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"Cooperation Matters"

The new Center takes an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving research in the public sector by combining the effort of Priscilla Wolhstetter at TC with Columbia's Schools of Law, Business and Social Work.

TC, plus CU Law, Business and Social Work Schools,
Create Interdisciplinary Research Center

Since the early 20th century and throughout its history, Teachers College has been committed to developing education models that are informed by rigorous academic research and tested in challenging educational settings. TC researchers have led the way in discovering how children learn, how best to teach them, and how to measure instructional outcomes.

When Professor James S. Liebman of Columbia Law School conceived the idea of a high-powered, interdisciplinary academic center that could tackle many of the most pressing problems in the public school systems of New York City and elsewhere, he turned to Teachers College. Enlisting expertise from TC and the Law and Business Schools at Columbia University, Liebman created the Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL).

The Center piloted two classes this spring semester with 15 students, including three from TC and the remainder from the two other schools. Liebman says the courses and projects will go forward next year

TC President Susan H. Fuhrman believes they are just the start of a more formal interdisciplinary program. “The current courses are a start to what we expect will be a true cross-school collaboration, with cross-listed courses that eventually will lead to joint degrees,” she says.

The Center’s purpose is to make sure that changes in the public sector are research-proven and supported by well-trained professionals who are prepared both conceptually and practically. “This is one of the most exciting pedagogical ventures I’ve been involved in, in over 25 years of teaching,” says Liebman, who recently returned from a three and one-half year stint on partial leave from Columbia Law School, doing service work as Chief Accountability Officer at the New York City Department of Education.

This spring, all 15 students are taking the same two courses: Public-Sector Problem-Solving examines how organizations of all kinds – public and private entities, for-profit and nonprofit organizations – design and manage structural change. “Students in this class get quite a theoretical lesson in how change has taken place” in organizations ranging from Toyota, Alcoa and the U.S. Navy to public school systems, child welfare departments and environmental regulatory agencies in the U.S. and across the world, Liebman says. “Every week, we move from theory to examples of organizational change happening in real, specific settings. You just have to open up a newspaper to see these being hotly discussed and debated.”

In the second class, Public Sector Structural Change, students apply that conceptual knowledge to examine education reforms such as those put place in the New York City Department of Education (DOE) by former Chancellor Joel Klein and being carried forward by his successor, Catherine Black. “It’s really cool to go back and forth between the two classes and see the students making really smart theory-to-practice connections,” Liebman says.

The structural-change class is divided into three teams of student consultants. Two teams work with the DOE, the third with a fledgling education nonprofit organization. Each team is examining a particular reform that has been instituted in New York public schools or around the country. Using their knowledge of organization and education theory, as well as rigorous study design, the students are supporting institutional change and designing studies to test whether certain aspects of the reforms are working to improve student outcomes. All three projects are also tied to commitments made by New York and other states as part of their applications for federal “Race to the Top” funds.

Three TC students are taking part:  Elizabeth Chu, Robert Shand and Elizabeth Davidson. “Everybody has things to bring to bear, but the TC students, all of whom have been teachers, are particularly powerful” in using their classroom experience to reflect on the issues we’re discussing in class, says Liebman.

“Collaboration matters,” adds Priscilla Wohlstetter, the Tisch Distinguished Visiting Professor in Organization and Leadership from the University of Southern California who is co-teaching the course on institutional change with Liebman. The TC students have brought to the process their knowledge of education skills and practice, and research methods that are commonly used in education schools, says Wohlstetter, whose appointment at TC is through the Vice President and Provost Tom James’ office. They also are experienced in working in teams, as well as experienced in schools and knowledge of how they operate.

TC student Chu, who is pursuing a PhD in TC’s Leadership, Policy and Politics program in the Department of Organization and Leadership, says the two classes have “definitely affected my thinking about management change and how to manage performance in a way that is not just outcome driven, but based on a much more balanced scorecard.” For example, she says, teacher performance should be measured not just by numerical outcomes such as students’ test scores or graduation rates, but “by putting value on the processes that teachers go through to reach the outcomes.” She adds that she has “really enjoyed the interdisciplinary aspect” of the two courses.

The Center’s model for working with clients is similar to TC’s course, Practicum in Organization Consultation and Change, taught by Professor Debra A. Noumair in the program in Social-Organizational Psychology.  The course takes nonprofit organizations as clients and helps them solve problems arising from change inside the organization or the larger marketplace in which they work. Liebman notes that the model permits teams of students to provide important value to public agencies and non-profit organizations, for a fraction of the cost of hiring a private consulting firm such as McKinsey or Booz Allen.

Through the Center, students and faculty from different disciplines will apply their different areas of expertise to improving the public sector, extending beyond education, to transportation, healthcare, environmental regulation and other areas.

As with the three consulting projects this year, Liebman envisions that the Center will work not just with education institutions, but with many different kinds of public organizations and non-profits. He expects the Center will continue to design research projects, from inception to completion, in collaboration with the sponsoring agency.

“Part of the aspiration of the Center,” Liebman says, “is to help public agencies co-develop research with university scholars.”  That model, he adds,  would benefit both parties. It would give cooperating agencies an incentive to provide data and support research that is transparent and relevant to their needs, because they will now have a stake in designing the studies. In return, TC and other Columbia students will get experience designing research that they know their public-sector clients can immediately use.

Published Thursday, Mar. 31, 2011


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