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The State of the College: It's the Year of Research at TC

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TC’s President says there has never been a more opportune moment to focus on evidence-based solutions in education writ large 

The 2010-11 school year will be TC’s “Year of Research” – a time when the College will take significant steps forward in its quest to rethink and reinvent education across the human lifespan.

That effort will include supporting research at all stages of development, across disciplines and involving students as well as faculty, TC President Susan Fuhrman said in her annual State of the College address on October 20.

Speaking to an audience of faculty, staff and students in the Cowin Conference Center, Fuhrman pronounced the College “healthy; financially stable, if not wealthy; and, above all, wise,” as it approaches its 125th anniversary in 2012.

Despite the volatile economic climate, TC began the school year in solid financial shape and with its largest-ever entering class in the post-war era – both of which position the College to expand its quest for research-based solutions to the many pressing problems in education, psychology and health, Fuhrman said.

With federal and state policymakers, pundits and politicians issuing competing strategies for reform, recent documentary films sparking heated debate, and the growing spate of front-page and prime time media coverage of education, both the need and opportunity for such solutions has never been greater, Fuhrman said.

“Alarmist rhetoric, based on distortions and misunderstandings, has fueled a mad rush for the ever-elusive silver bullet. I am here to tell you there are no silver bullets in education or any other complex area of life. At a time when education is a most hotly debated issue, Teachers College remains the go-to place for evidence [and] for research-based solutions. When TC faculty talk, educators, scholars, journalists, policymakers and public officials listen.”

This year the College will focus on and promote research in four ways, Fuhrman said, beginning with an emphasis on “seeding novel and important scholarship.”

The Provost’s Investment Fund gives start-up funds to interdisciplinary research which can lead to more and larger studies. For example, the fund seeded a study by faculty members Luis Huerta, Thomas Hatch, Jeffrey Henig and Douglas Ready, which asked the question, what role do school choice, school leadership and school capacity have in educational outcomes.

“From the initial seed funding came more promising questions, and each of the faculty members involved has gone on to secure more funding to study these important issues,” Fuhrman said.

Other projects seeded by the Provost’s Investment Fund include:

•    A study by Margaret Crocco (social studies), David Hansen (philosophy) and Hal Abeles and Lori Custodero (music) of creativity as the essential component of the advancement of knowledge in all areas. The effort will result in a symposium on creativity, imagination and innovation in education.
•    A study Ruth Vinz and Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz is measuring the effectiveness of TC’s English education program in preparing and supporting English teachers. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others have asserted that ineffective teachers should be given assistance or removed if they can’t improve.
•    An effort by Maria Torres-Guzman, Olga Hubard and Patricia Velazco to document effective, non-verbal strategies, including images and metaphors, that teachers use to promote dual-language literacy. The dual-language learner population is growing rapidly in United States classrooms.

Fuhrman also discussed TC research that has reached the stage of making a larger-scale impact – including work by Sharon Lynn Kagan and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, co-founders of the National Center for Children and Families.

A recent book edited by Kagan and Graduate Fellow Kate Tarrant and funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation brings together some of the field’s best thinking on early childhood transitions from leading researchers and practitioners around the world. Both the book and an accompanying Web-based compendium of transition programs around the world aim to establish a broader vision of continuity for young children and their families, from early childhood care into the school years.

This past summer, Brooks-Gunn and colleagues from the Columbia University School of Social Work published a widely reported study that asked whether children are any worse off if, during the first year of their lives, their mothers work outside the home.

“Not only is the answer basically no—children don’t fare worse if their mothers go out to work—but the authors also found some distinct upsides,” Fuhrman said. Family income increases when new moms work and so does the likelihood that children will receive high-quality daycare. “This is great news for the 80 percent of mothers who do work during the first years of their children’s lives, and for all of us, given the role women now occupy in the workforce.”

Fuhrman also noted the work of the  Community College Research Center. The Center’s Senior Research Associate, Elisabeth Barnett, found in a recent study that dual-enrollment programs, which allow high school students to begin college studies at community colleges, can help ease the transition to higher education.

TC faculty also are doing ground-breaking research on charter schools,  public schools that receive private funding and are managed outside the rules and regulations of public school districts.

“Charter schools are all the rage,” Fuhrman said, even though the vast majority of these institutions – which currently educate only 3 to 5 percent of American public school students – are unsuccessful. Charters are portrayed favorably in the recent films “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery,” and they have captured the imaginations of private philanthropists and Washington policymakers alike, from Oprah to Arne Duncan. States applying for Race to the Top federal money were required to lift caps on the number of charter schools that could be established in their districts.

“You’d think that charter schools were the last, best and only hope for saving education in America,” Fuhrman said, “but we know that the real story is much more complicated, as our faculty are demonstrating in their research.” The premise behind charter schools is that if they are allowed to operate outside the constraints of regulations and union contracts, they can deliver better education. But the link between freedom from regulation and better teaching and learning has not been demonstrated, Fuhrman said, adding that “a more reliable assessment of the charter school experiment requires a combination of disciplines that only TC can bring.

A book coauthored by Professors Henig and Henry Levin, together with a researcher at another institution, questions the value of “portfolio schools” -- clusters of independent schools that operate in close proximity, such as in post-hurricane New Orleans. The jury is out on whether portfolio districts are improving educational outcomes– but they are clearly resulting in costly redundancies of services. In his study of New Orleans, where charters have almost entirely replaced traditional public schools, Levin noted 17 school buses, serving different schools, crisscrossing a single street corner.

And other research by Huerta has found that charter schools sometimes end up with less entrepreneurial freedom than traditional schools because the foundations that often fund them can “end up being much more demanding than many districts have ever been,” Fuhrman said.

Fuhrman also proudly noted that research at the College has been increasingly interdisciplinary, as TC has encouraged collaboration across departments and with outside institutions. In one effort, Lucy Calkins, Director of TC’s Reading & Writing Program, has teamed up with Thomas Corcoran, Co-Director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, to bring non-fiction writing to schools in high-poverty areas.

Other collaborative work at TC includes:

•    Efforts by Deanna Kuhn, Professor of Psychology and Education, and Nancy Streim, Director of the Office of School and Community Partnerships, to test Kuhn’s inquiry and argumentation program in four New York City schools;
•    A study by Charles Basch, Professor of Health Education, in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education, Columbia University and the Girls and Boys Clubs of Harlem, to evaluate the academic impact of evidence-based health innovations in low-performing New York City public schools;
•    Work by Associate Professor Carolyn Riehl and Krista Dunbar, Director of the Cahn Fellowship Program, with the University of Massachusetts, to develop an evidence-based leadership development program for school principals;
•    A working group on global citizenship, led by David Hansen, Professor of Philosophy and Education, that includes faculty from five departments and the Office of International Affairs;
•    Collaboration among faculty across all departments in the planning of TC’s new public school, which is expected to open next fall.

The College also is taking a number of steps to make it easier for faculty to identify and develop funding proposals for research, and to include students in the process.

“Research is an essential path to supporting students, and we have to think of it that way,” she said.

Ultimately, “the Year of Research” at TC will be a year in name only. Research will also be a major focus of the College’s soon-to-be launched capital campaign, Fuhrman said.  

“When our 250th birthday rolls around in 2137, I want an eminent historian to describe how Teachers College rethought and reinvented education across the lifespan in ways that Russell, Thorndike and Dewey never could have imagined,” Fuhrman concluded. “Our efforts will ensure that future presidents of Teachers College, the United States, and major countries around the world continue to see TC as the go-to place for things, but for things that we haven’t even dreamed of.”

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