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A World of Ideas

Longtime journalist John Merrow keynotes an academic festival for TC alumni, students and friends
John Merrow doesn’t think there is one achievement gap, but four. Merrow, the veteran education journalist who delivered the keynote address at Teachers College’s inaugural Academic Festival on April 24, said that the K–12 educational system is plagued by yawning gaps in leadership, opportunity and expectations that leave poor and minority students at a distinct disadvantage.
“If you have those gaps, of course you have an outcomes gap, but if you only focus on the achievement gap you treat children as if they’re gerbils to be taught to turn wheels and do well on tests,” said Merrow, the former education correspondent for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and now Executive Producer and President of Learning Matters Inc., a nonprofit television, radio and Web production company. “The results are disastrous because you see kids strictly as test scores. And I think there is a fifth gap, an affection gap. We suffer from affection deficit disorder when it comes to other people’s children, children who are not from our own economic status or who don’t look like us.”
Merrow’s speech kicked off a new-look academic homecoming event for TC alumni and friends. Styled as an “academic festival” and themed “Thinkbank 2.0: A World of Ideas,” the event was unique in that the presentations spanned the breadth of TC’s academic programs. The breakout sessions, almost all of which featured TC faculty members, dealt with everything from technology and organizational change to trauma, loss and human resilience.
“We’ve made an effort to bring all of TC together for you,” President Susan Fuhrman told alumni. “We’re not featuring one aspect because while Teachers College is our revered historical name, it only gives a sense of part of what we do. There is so much wonderful work going on here that is not captured by our name, and we’ve made a special effort to feature all that work.”
Among the presenters was TC alumna Debra Noumair, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education at TC, who told alumni about an academic program that has yet to be formally established at TC. Noumair said that TC’s Department of Organization and Leadership plans to launch a master’s degree program in organizational change and learning in the spring of 2010.
The one-year program is designed for business executives and human resources and organizational development professionals, Noumair said, and will involve both on- and off-campus courses, as well as an online learning component.
“In order to really survive in organizations, whether you are in HR or organizational development or are a line manager, you need to know something about organizational change,” Noumair said. “What we’re going to do is focus on the application of psychology and business, and make sure the program is relevant and rigorous so that people can walk out and apply what they’ve learned immediately.”
The event also featured a panel session by four alumni, all of whom have pursued nontraditional career paths. One of the presenters, Alice Wilder (Ed.D., Educational Psychology, 1998), President of the TC Alumni Council, said that her dream had been to develop educational toys. However, the connections she made at the College allowed her to move into children’s television as Producer and Director of Research and Development for the popular Nickelodeon television series Blue’s Clues.
“Since we created Blue’s Clues, there are a lot of copies of the show on TV now that use the kind of interactivity with the kids that we developed,” said Wilder, who is now Co-creator and heads research and education for the PBS series Super Why! “We have stuck to our guns, however, in that whenever we ask kids to interact with our shows, it’s about education and teaching—not getting some prize or premium.
“Teachers College really nourished my interests and passions and gave me a broad array of skills that allowed me to do my job. Now, when I look to hire people, I find that Teachers College students stand out not only for their breadth of knowledge, but their balance between the applied and theoretical knowledge.”
In addition to the breakout sessions, the College presented its Distinguished Alumni Award to honorees Patricia Lynne Duffy (M.A., ’81), an instructor of English as a second language and communications at the United Nations; Edward Dunkelblau (Ed.M., ’76), Director of the Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning; Joan Dye Gussow (Ed.D., ’75; Ed.M., ’74), the Mary Swartz Rose Professor Emerita at TC; and Rawley Applebaum Silver (M.A., ’36), artist and art therapist.
TC’s Early Career Award was presented to Keiichi Ogawa (Ph.D., ’99; M.A., ’97; Ed.M., ’95), Professor of Economics and Education at the Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies at Kobe University in Japan.
Merrow, who is also a member of TC’s Board of Trustees, showed a number of clips from his NewsHour reports highlighting some of the problems in and out of the classroom that lead to educational inequity. He also outlined some steps that he believes need to be taken to close the gaps that hinder many poor and minority students from succeeding academically.
The nation, he said, needs to get away from the notion that anyone can teach. Instead, school systems must recruit the best teachers and provide them with support and training in those critical early years of their careers. He also said that K–12 education must innovate across the board rather than continue to rely on the same approaches to teaching and learning. And he called for national standards that clearly outline the skills students need to have at various grade levels.
“We have to set those standards, and the time is right to do it,” Merrow said. “It’s all doable, but we have to do it now because time is running out.”
To learn more about the academic festival, go to www.thinkbank2.org. For a profile of John Merrow, go to www.tc.edu/news/article.htm?id=6958.

Published Monday, Jun. 1, 2009