Written by Carrie McDonald, MDI Journalism Intern
Dr. NaLette Brodnax was first inspired to study school environments on a large scale when her son, on a school tour, surprised her with a comment likening what she considered to be an excellent school to a prison. Soon after that remark, Brodnax received a prestigious grant from the William T. Grant Foundation to pursue research into carceral ideologies in schools as a member of its Scholar Class of 2028.
“I was blindsided by [my son’s comment],” Brodnax said. “Because how can I, an education researcher who knows all the values of a good school, totally miss that a child even would see that this environment felt like a prison? So I wanted to study it.”
Brodnax is a Faculty Affiliate at the Massive Data Institute (MDI) and an Assistant Professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy. Brodnax’s first career was in corporate finance before she decided to return to school to study public policy, earning a joint Ph.D. in Public Policy and Political Science from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. Her research interests include education policy, policy diffusion, and computational social science.
Brodnax is currently studying how school environments influence racial disparities and student outcomes, such as discipline and academics. Using a database she created by securing access to approximately 20,000 school handbooks, Brodnax is analyzing the language in these handbooks using natural language processing (NLP) methods to understand how the language and policies that schools employ could potentially be related to discipline disparities among students.
According to Brodnax, this research is particularly impactful because “it gives us a way of looking at parts of the schooling experience that aren’t usually studied at scale.”
Brodnax said that sociologists have previously conducted quality ethnographic research in school environments to find racial disparities with discipline, especially concerning the disproportionate suspension rates for Black students. However, most of these studies have only focused on the examination of teacher and administrator behavior and their individual biases, rather than the overall school environment, such as whether students have to wear a uniform, show ID, go through a metal detector, or follow generally stricter rules.
“What we haven’t spent as much time looking at is the structure of the school—structural reasons why we might end up with those discipline disparities,” Brodnax said. “What I’m working on is trying to understand how school environments are structurally driving inequalities across many schools in the U.S.”
So far, Brodnax has found that the use of punitive language is very prevalent in charter schools that serve large populations of Black students across the U.S. Conversely, Brodnax has found that magnet schools, which were founded in the 1970s with a specific integration imperative, tend to use less punitive language. In fact, one of Brodnax’s research papers, co-written with Virginia Tech Assistant Professor Karin Kitchens, showed that magnet schools in Tulsa had no discipline gap between different racial categories.
The funding from the William T. Grant Foundation will also allow Brodnax to enhance her work through qualitative research by visiting schools. This opportunity will allow her to draw connections between her conclusions from her NLP analysis and her observations on the ground.
The acquisition of 20,000 school handbooks proved to be a challenge for Brodnax as this school-level data had never been collected before the creation of her handbook database. An MDI Scholar helped her obtain approximately 3,000 additional handbooks from private schools, but Brodnax plans to continue to secure more handbook data to better represent the approximately 100,000 public schools across the nation. To do so, Brodnax’s team is developing software packages to continue to streamline the process of obtaining more handbooks to expand the database.
Nevertheless, this database represents a momentous step forward for education policy as it will continue to advance Brodnax’s and other scholars’ research.
“I think that it’s really exciting to think about how other researchers might use this data someday to answer even more questions,” Brodnax said. “So I think the data itself really is also an important contribution, and that’s something I’m really proud of.”