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‘Access, opportunities and outcomes’

May 4, 2016
Amy Stich

Amy Stich

Does the U.S. education system function to reproduce inequalities of social class and race while claiming to improve access for minorities and financially disadvantaged students?

Yes, says Amy Stich, an assistant professor in the NIU Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations.

“We have decades of research on academic tracking at the secondary level that suggest that this sorting process obstructs and limits educational opportunities for some while preserving the privilege of others,” Stich says.

Unfortunately, she adds, “very little attention has been paid to similar levels of stratification within colleges and universities wherein academic tracking and its consequences have also become manifest.”

Stich aims to address these inequalities – and has the affirmational and financial backing of the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation.

The NIU College of Education professor is among 30 recipients of the 2016 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowships. Each fellowship award of $70,000 is intended to act as the fellow’s salary replacement and also cover research expenses for the fellowship period.

Leaders of the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation believe the fellowships enhance the future of education research by developing new talent in the many disciplines and fields represented by the scholars selected.

These fellowships are the oldest source of support for education research – nationally and internationally – for recent recipients of the doctorate. The 30-year-old program counts nearly 800 alumni, many of whom are the strongest education researchers in the field today.

Stich, who came to NIU as a visiting assistant professor in 2014 and joined the tenure-track faculty in 2015, feels “incredibly honored and privileged” to join those ranks. Her application was one of 176 submitted this year.

“I applied for the fellowship in the interest of advancing my scholarship, which I hope will ultimately have a broader impact on issues of inequality in higher education,” she says.

naed-spencer“The fellowship provides enough funding to reduce one’s teaching load, and covers the cost of expenses associated with conducting research, which allows recipients sufficient time and resources to conduct ambitious, independent research projects.”

And, for Stich, it’s personal.

“As a first-generation undergraduate student from a working-class background, I not only found myself academically ill-prepared for college, but I struggled to find the resources necessary to stay,” she says. “At my undergraduate institution, one that continues to serve a largely first-generation, working-class population, I watched many of my peers fall behind or drop out.”

Fortunately, Stich persevered – and soon began “to acquire a language and an understanding of my own social position within a system of education that often works to reproduce social inequalities rather than ameliorate them.”

“Once harnessed with this language, and encouraged by faculty mentors to think deeply, question the status quo bravely and reflect often, I also become aware of the transformative potential of education,” she says.

During her two-year fellowship, she will conduct a multi-case study of the structure and social consequence of postsecondary tracking within two public universities.

The data collected should provide the basis for several academic publications and conference presentations, she says.

“I am hoping this research will contribute to our understanding of deepening levels of inequality in the postsecondary system,” Stich says, “and inform conversations surrounding educational policies and practices that seek to improve access, opportunities and outcomes for historically underrepresented and underserved students in higher education.”

Stich also is eager for the fellowship’s fringe benefits.

Fellows are required to attend three National Academy of Education meetings in Washington, D.C. with other fellows and academy members, she says.

“National Academy members are among some of the most distinguished educational researchers in the world,” she says. “Having the opportunity to engage with, and learn from, such influential scholars is very exciting.”