by Andrew Myers
Zyrashae Smith, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins School of Education, has been selected by the American Education Research Association’s (AERA) for its Minority Dissertation Fellowship in Education Research. Fellows receive a one-year, non-renewable stipend of $25,000, an invitation to present their work at the 2023 AERA Annual Meeting, and other professional development, mentoring and training opportunities.
“When I applied, I was hopeful yet realistic about my chances. But, when I heard I’d won, I was a bit shocked. Just to have an organization as respected as AERA recognize my work was an honor,” Smith said. “In retrospect, however, knowing that this is a rigorous award for hard research makes it all the more special. I am honored to become a fellow.”
Established in 1991, the competitive Minority Dissertation Fellowship is among the most prestigious student awards granted by the AERA, which says the goal of the fellowship is to enhance the racial and ethnic diversity at the highest levels of education research. The fellowship provides support for doctoral dissertation research with the expectation that fellows are preparing for future academic appointments at major research universities.
Smith earned her master’s degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and is in the fourth year of her doctoral program. Her research is focused on school choice in the Baltimore City Public Schools and how it is related to students’ future educational outcomes. She plans to study three cohorts of eighth grade students who applied to one of the district’s selective high schools, tracking their admissions outcomes, high school academic performance, and college destinations.
“My dissertation is looking at, in a broad sense, how school choice is related to a student’s academic preparedness and performance in high school, college and beyond,” Smith says.
Like many urban school districts with school choice, Baltimore has several selective high schools in which students are admitted through a competitive process. Some districts admit students based on demonstrated academic abilities measured by entrance exam results. Many education experts say these criteria are unfair and based on inequities inherent in the school systems. Selective high school admissions in Baltimore uses students’ prior grades, standardized test scores, and attendance. Student outcomes in this type of system are under-examined from a research perspective. Smith hopes to fill that gap.
Her dissertation will be comprised of three distinct papers using data on three cohorts of Baltimore City Public School students. The first paper will examine the influence of middle schools on student prospects for admission to Baltimore’s most selective high schools. Middle schools in Baltimore are determined not by choice, but geographically. Experts believe that neighborhood by neighborhood inequities could be hindering students’ competitiveness for the selective high schools. The second paper will analyze the relative success of those selective high schools in preparing enrolled students for college coursework. The third paper will look at college enrollment of the cohorts.
Smith’s hope is that her dissertation will inform policy changes that improve equity in access to high-performing selective high schools. The findings, Smith believes, might also serve as a set of recommendations for education stakeholders as they identify and replicate effective practices to rectify inequities among schools in urban settings.