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Teachers College President Levine on the Move Toward Equity
Teachers College President Art Levine

A little more than two years ago, a committee of faculty, students, professional staff, union members, trustees and senior officers of Teachers College began meeting regularly to produce a plan, approved in May 2004 by the Board of Trustees, that established educational equity as the new mission of the College. In the following Q&A, originally published in Inside, Teachers College's news publication, President Arthur Levine elaborates on the implementation of the plan, which includes the creation of a think tank, a state-by-state report card, an annual symposium and demonstration projects in New York City.

INSIDE: Maybe you can start by describing the new mission of Teachers College and why it's the right one for the school.

LEVINE: We decided to focus on equity, which has become an issue of profound importance in our society, because there are large differences between the educations available to high and low income, suburban youngsters and inner-city children, and people of different races. We're talking about how to bridge those differences. This issue has a host of different names; maybe the most common is "the achievement gap." But what we mean, precisely, when we talk about educational equity, is the discrepancy in access, expectations and outcomes between the most affluent and least affluent populations.

Why did we do this? First, this is the biggest problem in education our nation faces. It's the equivalent of cancer or AIDS in health. Second, addressing inequity in education is the historic mission of Teachers College. The founders created this institution to serve poor immigrant kids who weren't making it in New York. Public schools had no idea what to do with these youngsters, so the founders decided to create an institution that would train a radical new breed of teacher to serve these children. Third, if one were to look at what our faculty members do, I would venture to say that a minimum of 70 percent would say, "I'm working in the area of equity. My research is in that area. My teaching is in that area."

Still another reason is that Teachers College is uniquely constructed as an education school. We're divided into three areas: education, psychology and health. And the fact is, the equity issue isn't simply something that occurs in schools. It involves schools, but also families and communities. The emphases of health, psychology and education allow us to study each of those spheres in a way that most schools can't.

Moreover, we have the blessing of being across the street from what I describe as the largest candy store I can imagine -- Columbia University, which would bring to this exercise the School of Social Work, the School of Public Health, the School of Law, the School of Medicine, all the arts and sciences disciplines, journalism and a host of other subject matters.

INSIDE: Is the new mission also intended to give Teachers College added relevance in the debate over school reform in this country?

LEVINE: Yes. A historic weakness on the part of education schools is that too often they've been ivory towers, removed from practice and practitioners in a way many other professionals schools aren't. And it's critical that if education schools are going to prove their value, we do it not only by preparing students but also by taking our research and applying it to policy and to practice in a way that is beneficial to both -- and that serves the children of this country and the world.

At the same time, since I came to Teachers College, the environment has grown increasingly critical of education schools. We're finding that our franchise -- the gatekeeper function that schools such as ours once had in education -- has been eroded. States have regulated education schools in a way they hadn't before, focusing on issues as disparate as what percent of faculty is to work full time, what the curriculum model should look like, even what makes for appropriate research. The federal government has deregulated the field of education and privatized it. More people have been invited into the marketplace.

We also have professional development coming from libraries, museums and the local symphony orchestra. We're seeing school systems turn away from education schools in large cities such as New York, Chicago, San Diego and Boston, and create their own preparation programs for school administrators and teachers.

So it's a time in which education schools find their role usurped, and there's a greater sense on the part of our public that we're not doing as good a job as we need to do -- that we're verging on the irrelevant. And one of the ways we can reestablish our relevance is by embracing the issues that truly wrack our society, like equity, and developing programs that will help remedy them.

INSIDE: What does the mission mean, practically speaking, for Teachers College? What's going to change and over what time frame?

LEVINE: The new mission will make our research a louder voice in terms of its effect on practice and policy. We have a faculty of 160, and each [faculty member], for the most part, has been doing his or her own research. This will permit us to bundle people's research, [to] bring people together who work in common areas [to] produce research together [and] publish together, so that one loud voice is possible now in a way that it wasn't before.

The equity focus should also raise the ability of the College to attract top faculty who want to work in this area, because it's something we will become known for in a way that other institutions aren't. It also should be very attractive to students. Nobody chooses to go into education because they're going to make a lot of money. They enter education because they're idealistic; they want to change the world. And what we're saying is: Help us change the world.

INSIDE: Talk for a minute about the think tank that we're planning to call the Educational Equity Institute. Will this be just another center or institute at Teachers College, or will it somehow be more central? And how will it relate to some of our existing centers and institutes?

LEVINE: We've created, as the coordinating body for the equity agenda, something we're calling the Educational Equity Institute (EEI). We have lots of centers and institutes that do research at Teachers College, but this one's different. I hope it will be a holding company, a convening authority for the faculty. I hope it will provide our community with service, speakers, seminars and symposia to educate not only our faculty but also our students. Beyond that, the EEI is supposed to identify what we know about the issue of equity and begin to tell the public about those things. It's also supposed to identify the most pressing topics in equity that need to be explored. And it's the job of this institute to bring together the experts, not only in the United States but [also] around the world, who can contribute to our work. Finally, the institute is supposed to bring Columbia with us, as well as other universities and centers, and create the partnerships that are going to be needed to make a difference in equity.

Another major difference is the area of dissemination. As academics, we typically produce research and send it to journals, and the journals publish it -- only two years later! The institute needs to identify the audiences that most need to be touched by a piece of research.

If there's something to be changed, who are the actors that have the capacity to change it? Is it funders? Is it government? Is it practitioners? Is it school boards? Is it teachers? And once those audiences are identified, the need is to get the research into the most usable forms for that audience. For instance, if we identified legislators as a key audience for a project, we might testify before the legislature. We might do briefings for their staffs. We might create short, readable pieces describing the research -- knowledge people can use. We might prepare model legislation. We might make sure the media covers this in the capital city. And all of this is aimed specifically at affecting legislation in the areas we think necessary.

The institute would also be a laboratory, much as land grant colleges are, for applying our research, bringing it to schools, bringing it to families, bringing it to social institutions. It would give us major projects -- the creation of schools, working with school districts, working with families -- in which ideas would be tried and made available to the general public to see the successes, assuming we have them.

Finally, we hope the institute will serve as a resource for the College -- that it will work with faculty members on syllabi, curriculum and instruction as the faculty members move toward the equity mission of the school. We'd hope departments might use it; we'd hope they might turn to the institute for direction, even evaluation. So what we're imagining is something much larger than any institute or center we have at the College.

INSIDE: To what extent will we be building off existing Teachers College programs in Harlem and other parts of the city as the essential lab projects for the institute?

LEVINE: If one looks across this College, we have a strong base upon which to build demonstration projects and provide a laboratory. We created a school in East Harlem. We have a large project in Harlem in which we're working with schools not only in our immediate neighborhood but [also] throughout northern Manhattan. We have a project designed to transform professional development in schools -- high schools in particular -- moving it from a focus on the individual teacher to the whole school, from teaching to learning and student achievement, and from random days and courses to long-term plans designed to improve student achievement. That's a project in which we want to create a revolution in education. And we also have projects that work with schools on reading and writing, science and math, social studies, administration and leadership.

INSIDE: And what about faculty who do not engage in work that has a lab or practice aspect -- or who don't see themselves as working directly on equity-related issues?

LEVINE: The notion of focus is meant to be inclusive, not exclusive. So the goal of the institute wouldn't be to get everybody involved in practice, or everybody involved in policy. The goal is to conduct important research on equity. So different faculty members would have different roles. Some might look at child development in the context of a laboratory in which they study the issue. Others might do it in schools. Some might have research intended for scholars. Others might take that research and choose to apply and expand it in terms of its implications for policy or its implications for practice. So we don't want all the people at Teachers College to be engaged in precisely the same forms of research.

INSIDE: Would we, over time, see a change in the mix of discipline-area emphases here?

LEVINE: Yes, I suspect that over time there will be more faculty who are more and more involved in the equity agenda. When we recruit new faculty in any area, we might ask, can that faculty member also contribute to our focus on equity? So we'd look for people with two traits instead of one.

INSIDE: This is a mission that seems inherently political. We're going to be, by definition, taking stands on issues. Is that outside the traditional role of an institution like this one? What's going to be the effect on a diverse group of faculty with a hundred different views about everything?

LEVINE: The issue is often raised: Will creating an institute focusing on a major social issue move Teachers College into the political realm or force the institution to take an ideologically driven stance? And the answer is, I think that would be terrible. The success of universities in America is dependent on academic freedom and openness to all ideas, so that institutions should never take a political or ideological stance. However, the institute should be able to speak just as any university speaks -- from data.

Data is drawn neither from the right nor from the left. Data is drawn from research and should be evaluated by the quality of that research. I want this institute to engage in the most excellent research that's available in the country on issues of equity. I want people to value what comes out of the institute -- not because it represents their political persuasion, but because it's so good that its quality can't be denied. And we should follow that data to the logical remedies and conclusions it leads to.

INSIDE: But are there projects the institute would exclude because of some sense that it falls within a certain spectrum of opinion?

LEVINE: I can't imagine any project we would avoid because of the political consequences. I think what we should say to every potential funder is, we promise to disappoint you on a regular basis. If you're an organization that represents liberal causes, our conclusions could be conservative in their implications. If you're an organization that represents conservative causes, our research could lead to liberal conclusions. We will follow the data wherever it leads.

To read the rest of the interview, conducted by Joe Levine, executive director of external affairs at Teachers College, visit the Teachers College Web site at www.tc.columbia.edu/news/article.htm?id=4789.


Published: Feb 11, 2005
Last modified: Feb 14, 2005

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