Employee Spotlight: Q&A with Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson is a postdoctoral education researcher at The Learning Partnership in Chicago. In this interview with Claire Cronin, Mark discusses his journey from his beginnings as a Special Education teacher, developing a strong interest in education policy research, and eventually completing a Ph.D. program and joining the team at The Learning Partnership.

Question: How did you become an educational researcher?

Answer: My background is that I was a public school teacher in the north of England in a town called Stockport. I decided to become a teacher because I wanted a career where I felt like I could make a positive difference, and my parents were both teachers, so it seemed like a good fit. I moved to North Carolina as an exchange teacher, and I really liked it there and wound up staying. I taught for more than a decade, and then I left the classroom to work as a school administrator. I earned my principal’s license and my superintendent’s license at UNC-Chapel Hill, which is also where I developed an interest in education policy research. UNC was just starting a new Ph.D. program in the area of education policy research as I was completing the licensure program, and they offered me a scholarship to attend full time. So, I left school district work in 2013, and that’s been my pathway to becoming an education researcher.

Question: Can you tell me a little bit about your journey to the postdoc position at The Learning Partnership?

Answer: I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2018 and joined The Learning Partnership shortly after graduation. I first heard about the postdoc position from John Wachen, who also completed the policy Ph.D. program at UNC. He was starting work here, and he let me know there was another position available. I was interested in Chicago Public Schools and what they were doing––so I applied.

Question: What attracted you to your postdoc at The Learning Partnership?

Answer: So, I guess my background as a practitioner means that I feel very much at home working in and around school districts. I was drawn to this position because it involved partnership work with CPS, which is the third-largest district in the country. Looking back, I was also interested in having the opportunity to work with professors from DePaul, Loyola, and UIC. That combination of being able to interact with a range of professors from different universities, and work with a major school district, was the main draw. The focus on equity was also a major factor in my decision. I thought it would be a good fit. 

Question: How would you describe the company culture of The Learning Partnership?

Answer: It’s a small organization, so I’d say that the culture reflects the people within the organization. Steven and Randi care about the team and are very supportive of us. I’ve enjoyed working with John, who I have known for almost eight years. We have similar research interests. I’ve also enjoyed getting to know and socializing with the rest of the team, especially at happy hour events and the organized parties, those kinds of things. 

Question: In what ways has your postdoc helped you to develop professionally?

Answer: It has been good to have the chance to engage in a range of research projects as a member of CAFÉCS; I’ve learned about partnership work and about logistical things like managing NSF grants. I’ve also learned quite a bit about program evaluation work from the various evaluation projects, including the work I’ve done evaluating the Noyce Scholars program at Loyola. 

Question: What research are you currently involved in?

Answer: Quite a few different projects. My primary research interests concern educational politics, which is the term used for activities associated with the governance of education, and then education policy, which has to do with decisions made by governing bodies. The main type of research that I do examines the interactions between education policy and the surrounding contexts, including different actors and events, and then the outcomes of policies. One of the projects that I’m working on currently is looking at the interactions between idea champions––what we call policy entrepreneurs––working here in Chicago on elevating the status of computer science locally, and idea champions working at the national level on broadening participation in computing––so NSF program officers and other people working for the federal government or national nonprofits. For another of my projects, I’ve been involved in the evaluation of the Loyola University Chicago Noyce Scholars program. We are looking at teacher preparation at LUC for STEM teachers and trying to make sense of how best to support student teachers. We are also working to identify what actions Loyola can take to diversify the teacher preparation program and then support and retain teachers working in Chicago schools. Another of the projects I’ve been working on is studying the development of an online version of the computer science curriculum, Exploring Computer Science. Originally, that was developed to provide a more equitable option for students who needed to recover credit. But since the pandemic locked everybody down, we have been able to use the lessons learned throughout the project and apply them when we are looking at how to teach remotely in an equitable way.

Question: How does your work fit into the mission of the organization?

Answer: The policy research helps identify factors––we sometimes call those determinants––that impact whether and how a policy is adopted and implemented. And that fits with the mission of The Learning Partnership because, as a member of CAFÉCS, we are here to support CPS in overcoming barriers to the implementation of computer science policies.

Question: How has COVID-19 impacted your work?

Well, it’s slowed down data collection, and paused or stopped data collection in some cases. But it’s also created opportunities for other lines of work. When things locked down in March, one of the new projects that emerged from that was the analysis of state plans for remote learning.  We started looking at the different ways in which states were providing guidance to districts on how to teach students remotely. And we had a particular focus on equity, like how these plans helped to support the fostering of equity in school districts.

Question: What support has The Learning Partnership provided during the time of COVID-19?

Answer: Well, they supported that project by identifying funding for the remote learning study. And then, more generally, they’ve just been flexible in allowing us to work from home. You know, I was out of state for about three months, working out of North Carolina because once things locked down, we left town for a while. So, they’ve been supportive in those ways. 

Question: What strategies have you adopted for working from home in order to maintain productivity?

Answer: It’s been hard because I’m working from home with two young children, which means there are more distractions than there were working out of the downtown office. But we’ve found a way to make it work. And I’m in regular communication via Zoom, email, and phone with the people I’m working with. So it has worked out, working from home. I miss having a designated space, but that’s just the nature of how it is right now.

Question: Have you adopted any strategies to better collaborate with work colleagues during work from home?

Answer: I don’t know that things are that much different. If I need to speak to John or Steven about a project, then we have phone calls. But that’s how we did things previously, anyway. So I’d say things are pretty similar. Obviously, there is no meeting in person in the office––we just speak on the phone or speak on Zoom. Sometimes Zoom’s easier. 

Question: Can you tell me about a time you felt rewarded by the work you have done?

Answer: I enjoyed interviewing people for the policy agendas study. There were computer science advocates from Chicago and from national organizations, and they were very eager to share their stories with us. And it felt rewarding that they saw the value in our research study and were so open and willing to speak with us about their experiences. That was a really good experience.

Question: Is there anything in particular about this upcoming school year that you’re excited about or maybe nervous about?

Answer: Well, continuing to study the innovative approaches used by teachers and schools to provide a high-quality, equitable, remote learning experience. I think because I’m the father of a kindergartner who’s starting in CPS this next week, I’m deeply invested in this work. I want to see CPS do well and respond well to this situation. I’m interested in seeing how this plays out, what it looks like, how it works. And we’ll be studying that along the way.

Question: How does your work at The Learning Partnership align to your long-term professional goals?

Answer: Working here has allowed me to continue to pursue my research agenda on studying education policy and policy entrepreneurship. And my goal is to continue with that research agenda and hopefully contribute to the field and grow as a researcher. Again, it has been interesting working with the school district and being involved in policy conversations and then trying to make sense of some of that stuff.

Question: Has the position evolved at all over the last two years?

Answer: Yes because it has evolved based on district needs and the unexpected series of events like the teachers’ strike and the pandemic. But that’s the nature of partnership work, as I’ve learned. It’s our job to be flexible and to be responsive and find different ways to support our partners. So, I’d say the job has evolved in response to the changing situation and how some of these projects have unfolded.