In its relatively short existence, the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, founded in 2006, has established itself as the go-to resource for Maryland-based education researchers who want to connect with officials in Baltimore City Schools to map out research projects focused on improving educational experiences and outcomes for city students.
It is appropriate then that when the consortium — known as BERC, for short — needed a new executive director, it tapped a product of Baltimore, Francesca “Frankie” Gamber. Gamber was born to two Baltimore schoolteachers of long standing and is now a parent of three students in those schools.
After an undergraduate degree in African American Studies at Harvard University and a PhD in history from Southern Illinois University, Gamber returned to her home city and, in 2015, became the founding head of school/principal at the innovative Bard High School Early College Baltimore. Bard is a public school where students complete both their high school diploma and an associate degree in just four years.
Seven years at Bard was followed by a tenure as executive director of the City Teaching Alliance, Baltimore, a nonprofit that helps teachers develop their professional skills and find jobs in four major metropolitan areas of the country — Baltimore, Dallas, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. It was during her time at Bard that Gamber first collaborated with BERC.
“BERC is one of the country’s oldest education research-practice partnerships with a reputation for rigor and insight,” Gamber said of her connection to and interest in leading BERC. “As a practitioner I learned to be really intentional about using data to solve problems at the school level and to do it in a way where we were monitoring the data at such a regular basis that we could adjust what we were doing based on evidence. If something wasn’t working, we could shift and try something else.”
BERC’s research and the data generated were not only reliable but specifically focused on Baltimore, providing guidance to strong schools and strong student outcomes.
“I’m a parent in Baltimore City schools. My background is in African American history. I identify as a person of color. I think that everybody is well aware of the deficit narratives that exist, but there are just so many more interesting questions to ask when you’re like actually looking at the data that have nothing to do with those narratives,” Gamber says. “That’s what I want to work on.”
Such lessons are not always easy to endure. Gamber recalls an example at Bard as the school was trying to examine the disproportionate suspensions of Black male students. The school found it necessary to examine its own suspension history and discovered the Bard itself was slightly more likely to suspend African American males than other demographic groups in the school. A believer in listening to the data, good or bad, Gamber and her fellow school administrators took the lessons to heart and focused on improvements close to home.
“That translated to real change in the school in subsequent suspensions and choosing to resolve a conflict with restorative conferencing instead of exclusionary discipline,” Gamber said. “That’s just one example of the ways we use data to make a difference at school and what really interests me about the research that BERC does.”
Marcia Davis is director of Research Operations for BERC and helps set the consortium’s agenda and to carry out research. Her own work has delved into such topics as supporting struggling adolescent readers, the measuring of adolescent reading motivation, and early-warning indicators and systems for dropout prevention.
“BERC is a consortium of 11 area universities — including Johns Hopkins and Morgan State — and Baltimore City schools that is uniquely focused on concerns in Baltimore,” Davis says. “We help researchers and school personnel identify a potential subject for study, to plan their research, and to apply for grants to fund studies.”
Idea generation between researchers and schools is a two-way street, Gamber notes. Sometimes a researcher with an idea for a study will come to BERC hoping to find a sponsor in Baltimore City schools with an interest in the study’s insights. Other times, personnel at Baltimore City schools will approach BERC with an interesting challenge worthy of study. In both cases, BERC will help match suitable researchers and school personnel to the topic. Oftentimes, topics require a rapid response.
“When Baltimore City has a burning research question,” Davis says, “We will quickly do an analysis for them to gather data, and then they can use it right away in their decision-making.”
In many ways, Gamber notes, working in a research-practice partnership is similar to being a community organizer. Both sides must proceed from a mutual understanding that the partner closest to the problem — the schools — should be the one to solve the problem.
“BERC’s job, then, is to support and provide capacity to Baltimore to drive those solutions,” Gamber said. “Ultimately, the solutions must be rooted in data, and they must be built together.”