well.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars that are pursuing a career in education research?
I would advise them to choose questions that they are passionate about and to attend to questions and areas that tend to receive less attention. If an area of study is crowded and there are lots of people working in that space, be sure you think about how your work and thinking can provide unique insight. I would also hope that emerging scholars seek to do work that influences what happens in schools. To that end, I think it is important to pay attention to how practitioners are framing and understanding issues in the education system. Having this deeper understanding of the field will elevate your research and make it more impactful.
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 research training blog series, we are featuring winners of the 2019-2021 Outstanding Predoctoral Fellow awards. The 2019 winner, Sade Bonilla, was a fellow in the Stanford University Predoctoral Training Program in Quantitative Education Policy Analysis.
Produced by Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research and Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and predoctoral training program officer.