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Setting an Agenda for TC

At a Town Meeting, President Fuhrman fields questions and talks about her priorities for the future.

At a Town Meeting, President Fuhrman fields questions and talks about her priorities for the future

"I'm a glass half-full kind of person. I believe we should look at what's gone right in education over the past 15 to 20 years, see what's instructive about TC's role, and decide where we fit in to determine our future directions."

That was how President Susan Fuhrman opened yesterday's Town Meeting in the new Cowin Conference Center. Fuhrman, who fielded questions from the audience of faculty, students and staff, laid out a vision for how the College, as the country's premiere school of education, can play a leadership role in the 21st century -- and what it needs to do internally to lay the groundwork for those contributions.

As evidence that there is ample cause for optimism about the direction of America's schools, Fuhrman cited the significant gains in math performance by black and Hispanic students during the past two decades, a period when some 13 million new immigrants per year entered the country; the growing recognition that "teacher quality is at the heart of student achievement"; and the experimentalism of the small schools movement "in breaking down bureaucracies."  

Each of these gains "helps frame a vision" for future contributions by Teachers College and all schools of education, Fuhrman said.

Research must top the list of those contributions, she said. "We still need to understand what it is about teacher preparation that leads to good teaching," she said, as well as to quantify the costs and benefits of different preparation and induction approaches. "There is no better place to do that research than here at TC," she added. "Such research is our legacy, and we must do it."

Progress in U.S. education also reflects "learnings from other countries," Fuhrman said. To that end, TC must also "attend to our international legacy," in part by working more closely with Columbia as the university seeks to establish itself as the nation's top global institution of higher learning. The College is already planning to assist Columbia in providing technical assistance and teacher training for Jordan.

The College "has a lot of work to do" to deliver on these goals," Fuhrman said. Topping the list is increasing financial aid.  "If we want our students to stay and work in urban schools and communities, we can't burden them with prohibitive debt," she said, adding that the College "is not as tuition-dependent as people think," and should explore alternative ways of creating revenues, including adjusting its student mix. "Raising money is obviously critical for financial aid, and I will be doing that, but we must also look at the balance of our masters and doctoral students."

Changing that balance can also free up faculty to engage in more research, which must be another priority for the school, Fuhrman said. "We need to revisit our incentives for research, including salary structure," she said.

At the same time, TC is importing teams of reviewers from other institutions to assess the efficiency of its administrative offices -- and a similar review of the academic departments will soon follow.

"We need to streamline our governance," Fuhrman said, pointing to the recent establishment of the President's Advisory Group, which brings together faculty and senior staff, as well as Town Meetings themselves, which she plans to hold regularly in the future.

"These are all venues for bringing together people from different constituencies to attack problems in the most expeditious ways," she said.

In the Q and A session that followed her remarks, Fuhrman said that she would like to see TC start and operate a local public school: "It's a way of truly putting your money where your mouth is."  In response to a student who complained about the absence of male African Americans in the Curriculum and Teaching Department, she said that she believes strongly in diversifying the faculty and will do whatever I can to uncover pools of diversity" that can strengthen departmental hires."

Finally, when asked what she would want to emphasize to outsiders who don't know TC, Fuhrman replied: "That our work is addressed at answering real problems and challenges out in the world. That this is why people come here -- because we're about improving education and wellbeing. And being good neighbors."

Published Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006