If you were glancing at the Teachers College homepage recently, you might have noticed the appointment of Professor Erica Walker as the new Director of our Institute for Urban and Minority Education.

Dr. Walker, a renowned mathematics educator who chairs our Department of Mathematics, Science & Technology, represents the future at TC. Yet as a leader in developing new approaches to engage more students of color in math and all STEM fields, she is also building powerfully on our legacies of innovation and social justice. Her focus on the “math socialization” of young people, and harnessing the early lessons imparted to them by family elders or friends to help them identify as “math people,” extends the work of her mentor, the trailblazing TC psychologist and living TC legend Edmund Gordon. Dr. Gordon’s theory of supplementary education holds that the academic playing field can be leveled – and the achievement gap between races and classes narrowed – through tutoring, mentoring and broad exposure to cultural institutions.   

I take particular pleasure in Dr. Walker’s new appointment: When I became President of Teachers College more than 11 years ago, I expressed the fervent hope that we would live up to our legacy of addressing the world’s most pressing challenges by launching and shaping new fields.

As you read this Annual Report, I think you’ll agree that our faculty, students and alumni are doing just that. Their work this past year includes devising new ways of preparing outstanding, culturally aware educators; reducing educational inequality; better understanding and empowering marginalized students and communities; developing more thoughtful and effective leaders across professions; and increasing access and opportunity for learners worldwide.

These groundbreaking efforts have been guided by ideals as old as TC itself: our understanding that people learn best by connecting new concepts and perspectives to what they already know and care about; a concern for the “whole” child, person or community and a belief that learning – and all human development – derive from physical and psychological well-being; a sense of membership in the global community; and a commitment to problem-solving grounded in evidence – not merely the empirical findings of a given study or trial, but also bodies of knowledge accumulated over decades.

Reimagining Education

TC was founded in the late 19th century to prepare teachers who could serve the new wave of immigrants arriving in this country, and we have refashioned schools and schooling for successive generations. Today, our Reimagining Education Initiative seeks to make education culturally relevant and sustaining for the nation’s increasingly diverse student population. At this past summer’s Reimagining Education Institute chaired by Amy Stuart Wells, Professor of Sociology & Education, 300 educators and school leaders from around the country learned strategies for becoming better observers, advocates and caregivers, centering curricula around young people’s experiences and raising students’ critical awareness of how systemic racism can shape their lives.

TC faculty are also reimagining education research to better serve all students and communities. The entire June 2017 issue of the journal Urban Education responded to an approach advanced by Mariana Souto-Manning, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education, that highlights the everyday narratives through which marginalized individuals and communities make sense of their own experiences. Dr. Souto-Manning believes these communities must have a hand in shaping research focused on them in order to prevent their further marginalization. As she has put it: “We need to do away with the idea of a single story, of a curriculum, of a master narrative – as if that was the only story.” 

Beyond the Classroom

Our name notwithstanding, Teachers College was founded as a graduate school of education, health and psychology – and the power of that combination was much in evidence this past year.

Consider the work of Kimberly Noble, Associate Professor of Neuroscience & Education, who took another important step forward in her remarkable studies of how poverty affects brain development in young children. Dr. Noble has already documented a powerful association between higher family income and increased surface area of children’s brain regions implicated in language and executive functions.

Now she and her research colleagues at New York University, the University of California at Irvine and the University of Wisconsin at Madison have received more than $15 million from the National Institutes of Health and a consortium of foundations to assess whether brain size is larger in the children of new mothers who receive income supplements. Meanwhile, both Scientific American and Mother Jones have joined the list of prominent media outlets featuring Dr. Noble’s work – an encouraging sign that policymakers will not be able to ignore the implications of her findings.

New research by George Bonanno, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of TC’s Resilience Center for Veterans & Families, is proving equally compelling. Dr. Bonanno is already renowned for demonstrating that people are far more resilient to psychological trauma and loss than was previously believed. In a recent paper in Clinical Psychology Review, he and doctoral student Meaghan Mobbs, a former U.S. Army Captain, argue that the “transition stresses” that returning military veterans experience (loss of identity and purpose; the pressures of finding and holding a job) are far more prevalent than post-traumatic stress from combat, which receives much more attention. With the veteran population growing after nearly two decades of American involvement in the Middle East and Afghanistan, their paper calls for a paradigm shift in treatment, research and funding.

Global Citizenship

Teachers College launched the field of comparative and international education at the dawn of the 20th century. With the world experiencing the most massive refugee crisis since World War II, our contributions to teaching and learning around the world have perhaps never been more important.

In their recent first-ever global study of urban refugee education, Mary Mendenhall, Associate Professor of Practice, and colleagues Susan Garnett Russell, Assistant Professor of International & Comparative Education, and Elizabeth Buckner, Visiting Assistant Professor, documented the near absence of formal education for child refugees, who are now mostly concentrated in cities. Their report found that countries’ efforts to provide basic education for these children are “often thwarted by security concerns, lack of capacity to implement, and resistance from local host populations.” Dr. Mendenhall also launched “Teachers for Teachers,” an intensive professional development program for teachers in international refugee camps, who themselves are often refugees lacking any formal training. As documented in a case study presented this past fall at a symposium co-sponsored by Save the Children and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the program has since improved learning for 30,000 students in Kenya’s remote Kakuma camp. Kakuma primary school teacher Chaltu Megesha Gedo, for one, credits the program for transforming her from a “reactive” and “harsh” instructor who was quick to discipline students with a cane, to someone who engages students with smiles and is repaid with their full attention.

The Power of Knowledge

We live in highly contentious times, when too often people with opposing views simply talk past one another, learning nothing from the exchange.

At TC, we believe that scientific evidence is the most compelling basis for meaningful dialogue, even around the most divisive topics.

Sonali Rajan, Assistant Professor of Health Education, is applying just that approach to the issue of gun violence, which has been all too present in our national consciousness. Previously, Dr. Rajan has debunked the notion that mental illness is the primary cause of gun violence by youth, showing that other factors, such as having been injured in a fight or suffered sexual violence, motivate youth to carry guns. In a recent issue of the American Journal of Public Health, she and John Allegrante, Professor of Health Education, argue that further discussion of gun violence requires an understanding of its root causes. Drs. Rajan and Allegrante and their co-authors urge Congress to repeal the Dickey Amendment, which blocks essential federal funding for gun violence research.

“We live in highly contentious times, when too often people with opposing views simply talk past one another, learning nothing from the exchange.”

— Susan Fuhrman, President of Teachers College

In education circles, few issues are more hotly debated than the growth of charter schools and the charter school movement. Teachers College’s track record on charters demonstrates our commitment, above all, to academic freedom and the value of open debate. Certainly TC faculty such as Aaron Pallas, Luis Huerta and Henry Levin have called attention to charters’ lower levels of transparency, particularly under for-profit management; their potential to drain resources from traditional public schools; the danger that they will “skim” the best students from surrounding poor neighborhoods, rejecting or “counseling out” lesser performers; as well as cost-inefficiencies that can result when districts no longer centrally manage school services.

Yet at the same time, our faculty have not hesitated to identify charters’ successes and their potential for broader application. Witness recent research by Sarah Cohodes, Assistant Professor of Education & Public Policy, showing that, despite little overall difference nationwide between the academic performance of charter students and those attending traditional public schools, urban charters serving highly disadvantaged students in Massachusetts have significantly improved test scores and other indicators of academic success. Among these schools, charters with exceptionally high academic standards and stronger behavioral and disciplinary codes are making an especially powerful impact.

In a similar vein, Priscilla Wohlstetter, Distinguished Research Professor, has found that students in many mixed-income charter schools outperform traditional public school peers in English and math. Now Dr. Wohlstetter is using a $1.2 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation to study student outcomes at socioeconomically diverse-by-design charter schools in New York City, Denver and Southern California that prioritize income diversity and tailor instruction to the needs of individual students.

More broadly, our faculty are taking steps to ensure that all debates are conducted on a similarly informed footing.

For example, TC has been a major contributor to discussion of how to improve American higher education, particularly regarding access and affordability and the quality of teaching in institutions that serve lower-income students. In a recent report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (AAAS) on the future of undergraduate education, TC faculty were so prominently cited that, to paraphrase Aaron Pallas, Arthur I. Gates Professor of Sociology & Education, there would have been no footnotes without them.

Affordability has become an especially pressing concern in light of the new tax law, which has removed several student benefits, and the expected impact of the forthcoming overhaul of the Higher Education Act.

The work of TC’s Community College Research Center, led by Thomas Bailey, George & Abby O’Neill Professor of Economics & Education, was much cited in the report – particularly that of Judith Scott-Clayton, Associate Professor of Economics & Education, a leading voice in studies and advocacy around higher education access and affordability. In November, Dr. Scott-Clayton testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions about the benefits of financial aid and the excessive complexity of the aid process, which, she has shown, discourages many in need from applying for assistance. Research by Dr. Scott-Clayton has also revealed that student debt, which has surged during the past decade, is more pronounced among black students – far more than any other racial group.

In work that extends TC’s pioneering legacy in applying the scientific method to learning and assessment, Elizabeth Tipton, Associate Professor of Applied Statistics, is addressing two longstanding weaknesses in education research. First, Dr. Tipton has developed and launched a software tool called the Generalizer, which helps researchers answer the question “But will it work in my school?” – that is, whether their findings from carefully controlled research can be successfully applied to specific populations in the real world. And second, with support from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Dr. Tipton has begun work to merge the Generalizer with another tool that tells researchers how big a sample size they need to determine whether a given program or method has a truly meaningful impact. For her contributions, Dr. Tipton received prestigious 2017 Early Career Awards from the American Psychological Association and the Society for Research Synthesis Methods. Equally impressive, IES, in its annual guidance to researchers applying for grants, has for the past four years urged a greater focus on generalizability, citing Dr. Tipton’s work as a model.

Other work at TC addresses the failure of schooling itself to foster informed debate, a problem I highlighted in my Fall 2016 State of the College address. I am gratified that since then, our faculty have answered my call for Teachers College to rededicate itself to reviving and reshaping civic education. This work includes fascinating studies by Ioana Literat, Assistant Professor of Communication & Learning Technologies Design, of how youth engage online in civic participation and form political identities, particularly since the 2016 presidential election; examination by Sandra Schmidt, Associate Professor of Social Studies Education, and Professor of Education and Michelle Knight-Manuel, Professor of Education and Associate Dean, of how the growing number of West African immigrant youth in the United States are negotiating a sense of civic belonging at a time of vitriolic anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment and violence against black Americans.  And we are all watching, with great interest, a class taught by Michael Rebell, Professor of Law & Educational Practice, who also directs TC’s Center for Educational Equity, in which 16 TC and Columbia Law School students are building a case aimed at persuading the U.S. Supreme Court to establish a Constitutional right to a quality education, based on the need for young people to be prepared as engaged, capable citizens. 

EQUITY WRIT LARGE A TC professor and his students are preparing a case that could ultimately lead to a Constitutional right to a quality education.

Two other College-wide initiatives, also aimed at putting education on a stronger science-based footing and making it more widely accessible, are gaining significant traction.

This past fall, we held our inaugural student EdTech Innovation Award competition, in which 90 students divided among 16 teams developed and pitched interactive apps and other online education-related programs, mentored by TC faculty and industry experts. The grand prize was presented to “Best Fit,” an app to foster communication between potential and current first-generation college students. The contest is just one facet of TCEdTech, our broad-based effort to address the dearth of education technology products that incorporate even a modicum of expert feedback or understanding of current educational theory.  

I’m also very proud that since 2006, TC has added more than 35 new programs, courses and certificates – including many offered online or blending online and classroom teaching – in an effort to respond to a changing world in which adult learners increasingly require customized settings, time frames and content. This array of innovative online programs, offered in part through our office of Continuing Professional Studies, helps us continue to ensure that professionals can advance in their fields and better serve students, patients, clients and communities.    

All of these efforts are cutting edge – and built on proven methods. They aim for the universal, yet acknowledge diversity and the need to personalize. They aspire toward what could be, yet are firmly grounded in an understanding of what is.

These distinct TC strengths are again enabling us to rise to the challenges of our turbulent times. No single institution has all the answers; but beyond the ones we do provide, TC is modeling how to ask the right questions, collaborate in pursuit of the best possible answers and, when necessary, agree to disagree. These are the hallmarks of a thriving institution, and they give me great hope that we can help guide the world toward an equally bright future. That, in essence, is the TC Way: Having done it before, we can do it again. And I know we will.

TC Today Susan Fuhrman Signature

Susan Fuhrman (Ph.D. ’77)