Courtney Pollack: a researcher’s journey to City Connects

courtney-pollackCourtney Pollack, a former middle school teacher, stands in two worlds. 

As a Research Affiliate in the Gabrieli Lab at MIT, she does laboratory-based research. 

At Boston College, she does applied research. 

“Laboratory research contributes important knowledge about learning. But there’s a long runway from the lab to the classroom, so it takes time and several intermediate steps for this knowledge to have an impact on how students learn every day,” Pollack explains.

“Another approach is to conduct applied education research, which is what the Center for Optimized Student Support does.” Pollack is a Senior Researcher at the center, which is home to City Connects and based at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development.

“Researchers in the center study the City Connects intervention, which is grounded in prior child development research from different disciplines and from both laboratory and applied settings.” 

Long before Pollack was an academic, however, she was a college student who had started thinking about how education works because she was tutoring middle school students in Arizona who were struggling in math. 

“As a tutor, I had the opportunity to probe students’ thinking. I knew that if I could understand how they thought, I could surface places where they needed to do some rethinking. Then we could talk about that.” 

Pollack became a math teacher at the school, and she even enrolled for a year in a PhD program in math. But what really appealed to her, she discovered, was education research. 

So she got a job as a math content analyst at McREL International, a nonprofit organization that provides schools with analysis, research, and professional development services. Pollack’s work was to write math learning standards for states’ departments of education and create new standards for projects with the federal government. 

At McREL, one of the organization’s librarians shared a new journal, Mind, Brain, and Education with Pollack. The journal was fascinating, and the journal’s editors were at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, so Pollack went to Harvard, where she earned a master’s degree in Mind, Brain, and Education and a doctorate in Human Development and Education. She is currently an adjunct lecturer who teaches a foundational course in the program.

“The whole idea behind the mind, brain, education field is asking, How can we draw from education research, the psychological sciences, and cognitive neuroscience to answer questions about learning and, in some cases, apply that knowledge broadly to learning and teaching in schools?

 In her lab work at MIT, Pollack is tackling one part of this large question by contributing to a project on “the intersection of math and reading difficulties, to understand the brain basis of students’ math and reading disabilities when they co-occur – compared to students who only struggle in math or only struggle in reading.” 

“We’re also looking at the relationships among students’ anxiety, motivation, and competence across math and reading, and how brain activity during math relates to math competence.” 

At the Center for Optimized Student Support, Pollack is looking at the impact of City Connects on students who received the intervention in elementary school and whether these students were more likely to enroll in and graduate from college. 

“I’ve also been doing a lot of research on City Connects’ response to the pandemic. We’re learning about how coordinators are working with students, families, teachers, school staff, and community partners,” Pollack says. “We’re asking, What are the needs of different education stakeholders during the pandemic? And we’re discovering how schools leverage the City Connects practice to respond to the pandemic.”

What’s next for Pollack is continuing to learn from both ends of the research spectrum and forging new knowledge.

“That’s what attracted me to City Connects, that I could study an intervention that improves students’ lives – and that draws on the foundational ideas that I use in my lab-based research.”

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