2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
Teachers College Columbia University

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Studying School Chemistry

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CLIMATOLOGIST

Perkins used epidemiological techniques to study school environments

As a toxicologist, Brian K. Perkins (Ed.D., ’97) predicted health outcomes based on sophisticated mathematical algorithms developed by actuarial scientists. • Today, he’s putting those quantitative skills to use as an education researcher and faculty member in Teachers College’s Department of Organization and Leadership. • “In medicine, epidemiology is like a detective science—you see what’s occurred and try to figure out what has caused it,” says Perkins. “So at TC, we say, ‘We have our educational system, now let’s figure out what’s wrong and see how to change it.’” • Since 2006, Perkins—sponsored by the Council on Urban School Boards at the National School Boards Association—has conducted several groundbreaking studies on school climate in city districts across the nation. His first study, “Where We Learn,” surveyed 32,000 students from 129 schools on issues that ranged from bullying and parent involvement to racial attitudes and school safety. • In 2007, in his study, “Where We Teach,” he surveyed 5,100 teachers and administrators on similar issues. A year later, after Perkins had arrived at Teachers College, he surveyed 10,000 urban parents for a third study, “What We Think.” • This fall, Perkins plans to survey 100,000 children, 20,000 teachers, 20,000 parents and 1,000 administrators to delve deeper into these stakeholders’ views and expectations about school climate. • What people think and expect about school can have an impact on what happens there, says Perkins, who has also done school studies in South Africa. • “People come expecting things, based on what they’ve heard and what they’ve been conditioned to think,” he says. • How did a toxicologist become an education researcher? As a public health student at Yale, Perkins worked with James Comer, one of the nation’s leading child psychiatrists (and currently a Teachers College Trustee). Perkins, who had earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Grambling State University, turned to education after Comer asked him to develop research criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of an educational program. • Comer wanted someone outside the educational field to design the evaluation protocols. • “I remember talking to Dr. Comer and realizing that all my training in chemistry and toxicology were very valuable to me in education because I could see the systemic nature in social organizations,” Perkins says. “Everything in chemistry and toxicology is about systems, so I posed questions that appeared to be ordinary location questions to me, but were atypical of the way people then had been trained in education.” • His decision to delve into education issues changed his life. He went on earn his doctorate at Teachers College and join the faculty at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, where he served as Chair of its Department of Education Leadership and Policy Studies. He later served as President of the New Haven Board of Education and was National Chair of the Council of Urban School Boards (CUBE) at the National School Boards Association. • “Brian understands the importance of a developmental perspective to any real school reform,” says Comer. “In other words, that school leaders must create an environment that fosters the biological, social, emotional and moral development of children, and that enables adults to acquire the skills and understanding to make that happen.” • One conclusion Perkins has drawn from his consulting work: even the smallest nuances of school climate can affect children in profound ways. The ornate school architecture of the early and mid-20th century may have made inefficient use of space, but unlike today’s sterile buildings, it sent a message to children that they—and more broadly, the educational enterprise itself—mattered. At the same time, Perkins says, it’s important for educators to recognize the cultural norms of the children they are teaching—particularly children from disadvantaged circumstances. • “Dr. Comer once said that in order for children in the inner city to be successful, they have to look and act different from anyone who’s ever cared for them,” says Perkins, an African American whose parents were high school graduates. “In other words, they go to school and get told, ‘Don’t talk like that’ or ‘don’t dress like that’—but ‘that’s how Grandma talks and she loves me!’ Or, ‘That’s how everyone in my neighborhood dresses.’ • “So we have to deal with that. We’re deconstructing children at the same time we’re constructing them as new citizens.” • Perkins’ major studies can be accessed at www.nsba.org. previous page