IT SEEMS LIKE EVERYBODY INSIDE and outside of higher learning has a quick fix for what ails public education. Stand around a Little League game, office water cooler, or local supermarket and you'll hear the usual litany: higher teacher pay, longer school days, more homework, closer scrutiny of underperforming schools--and the list goes on. We intuit that the education improvement issue won't soon go away, now that it transcends such divergent media as PBS, CNN, CNBC, and even the Fox News Network.
Much has been written and said about so-called education reform over the last several decades. Take, for example, the most recent report from the U.S. Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education--a study that sends a clarion call for reformation of America's education system. "We know higher education is the key to our children's future and the American dream, yet it is becoming more unaffordable and less attainable," said Secretary Margaret Spellings, calling attention to the growing deficits lurking in the U.S. education system.
Most education school deans sense that we need to invest in more systemic, longer-term strategies for developing the education leadership talent pool, beyond simply filling the pipeline with newly minted classroom teachers. The nation needs to better prepare the next generation of K-12 school leaders as a new breed of education professionals committed to school improvement through transformational change.
Over the past several months, we felt the need to scratch a little deeper on this. We scanned top-tier institutions, public and private, with education schools that produce dynamic idea leaders, policy shapers, and opinion makers.
In the process, we discovered several commonly shared habits and best practices among the highly ranked schools of education, including the creation of unique centers of teaching and learning excellence; proactive and willful interdisciplinary curriculum planning; educational innovation, nimbleness, ingenuity, and resourcefulness; globalization of programs, faculty, and students; commitment to action-oriented research, social justice, and civic engagement to be an incentive for collaborative professional development and faculty empowerment; and a willingness to take risks in the search for new pathways for educational improvement.
At Stanford University's School of Education, a place that prides itself on path-finding research, Deborah Stipek notes in her "Message from the Dean" on the school's website that the school is "committed to developing new knowledge that can be used to improve education, and to make education more equitable in the U.S. and abroad."
To demonstrate its commitment, Stanford has adopted a pre-K-12 charter school and created school-based partnership programs in economically disadvantaged Bay Area communities. "The advantage of these ongoing practical connections for our students is the opportunity to be exposed to real world challenges and to be involved in problem-solving collaborations with practitioners and policy makers," says Stipek.
Consider the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, chartered in 1863 as a land grant, agricultural institution, and its School of Education, founded in 1907. Ranked among its peers as a Top-Tier Graduate School of Education by U.S. News & World Report, the school boasts more than 20,000 alumni around the world-with linkages to people in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific Rim.
In a letter to School of Education alumni and friends posted on the school's website, Dean Christine McCormick observes that by creating sustainable, global learning organizations like The Center for International Education, the School of Ed will be a dynamic force in "preparing tomorrow's leaders, creating unprecedented opportunities and initiating change in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, throughout the United States, and in other parts of the world."
Joseph Berger, chair of the school's Department of Educational Policy, Research, and Administration, adds, "Given the new mandates of the global economy, the rapid expansion of knowledge, and the need for highly skilled workers, higher education is one of the most significant growth sectors around the world. Governments, donor agencies, and postsecondary institutions in places like China and the Philippines recognize that increasing access alone is not enough. Sustained increases in quality require strong leadership in order to fully realize returns on investments already being made in curricular reforms, new campus facilities, and improved technologies."
Harvard University's School of Education mirrors a special amalgamation of research, theory, and evidence-based practice. In a welcome address to incoming students posted on the school's website, Dean Kathleen McCartney explains, "Our comparative advantage is rooted in the belief that working at the nexus of practice, policy, and research is the most powerful way to improve education. Whether preparing students, working with education leaders through professional education efforts, or conducting research, we operate at this intersection." In this way, Harvard students learn to apply theory through classroom, research, and field practicum experience.
"The challenges facing education are complex, extending beyond our schools to families, communities and our nation. At HGSE, we recognize that we are at a significant juncture in our history," McCartney adds.
In our follow-up research, we learned that Columbia University's Teachers College has become known as an education partner to the world, with an enduring commitment to providing policymakers and practitioners with the best and most impartial research-based information. In fact, TC has intentionally positioned itself as "trainer and trainee, learner and teacher."
In her May 2008 letter to the TC community, President Susan Fuhrman explains, "Nowhere do these two ideals converge more meaningfully than in our efforts to address ... the gulf in opportunities and outcomes that separates poor students and students of color from their wealthier, typically white peers."
Columbia's niche is its growing commitment to international projects, especially global collaborations among faculty, students, and staff. While announcing TC's new director of international affairs position, Fuhrman notes, "There are numerous countries that have asked for TC's help with their educational reform and training efforts." Toward this end, TC takes pride in its educational ties to Japan, China, Bolivia, Iceland, and Ghana, among other international collaborators.
Consider as well the Graduate School of Education of the University of California, Berkeley. In his message to prospective students on the school's website, Dean P. David Pearson explains UC Berkeley's philosophy this way: "The work of the faculty and students in the school is grounded equally in theory and practice. We work from the premise that the two enterprises are synergistic-that theory informs practice as much as practice informs theory."
Through collaborations with urban schools and community-based nonprofit organizations, the School's Center for Urban Education--one of its featured centers of excellence--supports efforts to improve the quality of education available to students in low-income urban areas.
Blossoming education leaders are constantly reminded that they cannot address urban school problems without looking at social and economic factors simultaneously. The work is messy, and the problems can seem colossal. In this context, UC Berkeley earns its stripes by encouraging future education leaders to recognize this reality and embrace it with vigor and idealism.
"If you want to engage in conversations about the big ideas in education and if you are prepared to ask how those ideas can make life better for students and their parents and teachers, then Berkeley's Graduate School of Education is the right place for you," remarks Pearson.
These top-tier education schools have their distinctive centers of excellence, but they also share a number of common traits. The highly successful schools intuitively transform global competitors into collaborators, while viewing themselves as international higher learning enterprises, capable of developing human capital from which future education leaders will be drawn.
Unlike our contemporaries, today's graduate level education students will increasingly aspire to serial professional careers, moving around the world to learn, teach, and serve in diverse cultures and settings. Teachers, policymakers, and politicians expect more than proficient test-takers as educational process outcomes. They want schools that produce students who are not only college ready, but world ready. These star schools have undertaken their higher learning often out of the spotlight. Yet their individual and collective impact is felt in thousands of communities across the nation and around the globe.
The moment of relative quiet associated with conventional teacher preparation programs has passed, as fast-changing needs of the global classroom take center stage. School of ed students and staff should prepare for a new wave of serious interest in teaching as the professional path of choice to shape the new world order of education change and innovation.
James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their book is Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).