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

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Excellence is the Best Policy

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Sharon Lynn Kagan

Sharon Lynn Kagan –- TC’s first Associate Dean for Policy and Director of the Teachers College’s Office of Policy and Research –- discusses her vision of TC as an education policy and research mecca.

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Inside: Why an office of policy and research at TC?

Kagan: I was not part of the office's formation, but I believe it grew out of two concerns. First, that while we we're producing very solid research at our institution, the research was neither sufficiently acknowledged nor recognized nationally. And second, we have a large cadre of faculty and students interested in policy-including a number of the nation's top policy scholars-yet policy and policy instruction at Teachers College are highly confused and disorganized. Beyond addressing these internal concerns, the office's ultimate goal is to enhance and improve American education through production and application of the highest-quality research.

Inside: A report by your office about the state of policy work at TC quotes faculty members who say that making the College into a true policy mecca would require a change in culture, or "zeitgeist," as one person put it. Do you agree?

Kagan: Teachers College is, of all the institutions I've ever been affiliated with, one that is so policy rich. We have not only an intellectual history, but also a policy capacity across an array of domains that are critically important to the full development of children, students and a healthy society. So to say that we've never had a policy emphasis, or that we must do a complete revamp, is wrong. What we are trying to do is organize and spotlight some of the very good policy work and research already going on in the institution. We are thinking very hard about creating rewards and incentives for people to make their research more policy-relevant, so it is really used. I think many of our faculty are interested in having their research make a difference in the lives of students and families. The office must help them make that happen.

Inside: The report also notes a fundamental lack of consensus over what's meant by "policy" and "policy research." What are your definitions? Kagan: The lack of consensus on those definitions isn't limited to Teachers College. It's a characteristic of the entire field. I define policy as those actions taken by individuals or bodies in the form of legislation, judicial rulings, regulation and executive order that improve the social circumstances-in our case, the learning and life conditions-for children, students, faculty, administrators and families.

Inside: The report makes numerous recommendations for both the short- and long-term. What are your top priorities?

Kagan: In the near term, we are very interested in providing mentoring and/or research support to our faculty, in particular our junior-level faculty. We also are very interested in having our institution become more grants-aggressive, so that faculty can do the kind of research they really want to do. Short-term, on the policy side, we are very interested in taking all of these rich jewels and combining them into a coherent policy agenda for our institution. It is really critical, when students ask faculty, "What policy offerings do you have?" that faculty know how to guide them, or at least point them to a Web site. Right now, it's not clear in many people's minds how they would begin to answer that question. Ultimately, when students leave TC with "policy" as a concentration or the words "policy" and "TC" on their CV, I want it to mean something across a codified body of study.

Inside: The report also looks at other institutions, some of which have a policy major, and some of which deal with policy in the context of different subject areas. Is there an important difference between the two approaches?

Kagan: There are very deep philosophies about whether policy should be understood as a separate domain of inquiry, or whether, to be an effective policymaker, you should master a content domain and then treat policy as an overlay. My own career would actually be an example of the latter. I am recognized for my work in early childhood, the transition to early schooling and educational equity issues. Policy became an overlay for me, a means to achieve social change. At Teachers College, we are blessed, because you can do "policy" any way you want. You can take, as an introduction, an array of terrific policy courses that can be incorporated into an individual's curriculum at the masters or doctoral level as electives. There is also a policy-wide concentration, which means you can take a set of courses that will equip you to go forward with an understanding of policy. And still a third set of options, called policy programs, goes into policy study in much more detail. In some cases, these are linked with a substantive domain of inquiry like early childhood or international studies; in others, they are focused on political theory. So we already have these options for our students, and the goal is to make sense of them and make them accessible.

Inside: Among the top-ranked policy schools you compared, eight are part of various consortia. How do you see TC fitting into something like that?

Kagan: My goal is to elevate our position in that ranking. That's going to require us to strengthen what we offer internally and, as I've said, improve students' understanding of how it's being provided. It's also going to require us to increase our external visibility-to educate the world more about what we're doing-and to create a whole host of new linkages with other schools, within and outside of Columbia, and with other organizations known for affecting public policy. Examples might include the National Governor's Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Education Commission for the States.

Inside: Is there a model, among the other policy-focused education schools, that comes closest to what you envision for Teachers College?

Kagan: None are as strong or have the potential that TC does. Again, that's partly because we provide options for students rather than a single program. Every student who comes to Teachers College could have a significant exposure to policy without being a policy concentrator or a policy major. Another of our strengths is that we have a fabulous set of policy faculty across a truly diverse range of areas. If you map our policy faculty onto the policy faculty at any of our competing institutions, we come out heads and shoulders above them. So we genuinely have the capacity to be American education's policy mecca. My goal, and that of [TC Professor of Sociology and Education] Amy Stuart Wells, who is taking a real leadership role in the office's policy efforts, is for it to be a no-brainer that TC is the policy mecca. We can do this-we really can!

Inside: To get there, will it really be enough to simply better organize and publicize our offerings? Or must we make major changes such as creating a policy department or arriving at a core curriculum?

Kagan: I see the work of my office as being a very long-term enterprise for this institution. I believe that we will make substantial changes, but it can't happen all at once. So if you ask me what a 20-year vision would be for the institution, it would be quite different from what a two-year vision would be. And I do believe that we have tremendous potential within the structure that currently exists. Down the road, might we elect to alter that structure? Of course. But I don't think that to achieve mecca status it is necessary for us to do that.

Inside: What are some cultural changes you'd like to see us make?

Kagan: Beyond improving support for faculty grant-getting and improving students' understanding of policy-related offerings, I would like to see a much stronger commitment to, and understanding of, the realities of policy that are affecting New York City schools and schools in New York State. We need to do a better job of addressing policies related to teacher education, and of keeping our students abreast of the current policy and research realities so they understand the impact on their own careers. That means that we ourselves need to keep current and to be unafraid, in our teaching and research, to address tough issues. Because the American educational enterprise is the most complex educational system on the planet-it mirrors the democratic society we live in-and we need to understand it at many levels. We must also accord a higher priority to chronicling and publicizing the high-quality research we've got going on at the institution.

Inside:Who should our primary audience be?

Kagan: As an academic institution, our obligation is to produce the highest quality research we possibly can, because you can't have policy without good research. But it's also our job to ensure that our findings are made transparent to all of the players who are influencing and determining policy. That includes legislators, the media, others in academia and the general public. In some cases, the mediators, or translators, could be members of our own faculty. In other cases, we may need to work through "interpreters"-whether it's the press or public television, or people we hire to brief congressmen and legislators. Not everyone can play the role of intermediary. It requires special training, knowledge and skills.

Inside: Can you see Teachers College having a Washington office?

Kagan: I would love to see TC having a much stronger Washington presence-and an Albany presence, and a New York City presence. Whether that takes the form of a physical entity needs to be worked out, but the people who are making decisions must know to turn to TC scholars first.

Inside: What's the relationship between your office and TC's new focus on educational equity?

Kagan: The educational equity agenda has the power to be a unifying force, and I would hope it could be a major theme around which we link. Our office can add particular value in supporting the work of faculty who approach school reform and educational equity from a broader context. For example, there are important lessons we are learning about single parents, community health and mental health conditions that bear very meaningfully on educational legislation-as do learnings by other faculty about welfare reform, housing and all sorts of other policy areas. So I hope to give voice to the tremendous amount of research happening at TC in health, the behavioral sciences and the social sciences, and to highlight and strengthen the links to issues of educational equity.

Inside: If you had to pick three issues on which you would like to see Teachers College exert a greater policy impact, what would they be?

Kagan: It's hard to limit it to three, but I'll try. I do think that we need to be doing more around understanding policy related to teacher education and teacher quality. That's what this institution is all about, and we need to shape our work, and motivate our scholars and our students, to exert a systemic impact on teacher quality. Second, given the rise and the importance of the assessment and accountability movement and its importance to American education, we need to be advancing scholarship in that area, particularly related to English language learners and children with disabilities. I think we give a lot of voice to that, but I don't think I've really seen strategic agendas on how to influence that. And third-actually, I've got two in a tie. One would be providing advice and guidance around curricular and pedagogical issues-what is taught, and how it is taught. As a teacher education institution, we should be out there front and center on that. And the other one relates to the fact that children don't come to school as a tabula rasa, but instead, as representatives of their families, their communities, and the social contexts in which they grow and live. So we've got to be committed to improving understanding of those contexts so that we can better tailor education to accommodate the differences that children bring to school.

Inside: Should TC go so far as to publicly advocate various policies?

Kagan: My read is that it's not in Teachers College's best interest to take institutional policy stances on particular pieces of legislation. That may be the right and responsibility of individual faculty members. My own experience, however, is that your credibility as a researcher gets very badly discounted if you make very big forays into partisan politics. So I've done as much consulting work with Republicans as I have with Democrats. I have always said that my politics is children, and that I'm going to give you a straight story on what the data say.

Inside: To focus more on policy, does TC need to attract a different kind of student? That is, aren't we currently drawing primarily pre-service and in-service teachers who want to learn or hone their craft? And wouldn't a different kind of student be drawn to a policy mecca?

Kagan: To me, our current student body is a vast resource of individuals who are fiercely dedicated to improving education. They're great! So our collective obligation is to make sure their professional lives count. And we can do that by helping improve their practice, by improving their understandings of policy and the policy process, and by improving research. Each day, as I look at my students, I think, "Here sits today's practitioner, tomorrow's researcher, tomorrow's policy analyst, tomorrow's congressperson or tomorrow's governor-who knows?" We must look at our students for all that potential. Students may come in as teachers with the goal of improving their practice, and they may walk out wanting to be something quite different. That was my own case. I came to TC as a Head Start director and elementary school principal wanting to improve my practice, and I walked out as an academic researcher/policymaker. The magic of TC is that it is so transformational.

Inside: You mentioned your longer-term vision for TC. What should we look like in 20 years?

Kagan: I'll answer by describing what I hope America's education system will look like. Twenty years from now, we must have far greater equity in our public education system. We must have far more excellence, across the full spectrum of students and schools. We must have education delivery systems that work entirely differently from those of today-virtual learning, home schooling, apprentice learning. And what students learn must not only have practical utility, but also enable them to lead very full and rich lives in whatever domains they choose. We must educate children for life in a very diverse society and diverse world, teaching them how to make choices and how to understand, early on, the consequences of those choices. And we must educate with the goal of creating individual excellence rather than a society of look-a likes, so that American education produces real genius across a wide array of disciplines. Excellence must trump mediocrity, and Teachers College must be at the forefront of making that happen.

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