Steady As She Goes
Published in TC Today - Volume 31, No. 1
"The discussion of education reform is not always a harmonious one; conflicting opinions frequently create a clamor..."
Susan Fuhrman was writing in general terms when she guest-edited an issue of the magazine Phi Delta Kappan five years ago. Yet she could easily have been describing the tensions that confronted her at the
"The senior faculty at that time couldn't meet without a mediator," Fuhrman recalled one humid afternoon this past spring in her office at Penn GSE. "I called a special meeting in July, which was unheard of, and I said, 'This is not going to be the way it is, and you can use me as an excuse or see me as a breath of fresh air, but it won't be tolerated anymore. And I don't have the time to find out all the history, because there's simply too much to do.'"
Fuhrman, whose steady, no-nonsense manner and elegant business suits are belied by a frequent, radiant smile, gave a quick shrug. "I've never heard any rumblings since. Which confirms what I thought - that people really just wanted to move forward and needed someone to help them do it."
Fuhrman, who took office on August 1 as the 10th President of Teachers College (and the first woman to hold the job), has made a career of uniting and leading high-powered but frequently contentious groups of thinkers. Whether in lifting Penn GSE into the upper echelon of nationally ranked education schools or as the founder and leader of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE), which helped birth the nation's school standards movement, Fuhrman, in the words of her friend and CPRE Co Director Allan Odden, has demonstrated "an ability to herd independent minds that is almost unique in this country."
That ability may be at least partly hereditary. Born in the
"My mother and her three sisters were all successful professionals," Fuhrman says. "One owned and managed a chain of over 50 boutiques, so I definitely had the model of a woman who was, independently, a major figure in whatever field she chose to be in."
At the same time, Fuhrman says she has gone out of her way to strike an even balance in her own marriage and family. Fuhrman became a public school teacher in order to support her husband, Robert, during his years in medical school, shelving her own dream of becoming a lawyer. Later, she worked only part-time while raising her three sons. ("I'm disappointed by the degree to which they don't remember that," she says ruefully.) She adds that she has sought to be "less of an overpowering presence" with her sons than her own mother was with her.
It may be those added qualities of self-awareness and restraint that have made Fuhrman particularly effective as a leader. "Susan is strong, but with a gentle hand," Odden says. "She's incredibly gracious with all kinds of people, from premiers to graduate students. She rallies people around a common topic, leading them there almost inductively." As a result, he says, Fuhrman is "a networker and a linker who knows everyone, including governors, legislative staff, chief state school officers and everyone who's anyone in
For those strengths, Fuhrman credits Donna Shalala, her mentor at Teachers College in the late 1970s and later U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton Administration. During Fuhrman's time at TC, Shalala - now President of the University of Miami - secured a tin shack on the roof of Russell Hall as a meeting place for a group of precocious students that included Fuhrman, Odden, Joel Sherman (now Vice President of the American Institutes for Research), Nancy Jacobson (now Head of the Criminal Justice and Evaluation Center at John Jay College) and Joan Leiman, who had already served as Budget Director for New York City Mayor John Lindsay.
"We called it the Penthouse," Fuhrman recalls with a grin. "We decorated it. I brought in curtains I was no longer using and a few rug remnants. I don't think there was a bathroom. We had lots of parties. I remember thinking that catering is part of graduate students' training - and it really is, all the events you have with and for your mentors.
She pauses. "Donna was a lot of fun, but she also was the most politically savvy person I've met - and that's with both a capital and a small 'p'. She always had strategies, whether for getting her students space or for redrafting the New York State Constitution. I learned from her to regard issues that come up in administration as having strong political aspects and how to think through competing interests and bring people on board to get a proposal through.
"The most amazing thing about her was how she involved us in her work outside the school. She consulted for legislators and policymakers who were fighting some of the early battles to increase school funding for poorer districts. We did work with the
That has also been the guiding theme of CPRE, the nation's first federally-funded education policy center and arguably the one that has done the most to set the direction for public education over the past 20 years. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published the report "A Nation at Risk," describing a "rising tide of mediocrity" in American education and highlighting the failure of
Yet for all the changes, there was no master plan and no one was tracking any of the new initiatives for success.
"When CPRE started looking at the reforms that followed 'A Nation at Risk,' we saw that they weren't having a big effect," says Fuhrman, who founded the organization in 1985 when she was teaching public policy at
"As a result, we started to think about making education policy more coherent," Fuhrman says.
The approach wasn't new. At that time,
The model had three essential components: first, content and performance standards, which spelled out what kids were expected to know at different grade levels and how well they were supposed to know it; second, alignment, which meant that, at least in theory, content and performance standards now dictated everything from what material commercial publishers included in their text books to what teachers were expected to know about a given subject and how to teach it; and third, resource allocation, which meant that states actually had to spend money on all these things to help students perform up to the new standards.
"The big shift coming from CPRE was about changing standards from the generic benchmarking that had gone on in the past to something that actually shaped what students were learning in the classroom," says Marshall (Mike) Smith, Under Secretary for Education during the Clinton Administration, who wrote some of the early CPRE papers on standards reforms.
There were several reasons why CPRE was able to drive these changes. First and foremost, it focused on real-world issues and provided states with powerful data about their own school systems. In the early 1990s, CPRE undertook the Reform Up Close study, an examination of curriculum content in 72 classrooms across six states. In 1997, it followed 4,800 students in
That kind of street credibility enabled Fuhrman, again and again, to position CPRE not only as an advisor to states, but also as their partner.
"We helped states implement changes suggested by our data, and then we evaluated those changes and suggested refinements," she says.
CPRE also focused aggressively on dissemination, holding face-to-face meetings with policymakers and yearly briefings for education groups in
CPRE also made an impact because it had friends - and members - in high places. In addition to Marshall Smith, its first Board Chair was Richard Riley, who became Smith's boss as U.S. Secretary of Education, and another Board member, Terry Peterson, became Riley's education counselor. But the organization had made important connections even before these people were named to their jobs. One evening in
"Basically, we wrote a document that said that the federal government would offer every state incentives to adopt standards-based reform," Smith says. "At that point, only about eight states had done so. By 2000, nearly all of them had either adopted the reforms or were moving toward doing so."
Ultimately, however, the movement toward standards was driven by the states themselves, not
"When I was at
Fuhrman is also an expert on intergovernmental roles in setting and implementing education policy. Along with her longtime CPRE colleague Richard Elmore of Harvard, she is also among the country's leading authorities on school accountability, which she has described as "the leitmotif of the past 20 years."
"Susan understood better than any of us how various reforms would play out in different states and, more importantly, she understood that states should, in fact, be the locus for accountability," Smith says.
Fuhrman is mixed in her assessment of the standards movement's impact after 20 years, noting that - particularly with the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act - it has gone in some directions its founders never anticipated. But she does credit it with helping to level the playing field for poor and minority students.
"The whole idea of alignment with standards made possible the educational adequacy lawsuits that we're seeing now around the country," Smith says. "Prior to the '90s, courts often threw out arguments for more funds because, they said, you can't really know what resources are needed for students to do well when you haven't specified what -'doing well' really means." Now, with 'doing well' clearly codified, the costs of getting there could be estimated. And states that didn't provide the money could be charged with violating the guarantee (typically written into their own constitutions) to provide students with a quality education.
Meanwhile, Fuhrman has increasingly turned her own attention, and that of CPRE, toward the classroom and what teachers and students actually do there. CPRE researchers are currently at work on the Study of Instructional Improvement - possibly the largest long-term study ever done on teaching practices in elementary schools. Recently, CPRE also obtained a multi-year grant from the Hewlett Foundation to study formative assessment - that is, how teachers use data about student performance to change their own practices.
"Over time, we've realized that policy mainly results in structural change and can take you only so far," Fuhrman says. "Much of what happens in the classroom is beyond policy's reach. Instruction is what makes it all happen and policy can only support that."
SADIE'S HER LADY
If CPRE has been Susan Fuhrman's theater for research, the
So does the performance of its students. This year, coming from an area with one of the nation's highest dropout rates, three-quarters of the school's graduating eighth-grade class have been admitted to the city's selective high schools. Penn-Alexander students' test scores are also among the highest in
It was Fuhrman who brought all the players together to make the school happen, and she has since ensured the University's full and ongoing participation.
"Originally, there was talk of creating a private school for children of Penn faculty, but that would have been a disaster," she says. "We did a lot of consultation with the community, which felt, with good reason, that the University had not been a very good neighbor over the years, and we decided instead to create a public school that would also be a professional development center for other schools in the neighborhood. Now Penn GSE gets involved in the school's curriculum planning, in strategizing with the principal and in doing professional development for their teachers. And it's not just us - the whole University is involved. The music department does music, the athletic department does athletics, the computer center does the computer club. And there's direct oversight from University trustees. It's an extraordinary school. It always wins the science fair. It's even won some of the Penn relays."
The University's presence is even felt at graduation. Last year, Judy Rodin, who was then President of Penn, spoke to the departing eighth graders and their families, proclaiming, "Sadie is our lady."
"Everyone cried," Fuhrman says.
Under an arrangement put in place when the state took over the
Anyone searching for clues about Fuhrman's agenda for TC can safely look to her work in
"No university in the 21st century has an ivory-tower privilege," she says. "I'd like to see TC become a much bigger presence in
What TC must offer, Fuhrman believes, is research providing schools with needed and usable information.
"TC and all education schools need to focus research questions in the field and be less driven entirely by our own desires," she says. "There's a book called Pasteur's Quadrant by Donald Stokes, and he argues that old distinctions between applied and basic research are outdated. He calls for use - or problem - inspired research, like Pasteur did with bacteria and milk." And that, Fuhrman says, means that education schools must adopt a greater rigor about research design.
"I see virtue in all evaluative methods. In fact, most questions require mixed methods. But what we're looking for is rigor and that flows from design. We don't teach that enough in education schools and we should. Students say, 'I want to do an ethnography of a high school.' Well, that's not a research question. What do you want to know about that high school? Why is ethnography the way to get answers? It's how a question gets framed that should determine the methodologies brought to bear."
Look for the new President to bring a similar real-world focus to TC's academic offerings. Witness her introduction at Penn GSE of two M.B.A. - style doctoral programs in educational leadership - one targeted to K-12 principals and superintendents and the other to leaders of colleges and universities. "Our courses must always answer genuine needs of the field," Fuhrman says.
If the past is any indication, that kind of clear-eyed pragmatism bodes well for Fuhrman's presidency.
"Research is Susan's mechanism for getting people to collaborate," says John Puckett, a Penn GSE faculty member who served as Fuhrman's Associate Dean for six years. "She doesn't grind an ideological axe; she's all about what works. That's how she brings people together from different camps."
TC isn't the
There were formal greetings and then Fuhrman began to speak. She talked about TC and its legacy of great thinkers - Maxine Greene, John Dewey, Edmund Gordon, Lawrence Cremin. She talked about the power of ideas to change the world. Most of all, she talked about supporting faculty in their work and engaging with policymakers and practitioners "to ensure that we not only build knowledge, but put it to use."
None of it was earth-shattering or unexpected. But when she finished, to warm applause, there was a palpable sense that the College was in good hands; its work would continue. The new president had arrived.