By Marie Donovan
LOWELL -- UMass Lowell professor James Nehring is about to get a big change of scenery when he sets up residence in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a semester to research schools there.
Nehring, an Ayer resident and a professor in the UML Graduate School of Education, was named a 2013-2014 Fulbright Scholar for Northern Ireland Governance and Public Policy. While at Queen's University Belfast, he will conduct research on schools in lower-income communities that teach skills above and beyond those measured by standardized government tests.
Nehring has taught for 25 years in public schools and led the startup of three public high schools, in addition to authoring five books and numerous articles in the field of education. His research also includes schools in Israel and the United States that face similar challenges.
Q: How long have you been teaching at UMass Lowell?
A: I've been teaching at the university for about seven years.
Q: How long will you be in Northern Ireland?
A: I'll be there for a semester, from late August to mid-January. We were there last June for 10 days to lay the foundation for this work.
Q: What type of fieldwork will you do for your research?
A: I have been doing an ongoing study here of school districts with students who mostly come from a low-income background and trying to identify high-performing schools serving low-income children where the students are doing well. I am going to do a parallel study in Northern Ireland, where we'll be doing case studies in schools there.
Q: What is the political atmosphere like in Northern Ireland?
A: The peace accord was signed in '98. Northern Ireland is moving through a postconflict era. They're still a part of the U.K., but the people will ultimately get to decide whether to stay in the UK or to join the Republic of Ireland.
Q: What led you to prioritize research on performance in low-income communities?
A: I am originally from Albany, N.Y., and I used to work in New York state, where they've had these high-stakes Regency exams for decades. The exams test a narrow range of skills, but the results have big consequences.
Q: Do you feel the emphasis on high-stakes testing is a big problem for students elsewhere?
A: Today, nations with advanced economies are relying more and more on these tests, and the pressure is particularly strong on schools serving low-income communities. We're concerned the gap is widening.
Q: What kinds of skills do you feel should be taught that are not measured in high-stakes testing?
A: Skills like collaboration, leadership, reflection and ingenuity -- all the stuff we as parents want our kids to have. Those are the skills you need in the workplace.
Q: What brought you to Massachusetts originally?
A: I moved here in '96 to work as the first principal at the Parker Charter School in Ayer.
Q: Are there any other educators in your family?
A: My wife, Laurie, is an environmental educator who works for the Nashua River Watershed Association and she is a former high-school teacher.
Q: Will you be taking your family to Northern Ireland with you?
A: My wife, Laurie, and youngest daughter, Anna, who is going to be a junior in high school, will accompany me. For Thanksgiving, our two older daughters, who are out of college, will join us.