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Volume 48 Number 3
Written by Gloria Levin
“Living Community Psychology” highlights a community psychologist through an in-depth interview that is intended to depict both personal and professional aspects of the featured individual. The intent is to personalize Community Psychology as it is lived by its diverse practitioners
To bring attention to the reorganized, online posting of prior issues of The Community Psychologist, found at https://scra27.org/publications/tcp/tcp-past-issues, this installment updates the life of an interviewee featured in a 1994 column. Start with a read of the original column (https://scra27.org/files/8014/1791/6466/TCP_273_Summer_1994.PDF ) page 6, and then proceed below to follow the rollout of his life in the intervening years. Past columns of “Living Community Psychology” contain a wealth of information and life advice gleaned from over 50 profiled community psychologists, from graduate students to retirees, representing an invaluable resource for all community psychologists.
Eliot Levine, PhD
Senior Research Manager
Donahue Institute, University of Massachusetts
When I interviewed Eliot Levine in 1994 for this column as a second year PhD student in clinical/community psychology, he stated his intent to be a high school teacher after obtaining his degree. I was skeptical that a person with a PhD would actually take a job for which a BA degree would suffice. My skepticism continued as he worked for two years at the Harvard Family Research Project (a participant in the prestigious MacArthur Foundation sponsored network on educational reform) and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard. However, as you will see, Eliot kept true to his original plan (and fooled me!).
Eliot had not heard of community psychology when he applied for clinical psychology programs, although he had, since his sophomore year of high school, filled several volunteer and work roles that exposed him to “the prevention mindframe.” Once introduced to community psychology, the field’s principles resonated with him. Particularly influential was a paper by George Albee entitled “The Futility of Psychotherapy,” given to him by Dr. Albee when Eliot visited the University of Vermont. But it was not until his third year of his clinical/community psychology program (at the University of Maryland, College Park) that he had a “strong suspicion” that he would not pursue a clinical psychology career after completing his training.
Eliot’s clinical internship (1996-97) was performed at Cambridge Hospital (an affiliate of Harvard Medical School), working with low-income populations. While obtaining the necessary clinical supervision, he also worked on his dissertation, which focused on local Latino parents’ involvement in their children’s education. (Encouraged by his Maryland professor, Forrest Tyler, Eliot volunteered for a summer with the Childhope Foundation in Guatemala, working with impoverished street children and their families in a garbage dump community.) His facility in the Spanish language, honed in Guatemala, allowed him to conduct his dissertation interviews in Spanish, with assistance from a bilingual research assistant. After completing his internship and while working on his dissertation, he remained in Boston (his home town), working as a Research Associate at the Harvard Family Research Project, participating in two initiatives – one related to national family/school partnership programs, funded by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and the other a large MacArthur Foundation-funded longitudinal study of 400 low-income children. Eliot completed his PhD in 1998, about 5 ½ years after starting graduate school.
Eliot’s next professional step was completing a postdoctoral fellowship in evaluation of social programs for children with Carol Weiss at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. There he conducted a process and outcome evaluation of an innovative urban public high school in nearby Providence, RI. Based on this experience, he published a book on education reform, entitled One Kid at a Time: Big Lessons from a Small School (Teachers College Press, 2002), printed three times in English and translated into Hebrew and Korean. It was named a "Best Book for High School Reform" by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Eliot then spent two years working for the education reform non-profit, Big Picture Learning, that launched the school he had written his book about and was scaling up its reform model nationwide. He did this part-time, while also staying at home with his toddler son and foster daughter.
Eliot’s earlier search for high school teaching jobs in 1990 had been stymied by his lack of formal certification as a teacher. (This was before the advent of opportunities for non-credentialed teaching aspirants via Teach for America, etc.) New York City had been the only system that was interested in hiring this MIT-trained electrical engineer to teach math. However, teacher union rules in New York City blocked this path. Ten years later, he took a teaching position with the innovative public high school in Providence that he had earlier studied.
The Met School’s highly experimental “curriculum” involved no classes or grading, but a dedicated staff that was determined to “figure it out” and scale up to a national model. Included was a two-day a week internship component, with teachers tailoring internships in the community to each student’s interests. Intended to be much more intense than student service learning programs, with more substantive work experiences and direct mentoring, the students were taught skills in informational interviewing and job shadowing, both preparatory steps in identifying a suitable internship opportunity. He taught at the Met from 2002 to 2006, as the primary teacher for the same student cohort, moving with them from grades 9 through 12, as well as promoting the education reform model throughout the network.
Eliot and his family relocated to western Massachusetts, where, for another 3 years, he taught math, physics and psychology, at a charter high school. That school, another alternative public high school, was affiliated with the Expeditionary Learning national school reform model.
Although he had studied schools intensely for several years, Eliot’s perspective on the education setting changed substantially after he became a teacher himself. “When I was an outside researcher, I did not fully appreciate the challenges that teachers face, even though I had spent more than a year immersed in the Met School one or two days per week. My book would have been very different had I written it after my teaching experience.” He had not understood how difficult it is to be a teacher with the extremely disruptive and academically disengaged students that attended his school, and the challenge of having to be “on” for 6–7 hours every day in a school that had no scheduled planning time for teachers. (Nonetheless, he reports that overall it was a highly gratifying experience, and he still maintains contact with many of his students.) And although he acknowledged that professional jobs typically involve more work than can ever be accomplished (well), requiring constant prioritizing of tasks, he contends that teaching, especially in challenging environments, takes triaging to an extreme. In other words, (fully) understanding context is critical.
In 2009, Eliot left high school teaching after seven years, moving to a research manager position at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute. (He subsequently was promoted to Senior Research Manager.) There he designs, manages, and implements applied research and program evaluations for education and human service projects. The Institute is organizationally located in the UMass President’s Office, cutting across the university’s five campuses. As such, the Institute does not follow the model of an academic department, and the salaries are paid by soft money, mainly via grants and contracts.
With a staff of about 110, “we are actively involved in development all the time, responsible for bringing in our own money.” A big part of the Institute’s business is partnering with applicants for Federal and State grants, contracting to design and implement the grants’ required evaluation components. Funding opportunities pursued include those from foundations and state agencies, mostly in Massachusetts and the other New England states, including departments of higher education, public health, secondary and elementary education, and early childhood education. Additional funders/partners include other universities and nonprofits such as national school reform organizations.
In addition to evaluation studies, he also conducts research such as his current project for the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, “Competency Education through Online Courses for Credit Recovery and Acceleration,” that is a component of Massachusetts’ high school graduation initiative. In this study, using a quasi-experimental design, his team is quantitatively assessing impacts on academic outcomes and is using qualitative interviewing, observation, and student focus groups to investigate program implementation and policy issues. “We proposed additional research questions to extend the range of the Federally-funded evaluation study.”
In discussing tools available for his work, Eliot observed that, in the evaluation field, the qualitative analysis software has become very sophisticated, and the stakes have been raised substantially around funders’ expectations for quantitative analyses. For example, the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences has developed a very rigorous set of expectations for studies featured in their “What Works Clearinghouse.” “Much of the research that still goes on in the world of education is the more feasible, smaller scale studies that often won’t meet those rigorous quantitative criteria. But the smaller studies are very informative for the different organizations or state agencies that are trying to understand what’s happening in the programs, how to improve them, and whether to continue them or not. So although there has been an escalation in expectations to some extent, especially with the larger federal grants, a lot of the work out there is still using similar methods that many social scientists have been using all along.”
A major reason for selecting Eliot to re-interview was to explore the reasons that community psychologists, like him, have left the orbit of SCRA. In considering this question before our interview, Eliot had looked at the “What We Do” and “Where We Work” sections of SCRA’s website, and he noted that much of his work has aligned with the content areas and organizational settings of community psychologists. However, he dropped his membership to SCRA long ago. He attributes this in part to working in the fields of education and evaluation for so long, where professional organizations such as the American Evaluation Association and the American Educational Research Association are more closely aligned with the work he does. However, he also noted that involvement in academically-focused professional organizations such as SCRA may be less aligned with the contingencies of non-academic researchers.
One example is that the nature of his work may make attendance and presentation at professional conferences less practical than for an academic community psychologist. Much of his group’s work is presented directly to the funding organization, but is not necessarily intended for public consumption. Also, in order to present his work at a conference, the expenses typically have to be budgeted for when the grant or contract is awarded.
Aware that SCRA’s 2015 biennial conference is to be held only two hours from his home, Eliot noted that the timing of these conferences, in late June, is geared more to the academic calendar than to those, like himself, for whom Fiscal Year timing is critical. Major deliverables for most of the projects for which he has managerial responsibility are due June 30 (the end of the fiscal year in most states), making attendance at the SCRA biennial conference impossible.
Eliot noted another interesting difference between his work and that of many academic researchers, which is that his work products typically do not carry his name. “We typically prefer to represent our organization, not ourselves as individuals.” Almost the only occasion for identifying himself or his qualifications is when his CV is included in the Institute’s grant applications or contract proposals. With rare exceptions, he and his colleagues do not publish in journals, more commonly producing evaluation reports and technical reports for clients, or evaluation and policy briefs targeted to practitioner audiences. He also typically reads evaluation and policy reports more than peer-reviewed journal articles. “We are familiar with the relevant literature, but few of our projects have extensive literature reviews as a priority. Our work emphasizes the priorities of our funders, which tend to be the evaluation of a specific program.”
“One advantage of my job is that the hours are manageable, typically a 40-hour week, although that varies with proposal and deliverable deadlines.” This is important to Eliot, because he is very devoted to his family, including his son, Jesse, and his former foster daughter. His wife Madge has worked for 20 years as an English, reading, and ESL teacher; for the past 5 years, she has taught at an agricultural and vocational high school. Jesse, “a great kid,” is a tenth grader at a local high school, currently taking driving lessons. Using his experience in crafting internships for high school students, Eliot worked the system by getting permission for Jesse to earn independent study credits in computer programming, his passion. Their former foster daughter, now age 14, is no longer in the family’s custody. However, she has lived with them for the past five summers, and they see her often and work closely with her school. “We are trying to help her find a path from her difficult life, working with people and systems to help her beat the odds.”
Eliot’s family lives in Haydenville, MA, a sparsely populated and socioeconomically diverse rural/suburban community. (I learned in our interview that Jesse has Madge’s last name. Eliot didn’t want his own last name to be the default, and neither parent wanted to hyphenate, so they put their last names in a hat and picked one out.) Haydenville is well located for his family’s preferences, within a half-hour radius of multiple colleges and universities and 25 miles from Springfield, a medium-sized city. One aspect of his community involvement is through a local abortion rights fund. “When I noticed that the group hadn’t participated in a major community-wide fund-raising event for hundreds of local nonprofits, I offered to do the work needed for them to participate in future years. Now I serve on the Board. At age 48, I am the youngest Board member, whose median age is probably about 70.” Eliot has instituted the use of social media and a new system for online donations to the organization. Among his other activities are biking, yoga, and year-round backpacking solo and with his family.
Reflecting back on his career, Eliot acknowledges that an Ed.D. degree may have been a better fit with his current career path. Yet, although neither his electrical engineering degree nor his clinical or community psychology training were requisites for his subsequent work, he nonetheless sees great value in the education he received and its contributions to his personal and professional life. In particular, he credits his community psychology-derived appreciation of immersion in settings, and his clinical training for his observational and interpersonal skills. He also appreciates the training in systematic and critical thinking that were central to his graduate education. All have been invaluable to the work he has done in program evaluation and education reform. When asked what other organizations might have opportunities for community psychologists interested in evaluating education reform initiatives, Eliot mentioned the American Institutes for Research, the Education Development Center, SRI International, and WestEd.
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