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You are here: Home News CRP Bulletin/Noticiero Volume 1, Issue 1 SPOTLIGHT: Q & A With Michal Kurlaender

SPOTLIGHT: Q & A With Michal Kurlaender

Jenny Vasquez interviews the first CRP staffer, Michal Kurlaender, who looks back on the organization's initial years.

Gary Orfield, Michal Kurlaender, and Christopher Edley

CRP:  How did you get involved with the Civil Rights Project?

MK: I was a masters student in education at Harvard University considering a career in education law and I enrolled in a course at the law school co-taught by Gary Orfield and Christopher Edley, Jr. on education and civil rights. The class was focused on all the big issues in education policy at the time—desegregation, affirmative action, school choice (many of which remain critical debates today). Professors Edley and Orfield were hosting events bringing together civil rights groups, researchers, and education policy folks to meet and discuss new research and legal frontiers on these issues. Towards the end of the class, I was meeting with them about my final class project when they said to me, “You know, we are starting something big here. Do you want to stay and help us build The Harvard Civil Rights Project?”


CRP: Describe what you were doing at the time.

MK: Before my masters program, I was teaching, and I was always interested in the larger political and social forces shaping education. As a political science undergraduate, I was particularly interested in education policy questions and how they intersect with what actually happens in schools and classrooms. During my masters program I ended up falling in love with research and how it can shape and inform policy. Getting to meet researchers [through CRP] like Marta Tienda, who has spent her career answering critical questions about education access and equity, greatly influenced my decision to pursue a doctorate, and devote my career to researching the causes and consequences of inequality.


CRP: What are your recollections of the project’s first years?

MK: It was an incredibly exciting place to be; we were bringing together groups that had never interacted, and building a social science research base on questions of educational equity, in order to provide such evidence to civil rights groups and education lawyers trying to shape policy and practice.


CRP: What were the best parts of your job?  What were some of the challenges?

MK: I was the original employee; my day consisted of everything from writing new grants, to identifying community organizations to partner with, to editing policy briefs, to photocopying materials for binders for conferences we were hosting. The best part was that I did get to do EVERYTHING, this of course was also the challenge. The best part was definitely meeting some of the nation’s most influential civil rights attorneys, policy wonks, and social science researchers. I was regularly inspired, challenged, and rewarded by what we were building (what could be better in a job?)


CRP: Did your experience with CRP impact your career or your thinking in any way? 

MK: My CRP days shaped my entire life trajectory: my career choice, my commitment to investigating questions around inequality, my belief that research can and should matter in shaping social policies, and my multidisciplinary approach to research on education.

Today, in many ways, I am doing what I was initially inspired to do—research on critical issues of equity across the education trajectory, from early childhood through adulthood. I remain deeply committed to working on issues that are policy-relevant and my proximity (at UC Davis) to Sacramento has allowed me to engage regularly with California policy issues, and to work with partners from different state agencies. I also remain highly multidisciplinary in my approach to research and in my research collaborations.  


Dr. Michal Kurlaender is an associate professor of education policy at the University of California, Davis. She received her doctorate in education in 2005 from Harvard University. Her work focuses on education policy and program evaluation, in particular the causes and consequences of educational inequality. Kurlaender’s current research investigates access to and persistence in higher education, and explores the relationship between different educational pathways and the labor market. She serves on the executive committee of the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis, and is the Davis site director of the UC Center for Educational Evaluation.


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