Friends and colleagues,
From its inception, Student Experience Research Network (SERN) was designed to be a field catalyst—to both be responsive in meeting the current needs of the field and to help push it forward. At the time of our founding in 2015, students’ experience of school – whether they felt respected as valued people and thinkers – wasn’t a prominent feature of the dominant education discourse. The relevant research was siloed across disciplinary, methodological, and theoretical lines and the founders of SERN saw the need for interdisciplinary, practically relevant scholarship in service of educational equity.
Since then, SERN has contributed to a significant shift in the field toward building this type of scientific knowledge and bringing greater attention to student experience. We have helped cultivate a cross-disciplinary base of research, elevated it to build awareness about the importance of student experience in national conversations about educational equity, and connected a larger and more diverse group of researchers to dozens of leading influencers and decision-makers in that conversation.
As a field catalyst, it is our responsibility to continuously assess our work against field needs to ensure there is alignment and growth. SERN was nearly two years into our 2020-2023 strategy when we received a generous gift from the philanthropist MacKenzie Scott in recognition of our work. These combined factors made it an appropriate time to take stock of what the field needs in light of its continued evolution and the multiple crises we are grappling with in education and society.
To this end, I held conversations with nearly 40 leaders this spring across research, practice, policy, and philanthropy, as well as SERN’s staff and board. I also reviewed lessons learned from our work and our team’s broader engagement with the field, and conducted detailed organizational and financial modeling.
The goal for this process was to understand what the field is seeking, learn from our experience implementing the first two years of our current strategy, and determine how we could leverage these resources to maximize our impact moving forward given what the field needs and the larger context for our work.
My key takeaway is that the work by SERN staff and scholars, along with everyone we have partnered with and learned from over the years, has helped to advance the field in such a way as to require something different than what SERN is poised to do. This has led me, in consultation with the SERN board, to make the difficult decision to strategically sunset SERN and conclude our operations by May 2023. In doing so, we will use our resources to document and share key lessons from SERN’s experience over the past seven years and help seed research-focused capacity in the field to continue movement toward an education system that consistently and equitably centers student experience.
Why a strategic sunset?
The stakeholders I spoke with considered SERN a valued field actor that has informed the work of many influential leaders across research, practice, policy, and philanthropy. They also underscored critical ways the field has evolved, especially over the past couple of years. They observed that a growing share of influential education stakeholders believe that student experience matters, and practice and policy leaders are seeking case examples, resources, and agendas for what to do on the ground. Across all stakeholder types, there was a desire for brokering of partnerships between research, practice, and policy and more applied research and development. They observed that education stakeholders are seeking a much faster timeline and greater returns from research in terms of impact. Practitioners and policymakers want research that moves beyond descriptions of problems to actions and solutions—and they pointed to a need to focus on how to practically change student experience in real-world education contexts given the constraints and realities of those environments and the people teaching and learning in them. They also want evaluation of practitioners’ and policymakers’ innovations to continue to build scientific warrant and inform implementation.
As I reflected on these lessons from the field and our team, it became clear that while SERN has done important work over the past seven years, we are not in a strong position to respond to this shift going forward. SERN’s organizational structure would need to both expand and change significantly to successfully meet the needs expressed by the field at a time when the long-term funding climate for SERN is challenging despite the generous one-time gift by MacKenzie Scott.
I believe the field is in a strong position as our role in it comes to a close. Between the work of SERN and many others, our understanding of how structures in education shape student experience is deeper and reflects greater dialogue and collaboration among scholars across disciplines. Student experience is increasingly taken seriously by many influential leaders and organizations in education today. Most importantly, there are many in research, practice, policy, and philanthropy leading with this vision—and in a position to continue advancing the work.
Like the other interdisciplinary research initiatives SERN was modeled after when it was incubated at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, SERN was never intended to last forever. I believe this is the right moment to begin a strategic sunset where we conclude our current work and help plant the seeds for what the field is seeking now to make significant progress toward educational equity.
What will SERN pursue during our strategic sunset?
Our goal during the sunset is to help seed the next generation of field-building, scholarship, and translation in the student experience domain—and to support the people and organizations who will lead that work in the years to come. To this end, we will use our resources to pursue the following four programmatic priorities:
- Promoting continued relationship-building within and between research, practice, and policy actors by providing funds to support people and organizations working on student experience whom we have engaged in our initiatives over the years to host meetings for purposes of exploring novel ideas and forging new collaborations across the silos and boundaries that SERN has sought to bridge.
- Encouraging greater relationship-building between scholars studying student experience, especially those using equity-centered approaches, and education policy actors—with an eye to advancing longer-term change in the academy in support of such work.
- Co-sponsoring a partnership with an existing field organization that will contribute to the next generation of practically relevant research – including a focus on collaborations between researchers and practice / policy partners – on topic(s) that are high priority in education practice and policy and continue to expand the group of researchers connected to the field of student experience research.
- Documenting and sharing lessons learned from SERN’s work that we believe will be useful to others in the field and ensuring our public assets remain available after our sunset.
Finally, and importantly, as SERN sunsets over the next nine months, we will celebrate and support the staff and SERN scholars who contributed to and stewarded this valued field initiative. Everyone on our staff will have the opportunity to lead elements of the sunset work that leverage their expertise and experience at SERN, and we are dedicating significant resources to position our team to take on fulfilling new roles. We will engage SERN scholars as we sunset to learn from and recognize their contributions, publicly share key lessons learned, and provide an opportunity for the research, practice, and policy actors we have engaged over the years to seed a next generation of collaborations and knowledge-building through a final round of grantmaking.
This was a difficult decision and sunsetting our work well is both an important and challenging task. I am so grateful for everyone who has shaped and contributed to this community and its impact, and who will continue to push toward the vision of a just and equitable education system in which practices, policies, and norms collectively and consistently affirm students’ humanity.
I look forward to sharing further updates with the SERN community as we engage in this work between now and next May. To receive ongoing updates about our activities throughout the sunset, please follow our blog and sign up for our newsletter.
Executive Director, Student Experience Research Network