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Summer 2012 Letter from President Fuhrman

Dear Alumni and Friends,

At our convocation ceremonies in May, I called upon our graduates to become the “inventors of tomorrow” --- a phrase that captures the entrepreneurial energy and spirit of Teachers College at a time when our faculty, students, and alumni are breaking new ground in shaping what I call “the Century of the Learner.”

In learning and instruction, groundbreaking research in cognitive neuroscience is extending our understanding of learning itself. Professor Karen Froud, Director of TC’s Neurocognition of Language Lab, is carrying out brain imaging studies of children with speech disorders, adults who are learning to read, and people who speak multiple languages. Karen’s team has done studies that suggest that the brain processes some dialects, commonly thought of as “variations” on a mother tongue, as distinct languages. That finding could help in developing new educational approaches for children who speak one way at home and another in school, including native speakers of Vernacular Arabic or African American Vernacular English. (You can view highlights from the fascinating demonstration that Karen gave at last month’s Provost Series talk on “the Neuroscience of Language and Learning.”)

Nowadays, such findings make their way much more rapidly from the behavioral sciences world at TC to the teaching side of the house. For example, our preservice teaching students can now take “The Development of Mathematical Thinking,” a course taught by Herbert Ginsburg, Jacob Schiff Foundation Professor of Psychology and Education.   

At the same time, technology has emerged as one of the most promising venues for translating our new understanding of learning into classroom success – and TC is positioned to play a much larger role. In April, at our fourth annual Academic Festival, which was devoted to the theme of Rewiring the Learning Landscape,” alumni such as Matthew Pittinsky, the founder of the pioneering distance learning company Blackboard Inc., offered a sneak preview of a new world in which teachers will be using powerful new tools both to monitor each student’s grasp of concepts and content and to tailor their teaching strategies accordingly. The festival’s keynote speaker, the brilliant Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, described a new global landscape in which internet access and cheap cell phones are creating “a Wikipedia of sustainable development” in some of the world’s poorest and most remote regions.

A second major area of work at the College centers on enhancing learning by strengthening families and communities. In June we marked the “graduation” of the inaugural kindergarten class of the new preK-8 Teachers College Community School (TCCS), which will move in September to its permanent home at the renovated former site of the St. Joseph Elementary School at 168 Morningside Avenue in Harlem. TCCS is unique in several ways. It is the only current model of a University-assisted public elementary school in New York. It represents an innovative new approach to integrating best practices in learning, teaching, and academic enrichment with quality health and social “wraparound” services. Its classrooms are fully integrated, representing the racial and socio-economic diversity of Harlem and Morningside Heights. And it is the centerpiece of the College’s school partnerships consortium, which will extend across Harlem and improve instruction and student achievement in STEM subjects.

More and more, Teachers College is becoming the partner of choice for communities, organizations, and governments seeking to put big ideas in education, psychology, and health to work. For example:

Under a three-year, $5 million USAID-funded project, Teachers College faculty and students, led by Education Professor Gita Steiner-Khamsi, are collaborating with Pakistani education officials and provincial leaders in order to professionalize Pakistan’s teachers and significantly upgrade the quality of education in the nation’s primary and secondary schools.

In February, the College and Singapore’s National Institute of Education established a joint Master of Arts degree program in Leadership and Educational Change that will prepare a new generation of educational leaders for the Asia-Pacific region and the larger international community.

TC faculty and students are involved throughout the world in a variety of collaborative endeavors where they are positioned to have the greatest impact: We’re partnering to promote sustainable development and peace in Haiti; we are engaged in an ambitious project to address swallowing disorders in Greece; we are collaborating with the Polish American Freedom Foundation to bring libraries to underserved regions in Poland; and we have myriad projects with our friends in Thailand for improving math and science instruction throughout the country.

Putting big ideas to work and bringing the best ideas that work to scale are strategic imperatives at TC. That is why we are boosting our efforts to provide leaders and policymakers with the best analyses of pressing challenges in education, health and psychology.

This year, we took those efforts to a new level with the launch of a new academic department, Education Policy and Social Analysis (EPSA), which has united our stellar faculty with policy expertise. At the formal launch of EPSA in February, a panel of visiting experts traced the powerful impact of federal policymaking on a national school system that is commonly portrayed as decentralized and largely state-controlled.

Meanwhile, individual TC faculty members have made major contributions to policy debates in recent months.

In the health arena, the Journal of School Health devoted an entire special issue to a group of papers authored by Charles Basch, TC’s Richard March Hoe Professor of Health Education, who demonstrates how issues ranging from teen pregnancy and violence to obesity and inadequate nutrition are disproportionately impeding the academic performance of the nation’s urban minority youth. In the concluding article in the issue, Professor Basch sketched a vision for overcoming the national achievement gap through a coordinated effort by schools, federal health agencies, community organizations, parents and other key stakeholders to improve children’s health.

And in March, more than 200 leading experts from around the world gathered at TC to discuss issues of validity and fairness in assessment and standardized testing. Co-sponsored by TC’s Assessment and Evaluation Research Initiative (AERI) and the Educational Testing Service, the event underscored the need for test developers, policymakers and school leaders to work in concert.

While these accomplishments represent only a fraction of our work at Teachers College, certain moments capture the essence of our mission and purpose. Take Convocation, when U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter spoke about a remarkable young man named Stephen Numme, who, with the support of his mother and wife, was receiving his TC master’s degree in elementary preservice education.  Stephen survived growing up amid gangs, drugs and schools in which he was shunted into special education classes. Today, he is teaching English in the New York City school system, and is planning to research the racial politics of special education designations. He hopes one day to found or lead a school.

People like Stephen “give the lie to the myth that poverty is destiny,” Under Secretary Kanter said.

To which I would add: And they point the way toward the future we are trying to invent. Indeed, as we prepare to launch the 125th Anniversary of the founding of Teachers College, I am reminded of TC’s legacy in pioneering the future of teaching and learning. Next year, our calendar will be packed with events that commemorate one of the greatest stories ever told in graduate education: How Teachers College played a leading role -- first in educating generations of New Yorkers, and then in shaping the future of education and the development of related fields of psychology and health in America and throughout the world.

The 125th anniversary celebration will be an opportunity for us to generate excitement about TC around New York City, to strengthen our global brand, and to look forward to a leading role that TC will play in shaping the Century of the Learner.

As important, the 125th anniversary will also be an opportunity for all of our alumni to reweave if not strengthen their connections to our alma mater.

Wishing you an enjoyable summer and a glorious 125th for us all!

Warm regards,

Susan Fuhrman

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