LU doctoral graduate receives 'Outstanding Dissertation' award

More than a year in the making, the dissertation of Lamar University alumnus Dr. Keith Reeves, "Predictivity of Standards-Based Report Card Model for Standardized Test Scores: A Taxonomic Mixed Methods Study," was chosen as the winner for the American Educational Research Association 2022 Division H’s Outstanding Publications Competition in Category 5: Outstanding Dissertation. He will soon be recognized with a plaque at the Division H Breakfast Business Meeting and Awards Presentation. Despite his busy schedule, Reeves discussed his life, work and the outstanding achievement brought about by his research and writing.Reeves

Can you tell me about your background?
I grew up on the east side of Syracuse, New York, the son of a nurse mother and a firefighter father. We’ve got deep roots in New York, dating back to the early 17th century. Our folks, my two brothers and I moved to a suburb in ‘86, and I attended the North Syracuse Central Schools, where I became deeply active in music. Since the time I was about 13 years old, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, as my grandmother and her mother before her had been in Central New York. I went to Ithaca to become a band director, and in the mid-2000s, relocated with my then-partner to Virginia, where we both were music teachers.
Eventually, I went into teacher leadership, including educational technology, because the more experiences I had in education, the more I recognized systemic and institutional problems with not just the schools I had taught in, but the entire concept of education in our society. I’d had a pretty solid liberal arts education thanks to my undergraduate time at Ithaca, but even that experience showed me there were some problems I wanted to explore around how we serve students and meet their needs, even as they may be developmentally unaware of those needs.
In my family, being “smart” was never a bad thing, and “smart” didn’t just mean an abstract sense of general trivia. We valued education. My grandmother attended Brockport Teachers College in the 1930s and really set the tone for learning as a life-long pursuit. My mother got the first master’s degree in the immediate family, and I remember being so proud of her for that. She wasn’t just good at her job; she wanted to be better, to do and know and learn more, and in healthcare, that’s an invaluable attitude.
I think I take after my mother in that way, and I pursued several graduate school programs, honing my craft, and to my great surprise, my focus became less about the music content to which I thought I’d be dedicating my life, but about the children themselves. Psychology, sociology, development, pedagogy, policy, analysis, assessment — all these things became more and more a part of the way I think, the way I perceive the world around me; the injustices we perpetrate against kids are everywhere as that awareness unveils one’s eyes.  
I knew long ago I wanted to pursue my doctorate, but it wasn’t until everything “clicked” — including financially after recovering from the housing collapse of ‘08 while I was a teacher (boy, that was a tough time for so many of us and again highlighted the social and structural violence and inequity against kids, workers and everyday people)—that I decided to apply. Lamar University was the clear winner in my various acceptances. Lamar University was a Carnegie Level One research university, had a strong background in teacher leadership and teacher education, had state-wide resources, had competitive scholarships for the program and offered me everything I wanted.

How long have you been working on your dissertation? 

I knew what I wanted to research going in. My school, Discovery Elementary School, is a revolutionary zero-energy school. (You can learn more about here; it’s really amazing!) One of the research-based practices we hold dearest to our hearts there is standards-based assessment, and I’ve been the point person for that aspect of our school culture for the six years I’ve been there. I was doing the reading and review throughout the program, as Lamar University scaffolds its Ed.D. program pretty well. As we were instructed on how to craft elements of a traditional five-chapter dissertation, which I wanted to do all along, I wanted to run with any Ph.D. because like my mother, I knew I had to prove it to myself! I was able to genuinely dig into the work. 
I began my dissertation in earnest when we started Dissertation I, so I wrote mine in about a year. (I was surprised, too!) But I must say, one of the chief reasons I was able to do my work quickly and efficiently with quality is because of the Ed.D. faculty, especially my beloved chair, Dr. J. Vince Nix. He’s the absolute man! His guidance was priceless, and his intellectual brilliance is only overshadowed by his deeply compassionate humanism and thoughtfulness. He understood me as a person and strove to meet my needs in a way that really mirrored what I always have wanted to do for my students.

What was the most interesting thing you discovered in your research? Anything that surprised you?
I was shocked that I was the first person in the contemporary standards-based movement to really put the hammer down on asking how to arrange standards-based grading models. There was no robust codification or classification allowing meaningful analysis between models. None. So how had 30 years of research been conducted — with some big names making a lot of money in the process — and nobody had ever put these ideas to the test? 
I remember at a conference in Anaheim a few years ago, I was in a panel discussion with some other leading schools on standards-based assessment, and one of the mathematical models that I call “gymnastics” — this massively complex calculus that was supposed to create a fair numerical score out of other numerical scores that better reflected a student’s skill mastery — was being discussed. However, when I questioned the legitimacy of reductive numeral values as accurate assessment means in the first place, it was as if I were speaking in tongues. People who had been entrenched with this big-name keynote guy who came up with the formula couldn’t wrap their heads around challenging the most central tenets of the grading orthodoxy.
Fortunately, I have no such compunction (LOL), so I really enjoyed prying the lid off the machinery of not only traditional grading, but even the most progressive and radical standards-based models and figuring out how they work. I’m really excited now that the Reeves Taxonomy of Standards-Based Report Cards can serve as a research tool for others, and maybe we can really start asking the hardest and most uncomfortable questions. I feel it is an ethical imperative that we do so, lest we continue to miss opportunities to help kids at best or continue to directly harm the very people we care for at worst.

What were some of the challenges you faced in researching and writing?
Hands down, my difficulty was obtaining meaningful student data from multiple models. I’m still not satisfied and feel I must do follow-up studies and encourage others to do so as well. We have to test more of the models in actual use around our nation to find out what’s working and what isn’t. Of course, the pandemic was chiefly responsible for this difficulty, so I don’t blame the school systems of Virginia. Many of them wrote back during my population sample process and indicated they weren’t accepting any external research during the pandemic due to lack of resources and staffing. I do understand that. The pandemic, as I cite in my work, has had a chilling effect on research in K-12 education, and I hope school districts direct their chains of command around external research to start opening the doors quickly and to facilitate aspiring scholars with gusto. Our work as scholars can and should have a directly informing effect upon leadership and policy if we take the time to craft proper calls for improved praxis, but without data, it’s just an aspirational idea instead of an impactful craft.
I confess, I really fell in love with the dissertation process, and I can easily see not only writing about the process itself, but doing so much more research like this. It was some of the most challenging but rewarding thinking I’ve ever done, and I’m really grateful to have the outcome of that work recognized as an apotheosis.

How does your dissertation contribute to the overall conversation in your field?
We’ve long known through a century of work by my preeminent predecessors that traditional grading and standardized testing are ineffective measures of skill mastery and are endogenously and intrinsically biased and unfair. We’ve also known for about 30 years that standards-based grading is a vastly superior model. What we haven’t understood before (and something we need to immediately, intensively investigate) is what forms of standards-based grading are best. Heretofore, we did not have a robust, research-based classification system that facilitates that very analysis, and now the Reeves Taxonomy provides that framework. The quantitative analysis that I conducted thanks to the preceding qualitative steps gives us our first meaningful insight into which permutations of performance level descriptors for students are best. I think my dissertation synthesizes a number of fields, and I hope it will serve as a signpost like that of Hermes Trismegistus at the joining of ancient roads in Rome that points scholars from psychology, sociology, policy, administration, pedagogy, teacher preparation, assessment, strategic planning, equity and more — all to join together to propose better solutions for our nation’s schools. If I can help facilitate a renewed scholarship confluence on the subject of grading, I’ll be very pleased.

When did you hear that news that your writing had been chosen for Outstanding Dissertation? What was your reaction?
AERA emailed me the evening of Feb. 15, and I recall it very keenly: I was on a call, and my phone pinged, and the subject line snipped said, “Congratulations AERA 2022 …” and my heart jumped into my throat, and I exclaimed, “Oh my god!” three times as I opened the email, and there it was. Dr. Latimer and my committee, including Dr. Nix, Dr. Brown and Dr. Keeney, had all suggested that my work was worthy of accolade and encouraged me to submit the dissertation. I’ve never been one to “aim low,” as it were (LOL), so I had long hoped to write something worthy of the recognition, but to actually achieve it was really a huge culmination of what I’d set out to do. I wanted to, as I was recently reminded, “write something for the ages,” and when it sank in after I read the email aloud, I said, “I did it. I really did it.” I cried for joy a little, I did (LOL). I’m a pretty squishy-hearted person, so I cry at moving scenes in movies or beautiful works of art and music, and this felt similar. I worked really, really hard on this project, and those close to me saw what a grueling slog it was at times, especially during editing. After graduation, I thought I’d be jumping right in to write more, but I have found myself sleeping a lot more as I recover (LOL)! This award is energizing, and I think it helps remind me that I can set impostor syndrome aside, and can — and really need to — continue to contribute to the field. 
I left being a music teacher because I thought I could help more kids through leadership. I need to make good on that promise, if I have the potential, and if Lamar and AERA say I do, I ought to believe them.

What does this award mean to you?
To be recognized by the uppermost echelon in the field of educational scholarship is an authentic joy. A friend of mine says my self-deprecation is my least attractive quality; I’ve always struggled with having an intellectual understanding that I have something of value to say, but an emotional understanding that I am valueless and don’t deserve to say it. I consider earning my doctorate from Lamar University and my dissertation being appreciated as a valuable, critical work by those most qualified to judge it as such to be one and the same process. I owed it to Lamar, to myself, to the teachers who authentically taught me and, most of all, to my students to write something remarkable in the literal sense. I’m moved, to be sure, and humbled, but I’m also, almost surprisingly, overjoyed. I feel really good about having shown that I can run with the big foxes. I feel validated and appreciated, and those have not always been significantly-present feelings in my life. I’m deeply grateful.

Anything else you’d like to add or anyone you’d like to recognize?
I wrote my acknowledgements in my dissertation, so I think those stand as my ultimate testament of thanks. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to continue this kind of work, as well as have the opportunity to do more in school administration to help bend the arc of our time toward more love for our kids in our work. I think those are the people who deserve the most recognition: our kids. The work we do in educational research may, at times, be theoretical, but it always has ultimate impact. I hope we as scholars and leaders will bring a renewed sense of service to why we do what we do and help make schools better for students. It is our raison d’être; it is certainly mine.

For more information about Dr. Keith Reeves, visit For more information about Lamar University’s Doctorate Degree in Education Leadership, visit