UCI News

Emily Penner among 5 early-career US researchers named William T. Grant Scholars

UCI assistant professor of education seeks to advance high school ethnic studies teaching

May 11, 2021
Emily Penner among 5 early-career US researchers named William T. Grant Scholars
“We have a robust pipeline of English and science teachers, but with ethnic studies expanding so rapidly, districts are going to have to recruit and train existing teachers for it,” says Emily Penner, UCI assistant professor of education and William T. Grant Scholar. UCI

Irvine, Calif., May 11, 2021 — Emily Penner, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, has been named a William T. Grant Scholar to explore what makes a high school ethnic studies teacher effective.

The five-year, $350,000 award supports promising early-career researchers with interests in reducing inequality or improving the use of research evidence. It will fund a project building on Penner’s previous work, which showed that enrollment in a ninth-grade ethnic studies class substantially increased attendance, grade-point averages and course credits for students who had been labeled at risk of dropping out of high school based on eighth-grade performance.

“The goal is to look at what specific classroom practices made a difference for students and to see how these practices can be cultivated as programs expand,” Penner said. “This kind of study has been important in some other subjects, like math, but hasn’t been done yet for high school ethnic studies teaching.”

Ethnic studies – an umbrella term for courses that focus on the experiences and histories of traditionally marginalized groups – have grown increasingly popular in recent years. In fact, a number of state legislatures have passed laws to introduce or even require ethnic studies for K-12 students, including those in California, Indiana, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Washington and the District of Columbia.

For her project, Penner will spend time observing ethnic studies classes at partner districts in two states that have implemented an ethnic studies curriculum.

Ultimately, her work may inform training practices for the growing number of teachers in this emerging discipline.

“We have a robust pipeline of English and science teachers, but with ethnic studies expanding so rapidly, districts are going to have to recruit and train existing teachers for it,” Penner said. “So then the question becomes ‘How can we support the teachers being trained to step into these classrooms in ways that foster engaging, critical and caring experiences for students?’”

This year’s cohort of William T. Grant Scholars comprises five assistant professors from across the country. “We welcome these dynamic early-career researchers to the William T. Grant Scholars Program. They span different disciplines, methods and policy areas and will push their expertise in new directions to tackle the persistent harms of racism, xenophobia and poverty,” said Vivian Tseng, senior vice president of the William T. Grant Foundation. “By supporting their research agendas and professional development, the William T. Grant Scholars Program seeks to contribute to a bright new generation of scholars who will bring rigorous research to youth policies, programs and practices in the U.S.”

Part of the program is to provide mentorship to faculty to develop their skills and expand their expertise. To that end, Penner will work with ethnic studies expert Christine Sleeter, professor emerita of education at California State University, Monterey Bay; and Heather C. Hill, the Jerome T. Murphy Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who has extensive experience connecting classroom teachers’ practices with student outcomes.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities and is ranked among the nation’s top 10 public universities by U.S. News & World Report. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 36,000 students and offers 224 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $7 billion annually to the local economy and $8 billion statewide. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.

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