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Interview with Wendy Castillo, Ph.D. from Princeton University on Quantitative Critical Race Theory, Educational Nonprofits, and Equity in STEM Education

About Wendy Castillo, Ph.D.: Wendy Castillo is Lecturer of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and Associate Director of Philanthropic Research at a global nonprofit organization. In both her non-profit work and scholarship, Dr. Castillo seeks to advance educational equity, especially for Black and Brown students and communities, through data-driven quantitative research. Specifically, Dr. Castillo is invested in the innovative applications of critical race theory to quantitative research known as QuantCrit, reflected in her most recent publication in Race Ethnicity and Education, “Transforming the future of quantitative education research: a systematic review of enacting quantCrit,” coauthored with Nathan Babb.

Dr. Castillo’s scholarship has also appeared in Journal of Latinos and Education and has been published as research reports by organizations like the Urban Institute. Prior to her current appointments, Dr. Castillo worked as Senior Director of Equity, Data & Impact at the National Urban League and as Researcher for the NYU Steinhardt Research Alliance for New York City Schools. She is also an alumnus of the Strategic Data Project Fellowship from Harvard University’s Center for Educational Policy Research.

Dr. Castillo received her Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Pennsylvania, her Master of Science degree in Education and Social Change from the University of Miami, and her Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from Brown University.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become invested in employing quantitative methodologies to study and advance educational equity, especially as it pertains to reading motivation, youth engagement with STEM, and college readiness?

[Dr. Wendy Castillo] I grew up in East Los Angeles, California. I attended public schools that I do not feel were of high quality. I did not know that until I got to college. When I got to Brown, I realized that I was not prepared like my peers. That got me really interested in education and studying inequities in education.

When I graduated, I took a position with Teach for America teaching first grade, second grade, and fourth grade. Being a first-year teacher is hard for anyone, but especially those who did not study teaching. I went back and got my Master’s degree at the University of Miami to learn more about what causes educational inequities. I had some ideas from my own personal experience about what causes them. Most of the students from my high school and many people from my community do not go to the East Coast for college. They do not go to Brown. Few people there have even heard of it. The fact that I was an exception always made me question the education system. I realized that there was more to learn, so I decided to continue pursuing my Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.

There, I studied education policy, but my main focus was quantitative methods. I knew that people listened to numbers and numbers can be very powerful. I was not necessarily passionate about it like I am now, but I knew that I could get a job when I graduated. In some ways I felt like it was the white man’s language. I needed to understand it and be able to question it with credibility.

I was trained by an economist and learned causal inference, randomized control trials, and positivist experimental design. When I graduated, I realized that if I continued doing this research the way we have been doing it, I was just going to replicate the results we had already been getting, which seemed to have little impact. We need to start thinking differently if we want to get different answers and solutions. I learned about QuantCrit [quantitative methods informed by critical race theory], and that is when I decided to start unlearning everything I had learned and start relearning how to do quantitative research in more equitable ways.

[] Would you introduce us to how you define equity in your own research and practice? In particular, how does your engagement with quantitative applications of critical race theory, or “QuantCrit,” inform your approach to equity in education?

[Dr. Wendy Castillo] I believe that anybody who does any type of research, quantitative or qualitative, needs to be upfront about their positionality in society. My positionality is that I have a bias towards wanting to help Black and Brown communities. This is a bias that I am largely proud of, but also one I try to stay aware of.

For me, equity means giving students opportunities that allow them to pursue the education and career that they want to pursue. It means students are not forced into or tracked into a particular path or to a particular career that will lead to outcomes such as remaining in poverty. I think it is giving all students educational opportunities and information to be able to pursue the life that they want to pursue and will be fulfilling to them. Equity allows them to be civically engaged in a healthy world. I think that is what equity is to me, even if I usually define it in my research in more measurable ways, like outcomes being equitable by race. I think it is more about giving people opportunities to be able to choose their own outcomes.

[] Could you tell us more about “QuantCrit,” as you explore it in your recent article “How to ‘QuantCrit’: Practices and Questions for Education Data Researchers and Users”? What are some of the challenges that come from translating critical race theory (CRT) into a quantitative methodology for studying education, and what does doing so help us see that traditional applications of CRT may not be able to?

[Dr. Wendy Castillo] I am not a critical race theorist; I apply critical race theory. I just want to be upfront about that because I am not an expert in critical race theory (CRT). At the same time, I do know that we can do a better job with our current quantitative work. Some of these practices from CRT are pushing us to be better. I also want to acknowledge that there are some things that cannot be quantified and there are limits to numbers, especially when examining and analyzing things as complex as systemic racism. However, we can still be better at getting close to measuring those things. For example, we will not measure systemic racism just by measuring race. We need to come up with explicit operationalizations of racism and specific measures of racism.

The idea of QuantCrit is being able not only to measure racism but then to figure out how we are going to work to remedy it. That is QuantCrit’s social justice orientation. How are we going to change the policies that extend and worsen the consequences of racism? So, for instance, how do we ameliorate or address the outcomes of redlining that are impacting the health of already marginalized groups? QuantCrit allows us to see systemic racism in more detailed ways by quantifying it, but it also means doing something about those inequities rather than masking them.

QuantCrit is also about our perspective and our mindset. It is about shifting your perspective to be more systemic rather than individualistic. We must think about how the system is impacting students, not how students are going to remedy themselves as individuals. We want to know what systems can do to help students versus what students can do to help students. It is this individual responsibility idea that we are now flipping on its head. It is not the individual’s responsibility to get into college. It is our responsibility to fix the system so that students have access to college. I remember trying to figure out how to get into college: how to call the right people and look up the right websites. How do we remove those barriers to facilitate that? That is what QuantCrit is to me.

[] You previously worked as Senior Director of Equity, Data & Impact at the National Urban League. Would you tell us a bit about your work in this role and highlight some of the initiatives you found most impactful under your directorship?

[Dr. Wendy Castillo] That was my latest role before my current work at a global nonprofit organization. The Urban League targets multiple entry points. There is education, where we run after-school tutoring programs, college access programs, and entrepreneurship and apprenticeship programs for people who may not want to go to college. We also coordinated housing programs and reentry jobs programs for formerly incarcerated people. It was multifaceted. It was not, “Let’s just think about education.” It was, “Let’s think about all of these different factors and make sure that they align so that we’re transforming people’s lives.”

One of the biggest projects that I worked on was Project Ready, which was a specific project on college access. We were rethinking our measures for success in that context, and, for me, it was really important to start to collect more granular data as an organization. I spearheaded collecting more granular Black individual data that went beyond categories like Black and African American, and included Black Caribbean data and Black African descent data for students who had immigrated from Africa. We did this so we were better able to provide the right services to the right students.

Gathering this granular data was very important, and one of my favorite things I did at the Urban League. Before we collected that data, we did not know how many people were Caribbean American or how many students were English language learners, for example. Now that we collect it, we know that people need help with English as a second language, which we never provided before. Now we at least have the numbers. That is the thing about all data; you can collect the best data in the world, but it is all about the next step of being able to use that data to provide people with the services that they need.

[] Prior to that, you worked with the NYU Steinhardt Research Alliance for New York City Schools in their collaboration with Computer Science for All. Would you tell us about Computer Science for All and share some of the insights your research revealed about the efficacy and importance of this program in supporting youth STEM education and college access?

[Dr. Wendy Castillo] I did a lot of work in that position surveying teachers and professional development staff and ensuring New York City was providing professional development that was culturally responsive and useful to teachers. One initiative I would spotlight is that I co-led the creation of a new measurement instrument for measuring computer science education in elementary schools. At that point in 2020, this kind of instrument did not exist.

I did not create the measure alone. We created a teacher-leader working group with leaders from the New York City Department of Education who worked with teachers and had previously been teachers. I guided them in that process because I know how to make a measure. That is what I did for my dissertation. I asked these educators, “What are the constructs of computer science that you think are most important to measure in elementary school students?” I provided some examples of previous questions that had been used and asked, “What do you think of these and how would you change them?”

Over many sessions, they ended up taking up a lot of ownership and creating and recreating the measures. They would take items that I presented them with, and they would say, “No, this actually never worked, but this could work. Let me redo the item for you.” Now there is an instrument for elementary schools that was made for New York City students by New York City teacher-leaders. That is the way I think that measurement making should be done. These teachers were really intentional and had a focus on equity, so that same focus on equity was inherently built into the instrument.

[] In addition to being a lecturer at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, you are currently Associate Director of Philanthropic Research at a global nonprofit organization. Would you discuss how your commitments to educational equity and background in educational research inform your work in this new role?

[Dr. Wendy Castillo] The goal of my new position is to get more money to Black and Brown-led organizations — to give more money, in unrestricted ways, to these organizations, and to give it for multiple years. My role now is doing research on who is giving and who is giving in equitable ways. Who is giving towards racial equity movements, who is giving to leaders of color? Those are the types of things that I research now.

This work, like the work of the nonprofit I work for more generally, is informed by an equity lens. It is also another opportunity for me to continue collecting the granular data that I think is so valuable. If we know, for example, who is giving to Latino leaders, we have that next level of granular data. This is the type of data I am working to make sure we collect.

[] Would you reflect on your experience working on equity initiatives in both university and nonprofit organizations? Do you see the role or capabilities of these institutions as importantly different, or collaborations between the two as essential to the larger struggle for educational equity?

[Dr. Wendy Castillo] I definitely think that you need collaboration between universities and nonprofits. When I was working at NYU, I was in a research practice partnership. You can enter into these types of partnerships with school districts and community organizations. Research practice partnerships ground you in realities and make you aware of the needs of the people you are trying to serve.

As a person who has worked in non-profits and universities, I feel like if I did not have that grounding I might lose a sense of reality. I know a lot of advanced statistical models, but what people need on the ground is usually very descriptive or quick data. You might spend a lot of time creating these fancy models in grad school or if you are a tenure-track professor and trying to get tenure. But is that going to be the most useful thing to the community? They are probably not going to read your peer reviewed articles. They want a quick report that they can use to inform and adjust their policies or professional development for the next year. I think that is what working at a nonprofit does for you. It grounds you in the realities of what organizations need and what the people need.

[] Based on your research and experience, do you have advice you would give to researchers, educators, practitioners, or administrators seeking to advance educational equity through their own work?

[Dr. Wendy Castillo] I would recommend always learning and unlearning. QuantCrit is a very new field. I think it has a lot of potential to transform research, but none of us have all the right answers.

You have to have the right mindset, which is that this process is iterative. You might make mistakes, and that is okay, but you want to unlearn or at least question some of the things that you always thought were true and you did without thinking. For example, I would always default to comparing outcomes to white students. That is just what I was taught, not for any reason. I would just default to this comparison, but doing that is centering whiteness.

Always question why you are doing things. Always be unlearning and be open to relearning. I do not know if there is enough room built in for people who are already out in the field to relearn. There might be some room for graduate students, but I do not know if there is enough room for professionals to relearn and reorient their work. That is something we have to work to make possible if we want to see real change.

Thank you, Dr. Castillo, for introducing us to QuantCrit and sharing your insight on nonprofit educational equity work, STEM education, and more!