Symposium features Senator Chris Murphy, graduate research


Senator Chris Murphy spoke at a student-led symposium on Friday, May 12 as the keynote speaker, discussing US education policy. (Photo by author)

Senator Chris Murphy spoke at a student-led symposium on Friday, May 12 as the keynote speaker, discussing US education policy. (Photo by author)

United States education policy intersected with graduate research Friday morning at the 7th annual graduate research symposium of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Behavioral Education and Research (CBER).

The student-led symposium featured keynote speakers Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Education Counsel senior legal and policy adviser Catherine Holahan, his wife. Murphy and Holahan first spoke individually on the topic “Current Opportunities and Challenges in the Field of Education” and later took questions from symposium attendees together.

Selected graduate students also showcased their research in a poster session.

Jesslynn Rocha Neves, symposium participant, M.Ed. (master of education) and M.A. (master of arts), said she enjoyed that the symposium was student-led.

“It’s nice that (the symposium) highlighted students’ work and put us at the center of the event,” Rocha Neves said. “There were lots of educators here, and it was very interdisciplinary.”

Murphy said he works extensively on education as a member of the US Senate’s Education Committee. He addressed the current US education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

According to the Department of Education’s website, ESSA is a bipartisan act that reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); ESEA is a 50-year-old act and “the nation’s national education law.”

Former President Barack Obama signed ESSA on December 10, 2015.

Murphy noted he was heavily involved with ESEA’s reauthorization.

Murphy said that ESSA grants states greater discretion with how they identify and develop intervention plans for schools that do not meet certain performance standards. The policy also allows states to determine these standards.

“We were able to build into the final bill an accountability system that is frankly far less rigorous than what was in No Child Left Behind, but still requires states and school districts to think about three groups of students,” Murphy said. “First, groups of students who are enrolled in the bottom 5 percent of schools according to school performance metrics decided upon by that state. Now that’s a big difference from the original law because with the original law, the federal government told you what performance was…Second, high schools with graduation rates where one-third of the kids are failing to graduate. And then schools with subgroups of students performing at the bottom 5 percent of outcomes.”

Murphy said that the Obama administration enacted regulations which provided direction to states on how to implement accountability systems. Congress cancelled these regulations earlier this year.

“The Obama administration set out these sort-of guardrails for how you’d build accountability systems. Frankly they made nobody happy. Folks that wanted accountability didn’t think it went far enough. The people on the right thought it went too far. But that normally tells you a regulation is hitting the mark when everyone is upset about it,” Murphy said. “And the Congress, the Republican House and the Senate, put forward a bill that cancelled those regulations. And it was done as I understand with Secretary (of Education Betsy) DeVos’ support.”

Holahan said that states recently presented accountability system plans to the Department of Education for review.

“Right now we’re in this stage where states are making all of these decisions around what their accountability system looks like and what assessments they will include, and what their school improvement system looks like,” Holahan said. “And the first round of state plans have been submitted, they were submitted by April 3, with some coming in May 3, and then the second round of state plans are due in September.”

According to Holahan, ESSA gives states and educators the opportunity to design accountability systems that improve students’ education experience.

“This law is really anchored in a vision of college and career-readiness for all students. And equity. Those are really the two key features in the law that again are opportunities for states to really think about their vision,” Holahan said. “And we’re looking beyond academics now, but really the full range of knowledge and skills and competencies that students need to be successful, not only in school but in career, in life, and so that is present in the law and it’s really up to states and districts and school leaders and educators to really move in an aligned way and think about what is the accountability system that we need for this?…how do we design a school improvement system that’s really going to move all students toward success?”

Holahan said that research in the area of education will be vital as states continue to work on their accountability systems. CBER, a part of UConn’s Neag School of Education, conducts such research in areas like literacy and school climate, with the goal of equality and better education for all students.

“I think it’s a critical time for you all who are in this field as leaders and educators and researchers to really make sure that everyone has that real evidence-based research and that teachers have the capacity to implement this,” Holahan said.

George Sugai, CBER research scientist and Neag special education professor, said that the symposium marked the center’s ten-year anniversary, highlighted graduate research and brought various audiences in the education field together.

“I hope (symposium attendees) increase their value or appreciation of research, and how research can be used to inform practice and policy…It’s also just the importance of understanding that policy is intertwined into all this stuff. Policy affects whether or not we get research dollars, policy affects the kinds of research questions that are answered, policy affects how research gets translated into practice,” Sugai said.

Hao-Jan Luh, CBER graduate assistant and symposium planner, said he will consider the information that Murphy and Holahan gave about education policy as he moves forward in his own research.

“It’s really good to have ideas from the political perspective that can also help inform the research and practice as well. It’s good to see students’ posters, to see how students are working out in the field in education,” Luh said.

Johanna deLeyer-Tiarks, symposium participant, M.S. (master of science) and M.A., said she benefited from the symposium’s dialogue about education policy.

“(The symposium) presented a focus on larger policy, which is not a focus at a lot of conferences,” deLeyer-Tiarks said.

Meiko Howell, CBER graduate assistant, symposium planner and Neag school psychology doctoral student, said she hopes symposium attendees will continue to play a part in CBER’s future research.

“I think (the symposium) went so great. We haven’t had a chance to have a keynote speaker from anybody other than a researcher before I think, so it gave us an opportunity to really see a possible gap between what researchers do and what lawmakers need to bring about a change together,” Howell said. “I would like those who came here, especially those outside of UConn, to challenge (CBER). I’m glad that people came, but also I want them to feel like they are part of our future goals, whatever the contributions that they may not know that they have, they can make with us.”

Alexandra Retter is the associate news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at

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