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Q&A with Kirsten Kainz, PhD

Q&A with Kirsten Kainz, PhD

April 22, 2021

Kirsten Kainz, PhD, is a research professor at the UNC School of Social Work and a Faculty Fellow at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG). Prior to that, she held various roles at FPG, and she has spent both her career as a scientist and personal life as an advocate working to create a more equitable world for children who are part of underserved and underrepresented communities.

What is your role at FPG?

My first job at FPG was working for Pam Winton and Camille Catlett as a graduate research assistant in 2001, and after I graduated with my PhD in education research in 2005, I worked with Lynne Vernon-Feagans on the Targeted Reading Intervention (now known as Targeted Reading Instruction).

Then I moved to the Data Management and Analysis Core as a statistician in 2007. In 2010, I began working with the Strategic Education Research Partnership Institute in Washington, D.C., and then came back to FPG to serve as the Director of Statistics from 2012 to 2016. Currently, I am a Faculty Fellow at FPG and a research professor in the UNC School of Social Work.

What kind of research do you do?

One of my initial research interests was to examine and expose the negative effects of attending a racially and economically segregated school on children's academic development. I started doing quantitative research to explore the correlates of academic development for children in high-poverty, high-minority schools and expanded that work to investigate effective education interventions for economically disadvantaged students.

Then I was elected to the Durham County School Board in 2006. I served as a board member until 2010, and that service had a very strong effect on my academic pursuits. Essentially, I realized that political leaders, school district leaders, their constituents, and communities were not looking for a table of regression results to tell them what is effective. As a scientist who wanted to support the research-to-practice connection, I had to build a new layer of skills on top of the design and analysis skills I built in my PhD program. Most of the learning centered around the kinds of conversations and experiences that helped people see the system that they were working in and use information and research evidence to improve that system, especially for children who had been marginalized outside of the sphere of success.

I chose to work with the Strategic Education Research Partnership in Washington, D.C. to expand my skills in the research-to-practice space. During that time, I was consulting with school districts in different parts of the United States, and I got even more of an education on how change happens in large school systems, especially school systems that serve minoritized students living in poverty. If you start from the assumption that there's nothing wrong with the students, then you have to look for the root causes of education disengagement and failure in the broader systems. With school district partners, we studied the interaction of curriculum, pedagogy, and student learning in high-poverty, high-minority schools. When I came back to the University, I became more and more committed to trying new methods to understand how it is we might learn from communities and work with them to improve their schools so that their children have better opportunities and better outcomes.

I've always had an interest in describing and dismantling racism in education, and that's why studying segregation was important to me―segregation is a tool used throughout our nation's history to restrict the flow of resources and opportunities. As I explored new methods, I became more explicitly anti-racist in the approach to studying resource and opportunity flows.

What does it mean to be anti-racist as a researcher?

Ibram X. Kendi, PhD, has taught us well―the anti-racist researcher looks for the policies and systemic practices that drive unequal and unfair outcomes. Anti-racist researchers locate the source of disparate and negative outcomes in systems, not in individuals. I started reflecting on the tools of my trade―how do the research practices I use sustain unjust thinking and practice? What tools should I learn to use to see more clearly how racism affects education systems and children's development in education systems? What tools will help researchers identify powerful places to act so that economically disadvantaged, minoritized students get a fair chance to learn and prosper in our schools.

Under Ayse's (Belger) leadership, FPG has made some strong moves toward an anti-racist agenda in our scientific community. Betsy Ayankoya and Jenille Morgan are leading the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Office, and Iheoma Iruka is leading the Equity Research Action Coalition. The push for more equitable child outcomes has always been a part of the work at FPG, but that push has accumulated into something powerful and transformative right now.

You recently presented at Innovate Carolina about complexity science. What does that mean?

Yes, I was presenting on the challenges of modeling “wicked problems.” Wicked problems are problems, like eliminating inter-generational poverty and responding to climate change, that resist easy solutions because people don't agree on the core definitions of the problem nor do they agree on effective remedies to the problem. I introduced some concepts from complexity science related to complex adaptive systems. Complex adaptive systems―like the human body, schools of fish, and economic markets―are characterized by non-linear and collective dynamics, emergent behavior, and chaos that make prediction very difficult, and perfect prediction impossible. Essentially, complex adaptive systems are driven by hidden dynamics that require careful study and unique methods to see what lies beneath the surface.

I introduced the iceberg model from systems science to further depict the hidden nature of some phenomenon. The iceberg we see is the chunk of ice above the waterline. The full iceberg is much larger and more ominous, especially because it is hidden from sight. In education, we can observe racial disparities in access to high-quality learning environments, access to rigorous coursework, and eventually in test scores. But, what don't we see? The disparities we observe are like the tip of an iceberg, but the root causes of the disparities lie below the waterline. The allure of complexity and systems sciences is the application of insights and tools for unearthing the hidden patterns that drive persistent education inequality. If I'm an anti-racist researcher, I will be looking for the policies, laws, and hidden practices that continue to produce unequal outcomes in our society.

What is something that excites you about the future of your work?

One thing that excites me is the possibility of becoming more of an anti-racist scientist individually, to work in communities of anti-racist scientists where we can reinforce each other's growth, and to see where anti-racist science might take us in a way that our existing science hasn't yet.