Unconventional Wisdom | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Unconventional Wisdom

Paradigm-changing work by TC faculty and staff members



Bringing Race to the Top
Ernest Morrell and IUME are reinventing education for young people of color

In a recent issue of english education, Jamila Lyiscott, a doctoral fellow at TC’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME), compares Esperanza, heroine of the street novel Picture Me Rollin’, with Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter. Each serves prison time to protect her lover, emerging empowered to “resist the hypocrisy rampant among the people in her com-munity.” Lyiscott calls for broader teaching of books like Picture Me Rollin’ to reach inner-city

students in “an era of mass incarceration.” By exploring characters that break the law, she writes, “we might help stu­dents begin asking why and under what conditions someone might make these choices.”

To IUME Director Ernest Morrell, Macy Professor of Education, Lyiscott’s approach is essential to winning over poor, disaffected young people of color to schooling and citizenship.

“Race is the elephant in the room,” he says. “Wherever cities are burning, I guarantee you it has to do with bad pub­lic schools. So for me, it’s all about what we can do through education to affirm the substance and power of black life.”


"Race is the elephant in the room... So for me, it's all about what we can do through education to affirm the substance and power of life." - Ernest Morrell, Macy Professor of Education

Morrell has advanced that view through his leadership of the National Council of Teachers of English (he isimmediate past President) and in award- winning works such as Critical Media Pedagogy: Teaching for Achievement in City Schools (Teachers College Press, 2014). But it’s through IUME, the Harlem- based organization founded in the 1970s by TC psychologist Edmund Gordon, that he’s putting theory into practice.

IUME positions young people as knowledge producers and change agents. Through the Institute’s Youth Historians in Harlem (YHH) project, for example, teenagers created and led a walking tour for TC graduate students studying the neighborhood. They spoke on topics such as “the Campus” —135th Street and Lenox Avenue, where Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey spoke — and the history of public housing projects where they live.

YHH is part of Educating Harlem, an explo­ration conducted with TC’s History & Education program and Assistant Professor Ansley Erickson that includes the Edmund W. Gordon Lecture.

“The forces that shaped 20th-century U.S. education ran through Harlem, often amplified by the particular confluence of people, ideas and institutions,” Morrell says.

IUME works with teachers, too. The Institute’s Literacy Teachers Initiative (LTI), con­ducted with Harlem’s Com-munity School District 5 and Superintendent Gale Reeves, exposes teachers to colleagues and other thinkers to improve their classroom practice. In a recent blog, LTI Fellow and TC alumna Lakeya Omogun,a seventh-grade literacy teach-er, described how hearing Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie critique Amer­icans’ “addiction to comfort” inspired her to raise discom­fiting questions of race, power and stereotypes of beauty.

For Morrell, the ultimate goal is to reinvent a public education system still “time-stamped at the dawn of the industrial revolution” — an effort TC is uniquely suited to because of its “unmatched talent” and its history.

“We carry the batons of the Thorndikes, the Deweys, the Gordons,” he says. “That’s something I take very personally.”


Lifestyle Medicine

At the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, Carol Ewing Garber always attends a breakfast honor­ing the late Teachers College physiologist Josephine L. Rathbone.

“She was the only woman founder of ACSM,” says Garber, TC Professor of Movement Sciences, who just completed service as ACSM President. “Today more than half of the attendees at the annual meeting are women.”

Rathbone’s program of “corrective physical education” included borrowings from Indian yoga gurus and an 18th-century Swedish fencing master. Similarly, Garber — a former clinical exer­cise physiologist who this year was inducted as a Fellow in the National Academy of Kinesiology — has used her research to promote physical activity as “lifestyle medicine.”

In 2011, an ACSM committee led by Garber issued new guidelines on exercising for good physical and mental health. In a first, the panel said that a little exercising is better than none and urged people to minimize sedentary time.

As ACSM President, Garber campaigned to include exercise in medical records and connect physicians with the community. At TC, where she chairs the Department of Biobehavioral Sciences and coordinates the program in Applied Exercise Physiology, she has led a study linking low income and lack of education to declining physical func­tion in the elderly and has identified exercises that will help patients with spinal muscular atrophy.

Now, with an anonymous gift from a gener­ous alumna, Garber is expanding TC’s move­ment science laboratories with a clinic that will test people at all levels of fitness and help them increase speed, endurance and strength: “Our labs are equipped to provide Maximal Oxygen Uptake testing, Anaerobic Power Tests, Body Composition, Muscular Strength — but unless you have something wrong with your lungs or heart, you don’t get to do these tests. Now, we’ll be doing it to maintain and improve health.

“There has been little long-term success in interventions aimed at increasing physical ac­tivity, sometimes because the information is too complex,” she adds. “So our goal is also to give people what they need to know.”


What Motivates Alumni Donors?

When it comes to alumni giving, gifts like the $350 million check that Michael Bloomberg wrote to Johns Hopkins in 2013 garner the head­lines. But with growing competition for philanthropic dollars, institutions are focusing more on graduates of average or modest means. What makes them give?

The answer, according to Noah D. Drezner, Associate Professor of Higher Education, is a sense of identification deeper than simply having attended a particular school.


"One result of colleges and universities broadening their base of support will be that people from historically less-empowered groups will be better served by those institutions" - Noah D. Drezner, Associate Professor of Higher Education

“Respondents who share a higher number of social identities with students profiled in solicita­tions are more likely than others to assign more importance and to give,” writes Drezner, a former advancement officer at the University of Roch­ester, in a recently completed population-based survey experiment, “The Social Base of Philan­thropic Fundraising in Higher Education: How Frames and Identity Matter.”

In the study, which earned him an award from the Council for Advancement and Sup­port of Education (CASE), Drezner randomly assigned participants to receive fictitious solic­itation letters that were created using different possible donor identities and motivations that have emerged in prior scholarship. The letters describe an individual student who is meritorious, has general financial need, is a first-genera­tion college student and is gay or lesbian with lack of parental support. Gender, race/eth­nicity and the student’s name were varied randomly across respondents.

In his initial analysis of more than 1,600 responses, Drezner found that those who shared a higher number of social identities with the stu­dent profiled in the solicitation letter were more likely to assign more importance to the causes described in the letters. Women and those with marginalized identities (race and sexual orientation) showed greater in­terest in solicitations supporting other marginalized individuals.

“One result of colleges and universities broadening their base of support will be that people from historically less-empowered groups will be better served by those insti­tutions,” says Drezner, who is co-principal investigator for the National Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Alumni. “They will also gain a greater say in how those schools evolve.”


Roll Over, Beethoven

To a visitor, Randall Allsup’s class on creativi­ty in July presented a scene of fragmentation and chaos. Twenty-odd music education students were scattered around Horace Mann 435, each in solitary concentration. Some played recognizable notes on the room’s three xylo­phones or beat patterns on hand drums. Others stamped their feet, scraped keys against screens, whacked beams with cardboard cylinders or tapped time on their legs.


"Today, composer-performers are creating in the moment, working between and across traditions. The notion of standards that will outlive them no longer applies." - Randall Allsup, Associate Professor of Music Education

Yet there was method to the madness: The students were composing repeating patterns called ostinatos. Soon Allsup, Associate Professor of Music Education, grouped together those taking complementary approaches. Each group was given 10 minutes to develop an ensemble piece, with each member taking a solo. Then they performed, transitioning seamlessly one to the next.

“I want to consider a way of teaching in which outcomes are as unpredictable as they are (currently) certain,” Allsup writes in Remixing the Classroom: Toward an Open Philosophy of Music Education (Indiana University Press, due out in 2016). The book claims fellowship with “wanderers and wonderers” from Michel de Montaigne to Master Kong, but its true inspira­tion is the late TC philosopher Maxine Greene.

“Maxine’s philosophy — that we’re always a little unfinished — is what I’m trying to embody in my teaching,” says Allsup (Ed.D. ’02, M.E. ’99, M.A. ’94), who took Greene’s course on aesthet­ics and education 20 years ago. “So in my class, we don’t study creativity, we do it.”

For Allsup, music is ideally suited to count­er the current mindset of American education.

“The standard for playing Beethoven has built up over centuries,” he says. “But today com­poser-performers create in the moment, between and across traditions. The notion of standards that will outlive them no longer applies.”

For aspiring music teachers with classical backgrounds, this mindset can be a challenge. That, Allsup says, is the point.

“We don’t want the Juilliard student trained within an inch of her life teaching that way to fourth graders. Classroom rights and wrongs should come from the students, in response to situations rather than immutable laws. The teacher is a guide.”


By Joe Levine



A battle shapes up over tying budgets to student outcomes

Would colleges and universities achieve more for students if their funding depended on it? Or would such a system — like managed care in medicine — run the risk of institutions becoming more choosy over who they serve? Those are among the questions asked in The Politics of Performance Funding for Higher Education: Origins, Discontinuations, and Transformation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), by Kevin J. Dougherty, Associate Professor of Higher Education Policy, and Rebecca S. Natow (Ed.D. ’13), Postdoc­toral Research Associate at TC’s Community College Research Center.

Performance funding has been around for decades, typically as a small bonus schools receive on top of their regular enroll­ment-based appropriations, but more recently as a big portion of the base appropriations. Over 30 states now have performance funding, with more joining. Yet two-thirds of the states that have adopted the practice subsequently discontinued it. Now a new plan advanced by the

Obama administration would make federal student aid funding dependent on achieving student outcomes.

The head of the American Association of University Profes­sors has argued that this approach “will lead to more testing and to dumbing down the curriculum by a majority of faculty who…will be forced to teach students simply to take tests.”

As Dougherty and Natow conclude, “the next several years promise to be a very interesting time in state higher education poli­cymaking.” — ERIC BUTTERMAN



Not just yet

College enrollment in the United States has grown by 27 percent since 2000, and tuition costs by 94 percent. More students are working and attending school part time. Are MOOCS — massive open online courses, which can cheaply deliver learning to hundreds of thousands of people — a solution? What purposes can MOOCs serve?

In MOOCs in Higher Education: Institutional Goals and Paths Forward, Fiona Hollands, Senior Researcher at TC’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education, and Devayani Tirthali (Ed.D. ’13) review the evidence on the value of MOOCs. Most enrollees are already well-educated, suggesting that MOOCs aren’t the demo­cratic instruments initially envisioned. Initial excitement focused on “cMOOCs,” in which networks of participants generated and shared content, but the field is now dominated by “xMOOCs,” in which instructors provide content and rarely interact with students. But MOOCs have encouraged many instructors to think for the first time about what good pedagogy really looks like.

And MOOCs can save money: for example, one community college spent less than $1,000 rerunning an xMOOC writing program that initially cost $75,000 to develop. Costs per each student com­pleting a MOOC are far lower than for “traditional” online courses.

Conclusion: MOOCs can aid institutional branding and profes­sional development, but pedagogically they are only “tinkering at the margins.”— ERIC BUTTERMAN



Published Wednesday, Nov 4, 2015

Ernest Morell
Noah Drezner
Randall Allsup