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From the dean: Looking Back, Looking Forward

As I begin my fifth year as dean of the School of Education, I’ve been reflecting back over the past four years as well as looking down the road to see where we need to be going.

Bill McDiarmid
Bill McDiarmid

At times, it’s been, if not exactly a wild ride, a sometimes bumpy one. No sooner had I taken the corner office in Peabody than I was required to begin cutting the School’s budget — a process that continued for three years. When the bleeding finally stopped, our state funding had been reduced by 25 percent and, sadly, we had eliminated approximately 30 staff positions.

The budget situation made even more urgent the need to get clear on where we were headed. Working with the faculty and staff, we identified our shared values, goals, and assets. This created a foundation for determining our strategic directions. Prime among these is our commitment to helping improve the school success and life chances of all students, especially those who have been under-served, by ensuring their access to essential educational resources. In service of this goal, we identified the need to generate rigorous research that informs both policy makers and practitioners, recruit promising and diverse scholars who will provide leadership and rigorous research well into the future, and improve our preparation of practitioners. We are currently developing metrics to gauge our progress on each of these.

When I arrived at the School, many among the faculty felt that opportunities to influence decisions in the School were both limited and unequally available. Consequently, I asked the faculty to consider several possible governance models. The governance model we have adopted features a Faculty Executive Council led by an elected Faculty Chair (a role that Patrick Akos has filled thoughtfully and effectively over the past year and a half). The FEC has taken on responsibilities formerly handled by several different committees. In addition, the council constitutes a much-needed “privy council” that advises and, on behalf of their colleagues, brings issues to the attention of the School’s administrative leaders.

Also identified in the strategic planning process was the need to renew the Ph.D. program to better reflect the intellectual and research interest of the faculty, especially those newly hired. Steve Knotek brought his excellent leadership and mediating skills as a school psychologist to bear in leading the faculty through a year and a half process of creating new Ph.D. strands. The five strands represent both new intellectual groups – in the Learning Sciences and Psychological Studies and Policy, Leadership, and School Improvement – as well as reconstituted research foci – Cultural Studies and Literacy; Applied Developmental Science and Special Education; and Teacher Education and Curriculum. More details about the new Ph.D. strands are available here.

With the new Ph.D. strands in place, we next turned our attention to the School’s academic organization. Establishing two divisions – Professional Leadership Programs (PLP) and Graduate and Undergraduate Research Programs (GURP) – allows us to address several issues. All faculty members must affiliate with a program in each division. This is an attempt to ameliorate the tension endemic in education schools at research universities between teaching in practitioner preparation programs and doctoral programs. At many research universities, the former is considered lower status than teaching doctoral courses.

Since the creation of the PLP division — led by Jocelyn Glazier – coordinators of programs that prepare PreK-12 teachers, counselors, and principals are meeting regularly for the first time. Our ultimate goal is that students from these programs will be concentrated in the same set of schools for their clinical practice. Ideally, these educational professionals will learn to collaborate for their students’ benefit before graduating.

Concomitantly, we also instituted a new policy that requires faculty to submit three-year teaching plans. Prompting this was, in part, inequities in opportunities to teach doctoral classes, inequities that undermined faculty morale. The three-year plans enables the associate dean for academic affairs to ensure all faculty have opportunities to teach doctoral classes while also ensuring faculty involvement in practitioner preparation.

In addition to these internal changes, we have also launched new initiatives – none more exciting than our new minor in education. We had anticipated enrolling 25 students annually in the minor over four years, beginning with fall 2012. However, the demand was such (i.e., 70 applications in spring 2012 and another 88 during fall 2012) that we admitted 40 undergraduates to the minor for 2012-13 and another 40 for 2013-14.

The call for proposals to develop new courses for the minor also generated an unexpectedly positive response. Twelve School faculty members proposed new courses although we could only offer four of these annually. For some of the new courses, student demand for places has been double the number of seats available.

In collaboration, we continue to build enrollment in the UNC-BEST programs. This allows math and science majors to take the courses – including student teaching – needed to earn a N.C. teaching license. Beginning with eight students in 2009-10, we have increased the enrollment to 40 students this year.

As we work to prepare practitioners and researchers who are globally knowledgeable and competent, we have also created a version of our Masters for Experienced Teachers for teachers from abroad. Seven teachers from Beijing will complete their master’s degrees this summer and we are working to expand the program.

Of all the changes since 2009, none may be more significant than the addition of eight fulltime faculty members from under-represented populations. Shortly after I arrived, Carol and Bill Malloy and Frank Brown retired, leaving big holes in our faculty. Although such distinguished scholars of color are virtually impossible to replace, we have added three Latino/a and three African-American scholars as well as Asian-American and Filipina-American scholars. In short, as a faculty, we are coming to look more like the students in our schools.

Another strategic direction we set for ourselves is to improve our preparation of educators. I recently wrote about the adoption of the Teacher Performance Assessment for our teacher preparation programs. We also continue to collect data from our graduates in the Reconnect and Recharge seminars we host on campus four times annually. The “problems of practice” that our graduates bring to these seminars as well as the strategies they use to address these problems are data that informs the faculty’s efforts to improve our programs.

Recognizing the importance of partnerships and collaborations to our mission, we also have built new partnerships with the Roanoke River Valley Educational Consortium (RRVEC), the Gastonia KIPP School, Microsoft Corp., the Thai Ministry of Education, and the Beijing Royal School and worked to strengthen our existing Research Triangle School Partnership.

Looking forward, we need to continue developing both internal and external partnerships. The job is too big and resources too scarce to try to go it alone. Collaborations have the potential to help us where we have little or no capacity. School faculty have created a number of interventions and programs that research has demonstrated can improve learning for students, especially those from low-wealth communities. Widely marketing and disseminating these innovations is largely beyond our expertise and capacity. Others in the nonprofit and for-profit worlds can help us. We need to create partnerships with these entities.

We also need to create support for faculty, students, and staff who have promising ideas and who want to develop and transform them into interventions, programs, apps, and so on. We have friends and supporters within and outside the university who can help us in developing these supports.

To say that the higher education world has changed since 2009 is an under-statement. If we are to remain relevant, solvent, innovative, and impactful, we will need to take risks and seek new opportunities in this rapidly evolving world. The good news is that the School of Education has the faculty, staff, students, and alumni to lead in this new world. If I am fortunate enough to be asked to take on an additional five-year term, I look forward to venturing with them into new avenues to improve the life chances of children and youths.

Bill McDiarmid is dean of the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.