The Next Big Thing
At a meeting of Teachers College's Board of Trustees this past October, Board co-chair Jack Hyland was discussing the school's new focus on "educational equity"- the goal of eliminating the gap in classroom achievement between advantaged students and those from poor and primarily non-white backgrounds.
"We believe this institutional focus will transform the College," Hyland said.
It seemed a fair statement. After all, the achievement gap is at the center of virtually every meaningful debate about education and America's public schools. TC's President, Arthur Levine, has called it "the biggest problem our nation faces-the equivalent of cancer or AIDS in health." Thus TC's "equity initiative"-approved by the Trustees in early 2004 as part of a comprehensive strategic plan for the next 10 years-calls for the College to establish a research think-tank, a Report Card that will grade each of the 50 states on their performance in "closing the gap," an annual symposium that convenes the best minds in the field, and demonstration projects in Harlem and other under-served areas of New York City.
Still, at Hyland's words, several people straightened in their chairs.
"Won't this turn us into an advocacy organization?" someone asked. "Are we really going to start taking political stands?"
Trustee Jan Krukowski spoke up. "Would anyone second-guess a law school for being all about creating a more just society? Are there many medical schools around where they wouldn't have a strong position on stem-cell research? We're a school of education. This is what we should be doing."
Someone else stated, "It's a great mission, but we have a lot of constituencies here-people who look to us for a lot of different things."
"I think we're talking about a gradual transformation," Hyland said. "A guided evolution."
Levine leaned forward. "Actually, I'd go further than that. Education schools, of all professional schools, have been the most removed from practice and policy. We've been ivory towers. So this is about changing to become leaders in effecting policy. We want to be able to say," Look, better practices and policies exist because of our efforts. TC faculty and staff are leading a campaign to improve conditions. And TC, as an institution, is exerting leadership on this issue.'"
Afterward, Levine-far from perturbed-called the discussion "a sign of how far we've come. We have people on our Board who care. Over the past decade, we have done the changing and the planning to get here, and now we're strong enough to be talking about how to focus our energies around one of the most important issues of our time. As an institution, we're at a truly enviable moment in our history."
The Journey Thus Far
To understand just how enviable, consider what TC looked like when Levine arrived 10 years ago. The College was in a state of physical disrepair, its finances were in disorder and its endowment trailed that of peer institutions, and there was a lack of clear academic focus, as well as a sense that the school was, to a certain degree, riding on its reputation.
Levine divides the changes since then into three phases:
Phase One included redesigning the school's academic departments, bringing nationally distinguished scholars and practitioners into the faculty, reducing doctoral admissions and increasing master's enrollment, introducing more rigorous financial controls, balancing budgets, improving college services, eliminating accumulated deficit, building a development program, enhancing the visibility of TC, increasing the College's impact on public policy and practice, and refurbishing the physical plant.
During Phase Two, the College expanded its presence throughout New York City and the world, concluded a massive Capital Campaign, and-reversing decades of deferred maintenance-made major renovations to its campus.
Phase Three, initiated during the past two years, is about strategic planning for the future-adopting a clear mission (the equity initiative), investing in key priorities, eliminating what's unnecessary, effecting policy and influencing public debate.
Those are dramatic improvements, and some have come about in dramatic moments - such as the day Levine stood on line with students registering for courses and vowed, after a wait of some hours, that no one would suffer through the experience again.
But for the most part, change has come through hard work and perseverance.
"If you never saw this place in the old days, you have no idea," says Fred Schnur, Vice President for Finance and Ad-ministration. "When I came in '95 from the University of New Hampshire, which was a beautiful rural campus that was constantly being worked on, a colleague there said, 'You're going to the dungeon.' And it actually was like that here-dark, damp and dripping water."
Since then, the College has replaced every roof and window in the academic facility; renovated Milbank Chapel and created the beautiful new Gottesman Libraries; opened a new residence hall and begun to refurbish the common areas of the Whittier and Bancroft residences, each of which is more than 80 years old; upgraded faculty apartments as they've become available; created 21 new staff offices; rehabbed and refurbished the student lounge and opened a coffee bar in Main Hall; made the front entrance handicap-accessible; and rehabbed the Grace Dodge Room for meetings and faculty functions. During the coming months, work will begin on building a major new meetings facility in Horace Mann.
Meanwhile, Schnur and his team have established fiscal order. As of 1994, the College had recorded budget deficits in seven of the previous 10 years and had more than $4 million in accumulated deficit. From that point on, the school began tracking real spending by all departments versus budget in order to catch problems early on during the year. Audits of financial statements are now completed within two months after year's end and faculty members receive timely reports on their grants. By 2000, the accumulated deficit had been eradicated-ahead of schedule. As a result, budgets for the past 11 years have been balanced, with surpluses in every year. Recently, the school's credit rating was upgraded by Moody's Investors Service from an A-3 to an A-1 ranking. "That's a leap that few institutions make," Schnur says. "It's confirmation that we've come a very long way."
The effort to bring greater clarity to the College's academic offerings has been equally painstaking. In 1994, TC had five divisions and 19 departments, encompassing over 60 areas of study.
"We've always had great people teaching here, but 10 years ago, there was literally no rhyme or reason for how we were organized in some areas, or for why some of the programs were located within a school of education," Levine recalls. "During my first few months on the job, I met with every single faculty member in the College to learn how all the pieces did-or didn't-fit together. At the end of that process I came back to them with a tub of notes on yellow legal pads, and I said, this is what you've told me. And together, we worked out a clearer design and focus for the College."
Today there are nine departments, and the effort to weave a more coherent whole continues. For the past several months, the College has been preparing for its first accreditation by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).
"In preparing for NCATE, we've come up with a much stronger conceptual framework for teacher education here at the College," says Darlyne Bailey, Vice President and Dean of the College. "It's given us a fresh opportunity to see how well the different pieces here are stitched together while maintaining relations across the departments. Increasingly we're a place where a student in, say, Math, Science & Technology is likely-and able-to take a course in Curriculum and Teaching, and vice versa. Ultimately, we're evolving toward becoming a focused multiversity, where our students can look beyond their departments and programs, and experience TC and even Columbia as a larger universe of opportunity."
But the story hasn't ended there. Last year, the College added two new Associate Deans: Professor Sharon Lynn Kagan, now Associate Dean for Policy and Research, and Donald Martin, Associate Dean for Student Services.
"Lynn Kagan's role is to pull together the policy courses in the curriculum and the research of our faculty under one umbrella so that we can find ways to better connect research with policy and go deeper in impacting policy at the state and national levels," Bailey says. "There's no one better equipped for that role-as Arthur knows best, when you to talk to governors or visit people in Washington, they say, 'Oh, you're at Teachers College-how is Lynn?' This Office of Policy and Research was also created to provide mentoring to junior faculty, and coaching and what I call re-envisioning to senior faculty, while planting the seeds for greater research-generated income.
"With the junior faculty, it's about how to take the germ of an idea and turn it into a research proposal," Bailey says. "For the senior faculty, it's more along the lines of what to do when you're ready to turn from an area of research you may have worked in for most of your career, to a new area where you've got to identify new sources of funding. Even full professors deserve a safe space to brainstorm new ideas."
Martin's main responsibility in the Office of Enrollment and Student Services is to significantly enhance the student experience at TC by bringing together all of the student services and activities across the college.
"He's got the first point of contact with students through the admissions office, which is part of his shop, and he follows them all the way through graduation with the career services office," Bailey says. "We've never had that continuity before, and it's meeting a real need for our students. Serving them is the primary reason TC exists."
Funding the Future
But even as TC put its house in order, it was clear that more needed to be done. Thus in 1999, the school embarked on what would become the largest and most successful capital campaign ever conducted by a school of education. When the campaign ended last year, $155 million had been raised, and TC's endowment had nearly tripled, to $160 million.
The money has enabled the College to establish new scholarships for students at all levels, from recent college graduates coming directly to Teachers College, to mid-career teachers returning for master's degrees, to teachers and administrators seeking their doctorates. Together with the Milton and Carol Petrie Foundation, the school has funded 10 Fellows, who receive $50,000 scholarships in exchange for a promise to teach in New York City for five years after they graduate. TC has also made a significant investment to create fellowships that allow candidates nearing completion of Ed.D. and Ph.D. programs to work full-time with faculty researchers. And still another $9 million has gone to Urban Teachers Corps Scholarships, which enable teachers already at work in city schools to pursue a master's degree.
The campaign has also provided seven new endowed teaching chairs, new opportunities for professional development and academic innovation, and a Center for Excellence in Teaching to help instructors adapt to different teaching environments and work effectively with students at all levels.
"The response from our donors and the extended Teachers College community has been incredible," says Joseph Brosnan, Vice President for Development and External Affairs. "That success speaks directly to the sense of importance and urgency people have about our mission. They give for the simple reason that they believe passionately in what we do."
More to be Done
Clearly the past 10 years have been a time of tremendous accomplishment. Still, everyone-from Levine to the trustees to the faculty-acknowledges that there's a great deal more to do. Topping the list are TC's long-standing dependence on tuition as its main source of revenue and-closely related-the need to increase financial aid to students.
"On one level, we have a situation that would be the envy of most institutions," says Steven Weinberg, Director of Budget and Planning. "Applications from prospective students have increased over the years, we're becoming more selective in our acceptances, and the percentage of those we accept who decide to attend has been consistently strong. But you always need to temper your optimism in an institution where 75 percent of your unrestricted revenues are generated by tuition. For us, there's more suspense around enrollment time than we'd like."
The school has done a good job of holding down tuition increases over the past decade, averaging 5-6 percent per year-better than most colleges and universities, and middle-of-the-pack for schools of education. On the other hand, in actual dollars, TC's tuition now stands at $875 per credit, vs. approximately $300 at a public institution like City College.
These problems stem from the College's unique status as a stand-alone graduate school of education.
"Our fixed expenses are proportionally greater than other education schools because we're a single-standing institution," Schnur says. "Staff salaries, maintenance, infrastructure-the college bears the full brunt of all of that instead of spreading it across several linked schools. So we don't enjoy the benefits of economies of scale."
One possibility for adding revenue is to make more use of the campus, which is primarily inhabited by students in the evenings. Research grants are also a fast-growing source of income. The College has recently begun conducting intensive budget reviews. And TC also is trying to determine what its size should be in the coming years, as well as the appropriate balance of students (master's vs. doctoral, full- vs. part-time). It's a decision not to be made lightly. "On the one hand, full-time students cost us less because they move through the school faster, and place less of a burden on our faculty in terms of advisory load," Levine says. "On the other hand, we're unique in serving working professionals and others who can't go back to school full-time, and I don't want us to lose that."
Ultimately, the hope is that the College's new mission will help to set priorities in many of these areas. "The first 10 years under Arthur have set the groundwork for the next chapter, which is to give the institution a clearer focus," Jack Hyland says. "Some people have felt that educational equity is too narrow, but we've kept coming back to the fact that this is rooted in the College's beginnings. The hope is that focusing on equity can give us direction, a clear theme to seek funding, to recruit, and to reestablish TC as a place people look to for educational theory and practices."
TC's leaders believe the school is uniquely equipped to tackle the achievement gap because of its tripartite focus on education, psychology and health. "The fact is, the equity issue isn't simply something that occurs in schools," Levine says. "It involves schools, but also families and communities. The emphases of health, psychology and education allow us to study each of these spheres in a way other schools can't."
As of year-end 2004, implementation of the mission was well underway. A working committee that includes Hyland and his co-chair, William Rueckert; Levine; Bailey; faculty members Margaret Crocco and Charles Basch; and staffed by Brosnan has made site visits to a range of think tanks around the country to learn about how they operate and raise funds.
Faculty member Henry M. Levin, William H. Kirkpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, has been named to chair the first TC Symposium on Educational Equity, which will focus on the costs of failing to educate low-income and minority students. (Levin authored a study on the subject during the 1970s for then Senator Walter Mondale, and is in the midst of a major update of that work. His Center for Privatization in Education also conducted a recent analysis that helped update findings of the 40-year-old Perry Preschool Project, which has found that a quality preschool education reduces the likelihood of future failure to graduate, incarceration, early pregnancy and other cost burdens to society.)
The Report Card project is progressing under the direction of Richard Rothstein, Tisch Professor and current Sachs Lecturer at TC, who is leading a class of doctoral students in assembling measurement criteria. The rationale for evaluating the achievement gap on a state-by-state basis is that education is constitutionally assigned to the states, and each state differs in terms of its approach and the consequences of that approach. "State-by-state report cards also get far more media coverage, because there's far more pressure put on the primary actors to respond," Levine says.
During the fall, the College formally launched the TC Education Partnership Zone, a broad effort to support two city school districts in northern Manhattan. TC's contributions to the partnership include the Heritage School, a high school in East Harlem that was founded by TC art professor Judith Burton; the work of Professor Lucy Calkins and the TC Reading and Writing Project, which provides curriculum guidance to a large number of New York City elementary schools; the newly created National Academy for Excellent Teaching, which seeks to do similar work on the high school level; and the Cahn Fellows, a program that brings together some of the city's best principals for enhanced management education. TC has also launched a major effort to boost the diversity of its own faculty.
Not everyone is fully on board yet with the new mission. There are faculty members who worry that the equity focus may not embrace their work or that it may overly politicize the school. Levine and Bailey will be meeting with faculty, department by department, over the course of the spring, to discuss such concerns.
"The equity focus is meant to be inclusive, not exclusive," Levine says. "We are not asking everyone to do the same kind of work, or to be applied rather than theoretical. But we do think the new mission will make our research a louder voice in terms of its effect on practice and policy. And it should also raise our ability to attract top faculty and students. Faculty, because we'll be known for this in a way other schools aren't. And students, because we'll be speaking to their most heartfelt reasons for becoming educators. No one, but no one, goes into education to make money. They do it because they're idealistic and they want to change the world. We're choosing the biggest problem that exists in education and saying, 'Isn't this the place you want to come study? Aren't these the people you want to come work with? Come to Teachers College, and help us change the world.'"
For more information and to view an interview with Arthur Levine on the Equity Initiative visit http://www.tc.edu/tctoday..
Published Tuesday, Apr. 12, 2005