What They Learned: Sophie Hess ’19

The political science major studied the ways in which educational policies that group students by performance can lead to a type of intra-district segregation along racial and socioeconomic lines.

Sophie Hess ’19 understands that educational policies have long-term, large-scale impacts on people’s lives. As a political science major who has attended both public and private schools, she is familiar with the myriad ways that policies can affect student populations.

“I have always been interested in equity-minded education reforms, particularly in terms of finance and integration,” said Hess. “My love for kids, interest in equity-minded reforms, and various experiences with education systems made an education policy thesis my natural choice.”

For her thesis, Hess needed to hone in on a specific type of policy in order to analyze its impacts. As a peace, justice, and human rights concentrator, she wanted to study policies that have discriminatory and marginalizing effects on students and school districts.

“I settled on policies that eliminate ability tracking as a means to integrate classrooms,” she said.

Ability tracking, also known as ability grouping, is the process of clustering students based on their performance in the classroom: students who perform similarly are grouped together for their classes, which can amount to sorting students along racial and economic lines. By dividing students in these ways, school districts often end up restricting the opportunities available to marginalized students. For her thesis, Hess studied the ways that these policies produce inequity in educational systems.

“As racial and socioeconomic subgroups are stratified between high and low tracks, curriculum, resources, and expectations differ,” she said. “These differences ultimately lead to outcome differences and contribute to the academic achievement gap ever-persistent in the United States, reinforcing and supporting systems of oppression that keep various demographic subgroups in poverty and underserved.”

This is not the first time Hess’s Haverford education has brought her to study the subtle ways that educational policies can disenfranchise marginalized students.

“I wrote my final paper in my first-year writing seminar on property tax dependence and education and the harmful outcomes that dependence creates, so to take my Haverford education full circle with a related thesis was very rewarding,” said Hess.

How did your advisor help you develop your thesis topic, conduct your research, and/or interpret your results?

I knew from sophomore year I wanted to work with Zach [Oberfield], as I think our research interests and styles match up well. He recently released a book on charter schools, so I knew in terms of research matter he was the best professor to work with on an education policy thesis. Stylistically, I wanted to work with Zach because he gives direct and helpful feedback, sets clear expectations, works diligently with students to push for the best final product, and ultimately is a fun and kind person to work with. Zach pushed me to take the time needed to pick the best case studies. My thesis was a policy analysis, so case selection was honestly the most important step in the entire process. Though it took a long time for me to settle on the four districts I analyzed, I’m sure it led to a better thesis in the end.

What are your plans for the future and did your thesis help guide your future career path?

In August I will be moving back to Boston to start as a paralegal at an immigration law firm. Though the subject area of my thesis and immigration policy do not directly overlap, work being done in both immigration and education policy can create more equitable communities and country. Both policy areas tie back to my concentration in peace, justice, and human rights, as they both deal with human rights’ intersection with the law. Issues of access and opportunity are found in both policy areas. Long term I am considering law school, where I would hope to work in the public interest, possibly education, for my career.