On-Campus Profiles, Profiles

Braun Named Recipient of Educational Research Award

Boston College professor Henry Braun received the American Educational Research Association (AERA) E. F. Lindquist Award for his research, which has focused on studying inequality in education and testing, on Dec. 7, 2021.

Named after Everett Franklin Lindquist, the annual award recognizes outstanding applied or theoretical research in the field of academic testing. The award is meant to acknowledge a body of research of an empirical, theoretical, or integrative nature.

“[Receiving this award] was a bit of a surprise because this is a type of career award,” Braun said. “I mean, it’s in the name of a very famous measurement. E.F. Lindquist actually founded the ACT … so winning an award named for him is very gratifying.”

Braun is currently the Boisi Professor of Education and Public Policy at BC’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, and the director of the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy.

Braun is originally from Montreal, Canada, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics at McGill University in 1970. Braun said he discovered his interest in statistics during his time as an undergraduate.

“I was exposed to statistics in my junior year and really enjoyed that and saw statistics as a way of developing a set of tools that I could use in lots of different areas, which I thought I would be able to [use to] work in different areas rather than just one area,” Braun said.

Braun went on to receive his Ph.D. in mathematical statistics at Stanford University in 1974. He then began his professional career teaching in the statistics department at Princeton University before moving across the street from Princeton to work as a scientist for the Educational Testing Service (ETS). While at ETS, he was promoted to a director of research then to vice president for research. He eventually retired from this role to become an education policy researcher. 

Braun said he is appreciative of the breadth of skills he has gained and projects he has managed in his various roles, from technology-based licensing tests for architects to studying the quantitative problems that come up in the world of academic testing. His later work had a strong focus on education policy, which he has continued to study throughout his career. Braun said that one of his major research projects at ETS was studying intergenerational mobility—the impact of the socioeconomic status of parents on the future status of their children.

“[At ETS, we were] trying to understand the lack of intergenerational mobility in the United States,” Braun said. “We worked on issues of trying to understand quantitatively how opportunity works. How the lack of differences in literacy and numeracy among different populations, how that will contribute to the lack of intergenerational mobility. So, that was a whole line of research that was quite separate from testing.”

After 27 years at ETS, Braun retired in 2006 and joined BC’s faculty in 2007. He said that he decided to move to Boston to be closer to his two daughters who had both settled in the city. He accepted the position at BC because it allowed him to easily balance teaching part time and conducting research.

“I was interested in returning to academic life, and BC offered a position that gave me what I thought would give me a lot of flexibility in terms of what I could do as a researcher and also return to teaching, which I always loved,” Braun said.

Braun typically teaches three graduate level courses in Lynch: Topics in Mathematical Statistics, Assessment Design, and a course about educational policy. Gulsah Gurkan, Braun’s most recent doctoral student, said his close relationships with his graduate students testify to his commitment to teaching.

“He’s a distinguished scholar and has been working in the field of educational testing and policy for years, so his expertise is indisputable,” Gurkan said. “Even though he’s such a well-known figure in our field, he’s been very accessible to the students, and you feel like you can reach out to him. And I think for his classes, he only tries to improve them, even though he’s been teaching for years.”

Professor Larry Ludlow, the current chair of BC’s department of measurement, evaluation, statistics, and assessment, and a good friend of Braun’s, also highlighted how Braun’s approach to teaching makes statistics much more accessible. 

“He’s caring and sensitive, and has never been a pretentious, arrogant statistician … when it’s so easy to make someone feel stupid,” Ludlow said. “He understands that you have to get down to the knowledge level of where the individual was at before they’re going to be able to learn from you.”

Ludlow also praised his teaching abilities from an administrative standpoint.

“He is involved with state-of-the-art developments in assessment measurement and large-scale testing in general,” Ludlow said. “And these experiences lead him into the classroom with topics about what is going on and where the future of educational assessment and testing is going, and this is exactly what I need for our doctoral students because he is an aspiring lecturer.”

According to Ludlow, Braun’s constant commitment to research and education is exemplified in his enduring passion for statistics and research methods. 

“This is a guy who calls me at 11 o’clock at night to talk about some technical articles,” Ludlow said. “He’s the sort of person many of us aspire to be.” 

At BC, Braun has continued to research educational inequality—a topic he said he has had a strong passion for since his work at ETS. In his research, he uses the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a national database. One question Braun attempts to answer in his research is the difference between private and public schools. 

“The usual comparison of public schools to private schools always came out in favor of private schools, but when you adjust for the differences in the student background … you find that the disparity in results is pretty much explained by the difference in student backgrounds, family background, and so on,” Braun said. “And in fact, for certain classes of private schools, once you make those adjustments, they actually do more poorly than public schools.”

Braun said that even when adjusting for student backgrounds, Catholic schools still performed quite well. He has also researched and studied to what extent the differences in states’ education policies make a difference in closing the achievement gap between white students and Black students.

Braun looked at data from No Child Left Behind and found that education policies had a positive impact on student performance in math, literacy, and language arts for both white and Black students, but did not actually close the gap between the two. These findings revealed that No Child Left Behind did not truly close the gap in the way that policymakers thought it would. 

Braun said his findings continue to surprise him and that they have implications which can be useful to policymakers. He said that in order to combat educational inequality, policymakers need to immerse themselves in their jurisdiction’s history, culture, and traditions.

When publishing his research in academic articles, Braun said he dedicates a large portion of his time to ensuring people outside of the educational research field can understand his work.

“One of the areas that I really focus a lot of my attention on is trying to communicate the appropriate use of quantitative methods and the appropriate interpretation of the results to broader audiences—not just other technical people, but also policymakers, stakeholders, and even the public at large,” Braun said. “Some of these issues that are really important for everyone to understand, but are often cloaked in, you know, a sort of excessive mathematical notation or obscure language that really don’t help people understand.”

On Dec. 7, Braun attended a virtual ceremony honoring all of the AERA award recipients. Despite years of research and praise from his peers, Braun said it was still a shock to him to win the Lindquist Award.

“[It was] a bit surprising because there’s always a very well-rounded set of candidates,” Braun said. “Winning it is really an honor. … It’s very nice to be recognized for the work that I’ve done [that’s] both very technical … but also made for non-technical audiences.”

Yet, Braun’s colleagues were less surprised. 

“In addition to his academic qualities, he’s at the top of his game,” Ludlow said. “[Braun] is an endowed chair holder, and he’s received numerous awards and is really at the top of the profession and is recognized internationally. We are fortunate to have him.”

Now, Braun said he is looking ahead at his next research project, which is a deep dive into the structural racism in the foundations of teaching and testing practices being led by professor Michael Russell in Lynch.

“One of the initiatives in our department … is rethinking how we teach in light of the spotlight that we have on systemic structural racism,” Braun said. “However beneath the surface it might be, to what extent is that part of the way in which we teach quantitative methods when we think that well, quantitative methods are racist? … And so, [we’re] rethinking in a rigorous way our assumptions about what’s worth studying, how we study it, how we interact with different communities, and how we interpret and communicate those results.”

Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor

January 30, 2022