Researcher Profile Podcast: Grant Clayton
We chat with a professor and researcher in the University of Colorado’s College of Education
In this episode of EdChoice Chats, our Director of State Research and Special Projects Drew Catt talks with Assistant Professor of Teaching and Learning Grant Clayton at the University of Colorado about his journey from K–12 teacher to administrator to professor and researcher and his mission to “blow up” the way teachers-in-training think about schooling and the classroom.
Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects. Today I’m in the studio to introduce our listeners to a researcher to watch. I’m here with Grant Clayton, assistant professor of teaching and learning in the college of education at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Thanks for joining me today, Grant.
Grant Clayton: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Drew Catt: So, Grant, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a little about what attracted you to issues in K–12 education and educational choice?
Grant Clayton: K–12, I had a really byzantine path into getting indicate K–12. I started out as a K–12 teacher and then crossed into admin. My mother laughed when I called her and said I’m going to become a teacher someday. And she said she laughed so hard, “Well, I’m going to have to call you back.” Because lots of people who became teachers and guiding K–12 schools were wildly successful. They get good grades, they got gold star. I had something of a truancy problem and didn’t really believe in attending school on a regular basis and attended classes on a selective basis. And I was not always excited to be there, and so I was amazed.
She was amazing. I was amazed that they let me back in and they continue to be amazed and I’m working on teacher prep and get people to go question things when I was teaching the principal.
She’s every time we’d run into a policy that said, you can’t do this, you can do that. Her answer was, well first we have to blow up the school. I don’t know if I’m blowing it up, but I’m certainly passing out matches as I try to encourage my students and now teachers who were my students, we should be questioning the systems we are in and why they functioned that way. And can you tinker at the margin? Can you blow up the whole thing? And certainly I have school choice fits within that then. And so yeah, I’ve kind of done the whole buffet now. I’ve been teacher, I’ve been an administrator and now I’m on the teacher prep side some.
Drew Catt: And full word of caution “blowing up” not in a physical sense.
Grant Clayton: Sorry. it was her line not mine.
Drew Catt: Right, right, right.
Grant Clayton: She may be blowing up the system and she was actually old. She was all legit hippie and so she was very much of the, “Hey, we should change the whole system in question reality.” And all those things and it fit into a lot of how I thought about school. It’s like, well, why does it have to be that way even down to why are we measuring success on seat time? And I got in trouble my second year teaching the district had a common final exam. And so I walked in and gave that final exam tell, all my students the first day to get baseline data. And then it was the old school scantron sheets, the green bar ones. And I had the answers and walked out and said look to the council and said, well, these are the kids that made a 95 or above the first day.
They clearly don’t need this class. You should go change their schedule. And watched some poor school counselor freak out about the fact that I was blowing up their master schedule. And where are these kids going to go to school and what classes and just the whole allocative mechanism into classes was not based on learning. It was based on seat time and age. And I shouldn’t go do that. And somewhere in my files I still have a naughty letter from that principal. This is, don’t ever do that again and because I framed it. I was so proud of it.
Drew Catt: That’s awesome.
Grant Clayton: They didn’t think so.
Drew Catt: So how … I’m kind of interested that like how do you prepare the teachers that you’re educating to deal with students like the student that you were during your K–12 time.
Grant Clayton: I remember I probably get the students that deserve because of that, in K–12 and even in higher ed I tried to encourage them to question everything. And I would tell students in K–12 even you should go question why we’re here and I just objectives. But if I can’t come up with the reason we’re here, we probably shouldn’t. And I actually had a ninth grader because they’re not exactly the smoothest group, give his unvarnished opinion one day, and he raised his hand and said, “Mr. Clayton, this sucks.” Like yes, that’s valuable feedback and we should probably work on how you phrased that. But it was valuable feedback as a teacher. I still want them to go question, ask questions about everything, question the whole system and really yank at those roots.
I work hard with teacher prep and when I was working in K–12 admin and in teaching to help those teachers think about what if you’re not wildly successful in school and who are we reinforcing and who are we not? And really getting them to think about it.
And ironically enough we had a breakthrough moment this spring because we were talking about people who are not happy in their schools. And again they were really having a hard time because they’re future teachers. And so I’m doing well in class, and I’ve always done well in class, and my friends have done well cause that’s why I want to be back in school and having a hard time getting them to think about maybe there are people who are thrilled to be at school, the number of them in the post-Facebook generation who know people who’ve been online bullied and had horrible things said about them through Facebook and wanting an out to be able to go escape that middle school or that high school and go someplace new. That was the first real light bulb moment of like, “Hey, maybe fit isn’t always there.”
I spend a lot of time working with them thinking about, okay, how else are you … A large part of at least secondary school is convincing kids to get interested in something they wouldn’t normally get interested in. No, I don’t think anybody gets up in the morning when I went to my AP econ class: “Woo cost curves!” That’s not a natural reaction. Shakespeare is not usually a natural reaction, but I could. My job as a salesman is like, “Hey, this is why you should care about cost what curves and this is why dead weight loss is sexy.” And after a while they go, “Oh, okay, I kinda liked this stuff. I don’t want to admit it to my friends at parties and things like that.” But that idea of getting different ways of approaching that and getting different people involved in mean.
I threatened class one day that, “Hey, do you have to collect homework?” And I mean those the quietest one of my classes at ever been like, what do you mean? Like, well have you ever questioned why we do homework? Well, no. Well let’s get back to questioning why do we have homework? And watching that one just spin out like a cyclonic because they’d never made questions about fundamental assumptions about schooling is as basic as homework, and the number of kids who sent emails pretty late at night: “Thanks for giving me the mine bend.” Now
I’m thinking about this like, good, that’s why you paid tuition and fees. That I don’t know if that helped know that.
Drew Catt: No. That’s really great. We’re going to easily have a tangential conversation about my wife is a teacher and his all into the mastery-based learning, which is fascinating because it’s homework for the sake of learning not for the sake of the grade that you get on the homework.
Grant Clayton: I don’t know if we have the time on a tangent. I do a lot of selling on, for the biggest, I’m not always the biggest fan of Bob Marzano’s work because it’s mostly meta analyses, but he’s done a really good job of selling the mastery-based part and that four-point learning scale. Kids are starting to get that” Can I do this on my own or can I not?” And I had a colleague actually stole it from him who did homework quizzes rather than homework. So I assign you to go read this chapter and you come back in the next day, and if you’ve got a bright and shining smiling face and a ballpoint pen that says, I know it all, let me go quiz you. And if you walk into them, they have notes.
Well, these are the things I don’t know and I’m learning those and I got that from him and it’s like, well, I’m reinforcing behavior. I want if you’re taking notes about what you don’t know, but more importantly, identifying what you need to know and where you are in that process and hey, I tricked you into doing all these important things I really want by incentivizing it.
Drew Catt: So speaking of incentives and blowing up the system and trying to find a way to tie this all together. Let’s go with questioning the system and the importance of questioning everything. What have you been questioning lately? What’s, what are some of the research questions that you’re asking, including like past research, what you’re potentially hoping to work on in the future and/or what you’re currently working on?
Grant Clayton: My research basically has two tracks that every now and then cross. I look at high school to college transition: AP, IB, concurrent enrollment. And because states are spending a lot of money, remedial education, so people walk in. Which gets back to questioning the system as we were learning a lot about labels, now I’ll walk in, label you as not college ready and then watch, amazingly enough, you live up to that expectation or down to it. And then obviously a lot of school choice related work—on more charters than anything else. And so we’ve got a new paper that’s just coming out where we knew families in Denver, were more, immigrant families were more likely to choose charters, and they were more likely to stay in their charter.
Then the next obvious question was, well, how are they doing? And we found they’ve pretty well responded to the needs of immigrant communities. And English language learners, ENL, whatever abbreviation we like today seem to be performing better in charter schools and traditional public schools in Denver, if for no other reason than they realized that there’s a lot of immigrant communities in that area and they dropped in. And so on that side I’m pretty excited about teacher labor market. And I’m about to start looking at some pay for performance stuff and I’m wildly excited about that.
Drew Catt: That’s really interesting stuff. Yeah, it’s fascinating like how from someone that studied organizational development in undergrad and nonprofit management and grad school, how there are these motivations of hey, you perform while you’re going to get this bonus, which there’s something behind being like a very effective or ineffective teacher and any potential monetary stipulations to go along with that. But actual pay for performance.
Grant Clayton: And it’s a super slippery deal and that few things burned me up more when I was a teacher than hey, I’m way better than the guy next door to me and we make the same money or worse. I’m way better than the guy next door to me and he’s been here longer. He makes more than I do. And I thought that was going to be one of the things that made me the angriest and as a teacher and an amazingly enough as an administrator may be more angry because now I can’t walk up and really incentivize you and say, you’re really good at this, can I give you more money to teach more students or work harder to work with group and really help leverage those things we know. Because we know there’s a lot of variation and teacher quality. I was a completely hamstrung by the salary schedule. So they paid what it paid inm and it’s not like we’ve gotten good perks to go offer an education mean hey, better parking windows office. I mean the status symbols aren’t good. And in terms of things that can offer.
Drew Catt: I’ve once heard a teacher say they could keep me here another decade if they’d just give me a window.
Grant Clayton: I told my students if I came in the window class was canceled. So they kept waiting for me to repel down in that school and in the window.
Drew Catt: Let’s tie it back and focus back on what I’m kind of interested about. So what do you like the most about researching charter schools and what are some of the challenges associated with researching charter schools?
Grant Clayton: I got backed into school choice charter work. I got started in some of these schools I started teaching in where some of the least desirable schools and the state and the country and then finished my career and the other end of it, of the rainbow and some of the most desirable, highly competitive wealthy schools. And was deeply troubled by this idea of what determines where you go to school and school quality the lot is a ZIP Code. And that really bothered me, and I was in a state and the district that didn’t support intra-district choice to the point where I guess I should have been. My mother told me I was predestined for school choice because I tried to go to a different high school and she had to appeal to the school board to get permission to do that. And I tell my students that now that in fact, “Why don’t you just fill out the paperwork?” Well, back then we didn’t have that paperwork.
So that interest in school choice got me then I was working in grad school with people who did school choice and looking at charters as a mechanism to get into a better school or not maybe segregate quite so much on wealth because that was always one of the things that concerned me is me. I’m a pretty smart guy, but I have to work hard to come up with a system that better replicates segregation on wealth and assigning school districts by ZIP Code. And so that one kind of interested me a great deal in charters, look like A tool and especially in an available tool where I was. So that was one of the things that intrigued me about charters. The frustrating part is trying to capture the gap between communication with lay audiences. People will want to think of charters writ large and there’s a lot of internal variation in charters just like there’s a lot of internal variation in everything if we get good nuance. And so they want to try and make charters are good, charters are bad.
Schools are good, schools are bad. They’re all that way and the fact that what data is available or not. I mean in the post-testing apocalypse, we’re all interested in math and English test because that’s what’s available to us and I’m trying desperately to move that conversation to some other outcomes that we might care about. I mean, civic participation should would be nice but better your parents’ basement, get a job, pay taxes, all those sorts of things. I’m obviously interested in post-secondary going, so those were those two lines where the cross and I’m interested in looking at so because so many of us rely on institutionally collected data. Then the question turns into: Are we collecting the right things? And I had a graduate professor always yelled at me about institutional collected data and she said, “Oh look at that. Are you collecting the right stuff or do you just have a lot of data?” And trying to get into other variables we might care and how we can go get those and what’s collected and then trying to make cross state comparisons because every state seems to be collecting it slightly differently, which makes it just hard enough to compare across the you’d, the conspiracy theorists and you says they’re doing this purpose because it shouldn’t be quite this difficult, but it is.
And so that one kind of always banging my head against charter, the ability to not build a well-foiled public try that again, private schools back into the conversation and say, okay, what are they doing? How does this fit into it? I mean, because you’ll watch families that go through that and a lot of different ways, and we isolate charter effects or we isolate traditional public effects and saying, well maybe it’s a more complex ecosystem than we’d like to make it.
Drew Catt: Yeah. Just like no two people are the same. No two students are the same. No two teachers are the same. Why are two schools going to be the same?
Grant Clayton: Right. And I see that try to help people with complexity. I know I got a call from a reporter, which always makes me a little bit nervous about, hey, turn your life’s work it into a short sound bite. And she was trying to get into charter quality. She was trying to get into: Is it good or is it bad? Like it’s both.
What I finally helped her out with. I said, you don’t go to Home Depot and buy really expensive and potentially fatal tools without a purpose. I don’t wildly choose schools without a purpose. Why is it you’re doing that? I worked with someone who selected a core knowledge middle school for their kid having sent their kid K–5 to a Montessori school and wondering why it didn’t work out. You should think about more than the actual choices. What are those choices within those choices? Because they went clank on their kid’s life.
Drew Catt: Yeah. Yeah, That would … Talk about transition effects. I’m sure that would be quite a big one.
Grant Clayton: Yeah. And there’s a case study in there somewhere, but it’s not going to be me.
Drew Catt: No. So what kind of questions do you like to ask and work on by yourself versus how often do you like to collaborate with other people in your department or within your university or across universities or even outside of the university realm?
Grant Clayton: As much as possible actually I look to collaborate with other people because what I’ve found is the teaching part of my job is highly social. The research part of my job, if I don’t watch it, is it feeds the introvert in me just a little too much, and then I don’t play nicely with others because I don’t talk to people enough and I’m just talking to the computer. And so I like to work with other people, and I like the fact that you get different points of view on it and have coauthors who push back and say, “Maybe this isn’t so good.” And so maybe that’s back to my return to being that difficult student and having those difficult students the coauthors says, “No, I don’t quite see it that way.” Or all of us who do statistical work you can get an answer. We were really happy and then we spend the next three days trying to make how robust is that answer, which is really Bulgarian for can we make our answer go away that we worked to get.
So it is, I mean, that’s truly what robustness test is.
Drew Catt: I never thought of that.
Grant Clayton: I worked hard to get an answer, and now I’m going to try and kill that answer off. I mean it’s demented at its true core. So yeah, I like to look to other partners and as much as possible bridge that gap on communication because then you can start to get both a diversity of ideas and different outlets for how you’re gonna communicate results. Because I’m always, you look at my favorite conferences and who attends and it’s … And then a lot of practitioner conferences and who attends in, the overlap isn’t always good.
And sometimes I think if we’ve got other outlets for information. Certainly Dick Carpenter and I’ve collaborated, Marcus and I, Marcus Winters, he’s now in Boston. There’s Josh Dun is a big school choice advocate as well on the poly-sci side. He and I have yet to go really build a project, but I’ll run ideas past him, especially as he thinks you can tell his training. Hey, he came from this place and thinks slightly differently about things in and ask questions I wouldn’t have thought of or sometimes even cared about. I’ll be really honest. And so it’s good to see those get yelled at on the front end, especially if there’s things that are going to go out to reviewers.
It also brings new ideas to the table. Hey, outside interests or walk up and say we’re really curious about this, whatever it might be. So it’s not just me driving it and that’s always been important to me is what else is, are other people curious about. And so yeah, I like to bring in other collaborators also feel like we can get the work out a little bit faster, especially academic work where it’s on, in geologic time table.
I mean there’s a reason why computer science is now gone to conference papers of the metric for success because by the time something goes through a journal and published, it’s already outdated. And so I watched really important research that takes 12 months, 18 months if it’s a slow journal to get out. Well, if I’m doing this sole author, great, that’s cool. It’s just that much slower versus if we can work on it and move the whole industry.
Something that I guess we can circle back. We’re now getting enough research on charters and a little bit better research on vouchers. We can start to scale up and say our unit analysis is now the meta analysis and really starting to look, writ large and make some bigger policy statements. And that’s an exciting time. We’ve gotten past single case studies and we’ve gotten past one case where we’re really starting to be able to roll that up. And you can watch the momentum and that’s exciting. I’m really looking forward to some. Where are we going to get to the meta analysis level. The unit of study is no one case.
Drew Catt: Yeah, yeah. The kind of stuff that medicine has been doing for decades.
Grant Clayton: Yeah. The difference is, the upside of K–12 is at least we have compulsory attendance so we get more data. The downside is the ethics are a little bit different. Though I still question to today, the ethics associated with mandatory attendance laws and school assignment variables and how ethical they really are as we know they’re not quite destiny, but they start to feel them.
Drew Catt: Yeah. And it’s also interesting that the change in culture with each generation around a school for like what the view is of going to school and the purpose of going to school and how that has changed. I mean I’m thankful enough that I had parents that hammered into my head that, “Hey, this is what you’re going to do to be successful in life.”
Which in reality, I could have gone to a trade school which was then still education and become wildly successful in what I did, but it’s just in a world of MOOCs and social media. It’s what’s the purpose of the brick and mortar building?
Grant Clayton: And that should be getting back to questioning the system writ large is the brick and mortar building, just like the brick and mortar restaurant or the brick and mortar competitor to Amazon today needs to go differentiate themselves and say, “This is what we do well.” And do those things well.
I know I pointed out to my students one day, I said college is just paying a bunch of old guys to decide which books are gonna go read, right? And they said, not really, like, yeah, look at really on the granular level what you’re doing. That’s where the, yeah, the MOOCs are out there, but choosing the right move in which you need when and those sorts of tools and being older go blend in and bring in some more from the outside I think is the wave of the future.
Drew Catt: I always found it fascinating when I had a professor that one of the assigned readings, they were an author or coauthor. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was always a great read, but it was just like, oh, there’s a little self-interest at play here too.
Grant Clayton: Oh, absolutely. Though in their defense, most of the really good teachers I’ve seen both in K–12 and higher ed, detest textbooks and sometimes I see that as reflexive. I didn’t have a book that addresses things the way I wanted or address the questions I needed and actually went out and did that. Because there was a K–12 teacher with me who wrote one of the top-selling biology textbooks that America because he was tired of taking some, pushing the outer limits on copyright and using portions of various textbooks. And so I can write my own better and actually did. To the point his welcome mat says, “This is the house that books built.” Which I loved.
Drew Catt: Yeah. Just trying to think what a house made of books would look like. Okay. So moving on. So yeah, what’s the main, I think, question that you wish you could leave the audience of this podcast with?
Grant Clayton: Why school? Man, we really need, especially in the opening game of the 21st century, getting back to you talking about this, the brick and mortar school and then watch that plurality of answers. It’s about fit in that idea and how we’re going to go really think about success. And the fact that some people really want an educated citizenship some people really want to go be able to get a job and go get paid. Some people want to look at post-secondary, some people really care about an ecclesiastical education and really getting that reinforced because that’s an important thing to their family.
As you watch families, throw out “why school,” and then watch the multitude of answers. That’s why we have really important impassioned discussions about school fit and school choice because people are trying to define different metrics for success and say, I want that for my kid and my family, which doesn’t necessarily look like yours, yours, yours are the next guy’s. And be able to make that fit. So I mean, start that conversation, get people thinking writ large: Why school?
Drew Catt: That’s great. Very fascinating. I think that’s a nice challenging question. So any last words, Grant, any forthcoming research you’d like to plug other than what we’ve already discussed?
Grant Clayton: I’ll plug things on the opposite side. We’ve got a series of papers looking at concurrent enrollment, one of which will be a descriptive look of how charters are looking at concurrent enrollment. But long-term, how students who took concurrent enrollment performed in college relative to each other and relative to how they did how did each relative to each other and relative to their cohort mates,
I guess for lack of a better word, as I stumbled through that. I’m looking forward to doing some more work on school choice finance in the future. And I think that’s probably enough to keep me busy for a little while at least.
Drew Catt: That’s amazing how we have all these research ideas. And then I was like, well, how much time is each one going to take to really flesh out?
Grant Clayton: My wife makes fun of that actually because I’ve got the whiteboard queue, and there are some things that never percolate up because there’s something more pressing or more interesting or better data. They’re still interesting questions to me and they’re still circling out they’re never on deck. They’re always somewhere in the queue. They just don’t quite get there. And conversations we had today probably indicated that some of them may never rise to the top.
Drew Catt: Because it’s also in the world of research, especially around K–12 education. It’s not necessarily what you’re interested in. It’s where are the grant dollars, where are the philanthropic dollars?
Grant Clayton: And where is there actually data.
Drew Catt: Yes. Most importantly.
Grant Clayton: What data exists and what data can you get? Because what I found out is there’s that chasm between what exists and what you can get. I guess I would bring that one up on a forthcoming paper. Matt Chingos looked at opt out—so families who didn’t participate in state required testing in New York City—in a cross sectional. My coauthors and I looked at Colorado on longitudinal data and not shockingly, families that are willing to engage in school choice weren’t super excited about engaging in state mandated testing. Again which gets back to fit and those sorts of metrics. But I think there’s going to be an interesting case study there in the fact that they’re grossly out of compliance as a state in certain districts with federal law by 95% participation and what that means if the feds back down and states are really going through the motions on testing again and how that fits into that larger school landscape of data we get our data we don’t get and how good it is.
Drew Catt: And then also achievement versus attainment.
Grant Clayton: Yeah. And are they trade offs and why do you keep making them that way?
Drew Catt: Yeah. Well this has been a fascinating conversation Grant. Thank you so much for joining us in the studio today.
Grant Clayton: Thank you very much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Drew Catt: Yeah. And to our listeners, be sure to subscribe to our podcast on platforms like Sound Cloud and iTunes and others for more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform policy chats and more. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you back soon with more EdChoice Chats.