Building a Liberatory Data Model: Karina Rodriguez Named Director of Research and Analytics at Highlander Institute

Building a Liberatory Data Model: Karina Rodriguez Named Director of Research and Analytics at Highlander Institute

Karina Rodriguez, Director of Research and Analytics

From a young age, my parents — 1980s immigrants from the Dominican Republic to New York City — instilled in me the notion that education is the greatest equalizer. I believed this narrative of the “American Dream”, pushing myself through school with the goals of earning a college degree and landing a well paying job to support myself and my family.

When I started my undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago, I immediately realized how inadequately my public school education had prepared me for the academic, mental, and emotional demands of that environment.

My intelligence and merit were continuously questioned and undermined by both students and professors in that predominantly White space. My socioeconomic background and BIPOC identity were consistently elevated as the only reasons for my admittance. The trauma almost broke me. I started to avoid any classes or courses of study that required discussion or collaborative work so I could finish my degree as invisibly as possible.

At the same time, I fell in love with ethnographic research and was inspired by world famous anthropologists. It took a few years after graduation for me to be emotionally ready to return to school, but I wanted to further develop my research skills. I felt passionate about both understanding and creating educational environments that would support the success of students like me. The Urban Education Policy Master’s program within Brown University fueled my fire and later led me to Highlander Institute.

During my four year tenure at Highlander Institute, the organization has evolved and grown in the best possible ways. Thanks to the vision and leadership of Chief Innovation Officer, Malika Ali, all of our work is grounded in our framework for Culturally Responsive & Sustaining Pedagogy (CRSP). With this instructional approach as the foundation, it became clear to me that our impact strategy required deep examination to ensure that the way we use and talk about data aligns with our core values of fighting against systemic racism.

While data and research are routinely upheld as objective and neutral, the developers of data instruments and methods are consistently influenced by their own backgrounds, beliefs, and biases. Data scientists over the past century have leveraged data to legitimize far-reaching policies and pervasive systems across all sectors of society — examples include phrenology, eugenics, Apartheid, sexism, redlining, policing — that have further oppressed marginalized communities.

Within the education realm, data has been weaponized, misinterpreted, and used to justify segregation, exclusion, and a deficit mindset in schools. We know that standardized assessments and learning standards were created to uphold White Supremacy, with low-income students of color suffering the most from their impact (NEA, 2021). This truth centers my work at Highlander Institute.

My role as the Director of Research and Analytics is to hold our internal team and external partners accountable for reappropriating the power of data, using it as a tool to disrupt learning disparities and center the student experience within a broader definition of academic success.

Highlander Institute’s liberatory data approach redefines student achievement and growth through a suite of innovative data tools that elevate important conditions for success, encourage teachers to check their assumptions and biases, and offer critical insights into how educators can support students along their personal journeys toward excellence. My vision is to leverage data to:

  • Disrupt the systemic inequities deeply ingrained in our schools;
  • Reframe the deficit mindset attached to test scores;
  • Promote healing by valuing multiple ways of knowing and affirming intelligence;
  • Liberate — instead of limit — the minds and bodies of our students.

As we continue to expand liberatory roles for data in 2022, I am excited to be part of a team that explicitly names the existence of systemic racism and actively works to disrupt it. Both dominant narratives and inequitable systems have caused a great deal of harm to students like me across K- 12 and post-secondary learning spaces. We have a shared responsibility to elevate the excellence our students bring, rather than diminish it. This work is urgent and requires broad support for change to take hold. I welcome the collaborations and difficult but necessary conversations ahead.