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Wisconsin has won a competitive federal grant to study why some state schools have had more success than others in narrowing achievement gaps across racial lines and income levels.

The $5.2 million U.S. Department of Education grant will fund joint research over the next four years between the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, part of UW-Madison’s School of Education.

Researchers will analyze data from all state public schools, with the goal of identifying proven practices that can be replicated elsewhere, said Eric Grodsky, an associate professor of sociology and educational policy studies who will lead the university researchers.

The achievement gaps, present for decades across grades, have become a frequent source of embarrassment for Wisconsin. Last month, for instance, the federal government said the graduation gap between white and black students in Wisconsin high schools is the worst in the country.

The state graduation rate for white students in the 2013-14 school year was 92.9 percent, compared to 66 percent for black students. Such gaps have remained pronounced despite intense efforts by many communities, including Madison.

Grodsky acknowledged that some people may be dubious of new efforts.

“The skepticism is well-placed,” he said. “We have been talking about this for a while, but we certainly can’t give up.”

He said DPI and UW-Madison have never collaborated to this degree before, and that they each bring a lot to the table: DPI the on-the-ground work with educators, UW-Madison the research expertise.

“We’ll be working really closely to try to make a dent in this,” Grodsky said. “We’re going to see some real viable strategies, and then we’ll push hard to implement them.”

Jared Knowles, a DPI research analyst and the project’s principal investigator, said the effort signals a new level of intensity in attacking the problem, with the top levels of leadership at both DPI and the university making the issue the highest of priorities.

The work will build on a task force DPI created in 2014 to study data related to the gaps. Educators at schools that showed promise shared their work, and the task force issued a report with recommendations titled “Promoting Excellence for All.”

In this new round of research, the university team will identify those schools in Wisconsin where racial and economic achievement gaps are narrowing. Then the team will conduct extensive, on-site interviews with school officials to identify effective practices, Knowles said.

“We’re going to bring a more nuanced look to the problem,” he said. “We’ll look at which kinds of strategies worked for which types of disadvantaged students. We can target these things on a micro level so they can be more effective.”

Knowles and the UW-Madison team will kick off the project later this month. Grodsky said there is no time frame yet for reporting results but that he hopes to have intermediate results before the end of the four-year effort.

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