Meet the Expert: Alicia Garcia

Illustration of Alicia Garcia

Alicia Garcia is a principal policy analyst at AIR. She is the director of the What Works Clearinghouse Statistics, Website, and Training project. She is also director of a literacy-focused network for school improvement in Long Beach Unified School District, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Prior to joining AIR, Garcia was a practicing attorney in the field of education law.

POSITION: Principal Researcher

AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Education law and policy


Q. Why did you transition from a career as a practicing attorney to guiding policy analysis, technical assistance, and research at the state and district levels?

Alicia: I went to law school with the explicit plan to become an education lawyer and then joined a boutique law firm in Chicago that represented school districts. By the time a school district is calling their lawyer, it’s a bad situation. The opportunity to help the school district is limited at that stage of the game—and certainly the opportunity to improve the lives of students is very limited, too. It was very frustrating for me to be at the back end of problems. I went back to school to get my master’s degree in education policy to pursue opportunities that allowed me to be involved on the front end of policy decisions. I joined AIR shortly thereafter and have enjoyed being in a more proactive role.

Q. You have spent much of your career seeking to make improvements to state-level education policy. Which ones are you most proud of?

Alicia: Two projects in Minnesota come to mind. In response to state legislation, the Department of Education conducted an annual survey of school districts to understand their gaps and needs around teacher licensing requirements. But the legislative language was vague, and the survey did not provide any valuable information. We helped to totally revise the survey to capture what the state needed to know, which provided very useful information. The state legislature then changed teacher licensure policy to address the main issue: alternative certification requirements for people who wanted to make a career change and become a teacher.

More recently, Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights notified 41 school districts or charter schools that it believed had engaged in disparate discipline practices for students of color and students with disabilities. The Department of Human Rights also worked with the districts and schools to develop plans to address these issues.

Through REL Midwest, AIR supported the Department of Human Rights in understanding the effects of the use of discipline plans within identified districts. The project also brought the Minnesota Department of Education into the work, giving the two agencies a foundational understanding of the discipline disparities in the state—and leveraging that understanding in conversations with state legislators to try to address the disparities.

Q. Much of your leadership focuses on scaling up evidence-based best practices. What have you learned from this work?

Alicia: Particularly through AIR’s administration of the What Works Clearinghouse and State Support Network, we understand that practitioners want to know what works. They are looking for solid guidance on how to interpret research and determine whether an intervention or practice is valuable to them. The What Works Clearinghouse is valuable in terms of distilling education research in a way that allows a practitioner to easily look at it and say, “This program would work for what I’m trying to accomplish.”

The real challenge is that it’s very difficult for states, districts, or teachers to give up anything that they’re doing. So, in addition to helping them understand and take on effective practices and interventions, AIR helps them identify what’s not working—where they’re not getting their return on investment. You can’t just keep adding new interventions. Every time you add something, you should probably take something away. The most effective way of doing that is looking at the evidence base, which is powerful tool for helping them feel like they can actually move the needle.

The conversation around equity in this country continues to evolve. We recognize problems, like disparate discipline, that we always knew were there but weren't directly addressing.

Q. How have state and district needs for support changed over the course of your career?

Alicia: Money keeps getting tighter. That’s one driver of examining return on investment. There’s also increased understanding around evidence. States and districts want to know how they can use their limited resources most effectively.

Needs also have changed in recent years as the conversation around equity in this country continues to evolve. We recognize problems, like disparate discipline, that we always knew were there but weren’t directly addressing. Although many conversations regarding equity can become politically charged, our educator partners have continued to push our work to focus on the strengths a variety of students and families bring to school and classrooms. States and districts are also looking for support regarding culturally responsive practices and social and emotional learning.

Q. What emerging educational equity and quality challenges are you watching?

Alicia: Over the past three years, much more work has come around disparate discipline, particularly exclusionary discipline where kids are taken out of classrooms. Part of the reason for persistent academic gaps is that kids aren’t in school because they are being disciplined. One point of focus within exclusionary discipline practices is subjective disciplinary actions, which are those that require a judgment call from the individual exerting the discipline, such as insubordination by a student or which student was responsible for a fight. The way the whole student is treated is affecting their academic performance and we want to ensure that an educator’s implicit bias is not contributing to negative outcomes.

COVID-19 has raised awareness of some of the external factors that students are facing. Teachers were Zooming into kids’ homes, which allowed them to see that students are dealing with hunger, distractions, lack of Internet access, and so on. If we want to improve academic performance, we need to deal with all of these other issues.

Q. Where can we find you on a typical Saturday?

Alicia: We generally start Saturdays with a family hike. Sometimes my wife, two kids, and our dog just go across the street to a 100-acre park, but often we will drive somewhere for a family hike and a picnic. We love to spend time outdoors and find that it is one of the best times for long conversations with our three-year-old, who is well into his “why” phase.

Q. What book would you recommend everyone read?

Alicia: I was a Great Books major in college, so that’s a tough one. The book I recommend most often is The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. The writing is just beautiful, and I love the stories and the way she helps readers connect to the American immigrant experience.

Alicia Garcia
Principal Researcher