May 17, 2006
Ask most people to name the most urgent problem facing their community and they will tell you it is the public schools. No money, no facilities, no good teachers, too much violence, not enough content, the wrong content.
"We're in a historic period," said Anthony Bryk, the Spencer Foundation Professor of Organizational Studies in Education
and Business. "The public education system we grew up with is gone. There's been massive immigration, technological transformations, extraordinary forces, and we hold expectations that schools must educate all our students.
"What hangs in the balance is the future of our society. The system is really broken, but that's not yet fully in the public consciousness."
If the system is broken, someone's got to fix it, and that would seem to be a job for people with advanced degrees in education.
Schools of education have a divided mission. Years ago, they were teacher-training institutes. Later on, they began hiring Ph.D.s and awarding Ph.D.s, and they became research centers. Some schools, such as Stanford, do both, which means the faculty represents a broad swath of the social sciences.
Dean Deborah Stipek says she wouldn't have come here from UCLA if that hadn't been the case.
"We're in a comfort zone here," she said. "We're a professional school, and education is the domain we're investigating. And if you study education, there are many angles: families, income, psychological, and so on. It's much more interesting for the faculty that there's such a mix. When people work together, the questions demand different perspectives."
Professors train teachers, work on policy reform and study organizational theory, the philosophy of education, childhood psychology and the job market, to name just a few pursuits. To a greater or lesser extent, however - and Stipek says it's Stanford's strength - they all combine theory and practice. Individually they cross disciplines and they inevitably end up working with colleagues in other areas, other schools or outside the university altogether.
For example, take Eamonn Callan, an educational philosopher who at present is studying civic and moral education and the ethics of migration.
"My work takes place at the intersection of political philosophy and educational policy," he said. "I'm interested in citizenship in multicultural societies, so migration has always been at the periphery of my vision. I'm interested in the integration of migrant populations," in how multicultural societies get formed in the first place.
"It's not a question of a pre-packaged theory being applied. Practice disrupts theory, it leads to better, subtler theories. Political philosophy has to catch up with the problems of contemporary migration."
Or take Professor of Education Myra Strober. A labor economist and a feminist scholar, she began life at Stanford at the business school. A graduate student put her in touch with David Tyack, now the Vida Jacks Professor of Education and Professor of History, Emeritus, and they collaborated on a major research project on women in the teaching profession. She later ended up moving over, though she still has a courtesy appointment at the Graduate School of Business. Her current work is on multidisciplinary teaching in higher education.
Or Woody Powell, Professor of Education and, by courtesy, of Sociology, Communication, and of Organizational Behavior at the GSB. His lab, Stanford Organizations and Networks Group (SONG), addresses multi-level networks that link public and private science, artistic labor markets, the stratification system of science, the origins of nanotechnology, venture capital syndication networks, and the structure of academic and commercial research and development in the life sciences.
"There's exciting freedom and autonomy, but it's very complicated," Powell said, referring to the multidisciplinary initiatives at Stanford. "Funds are flowing, so now we have a wonderful challenge. But the faculty is like a medieval guild. Stanford is the most decentralized university I've ever been at. Everyone is a department of one."
Or, finally, take the economist Susanna Loeb, Associate Professor of Education and, by courtesy, in the GSB. She is the lead researcher on a $2.6 million statewide study announced in late March that aims to identify ways of restoring California's public education system to good health (http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2006/april5/finance-040506.html). This associate professor of education, who will oversee more than 30 researchers from think tanks and universities nationwide, has degrees in engineering, political science and economics, and she also teaches at the business school. It's actually not that wide a range, she says, considering her primary interest is policy.
"It's true, I lose something by not being in an economics department," she said, "but I gain from the expertise of a wider community in Education." For example, another of her research projects looks at how it is that the best teachers tend to avoid poor areas. While that may not be much of a surprise, Loeb and her collaborators tried to get at the roots of this cycle of poverty, which go far beyond particular teachers and their districts. In order for that study on teacher retention to be meaningful, however, economics was not enough, so she turned to political scientist Pam Grossman, also at the School of Education, who studies why and how people become teachers to begin with.
"I've been fine playing at the edges, but that's because I've been lucky," Loeb said. "I'm not sure how safe it is. But there's much more space at Stanford for that than elsewhere."
These disciplinary scholars are all housed at the School of Education because they care about the act of educating, or the institutions in which people are educated, or the means by which education is financed, or the cognitive processes by which one is educated. It is a vast expanse of inquiry, and each one of those research areas feeds on the next.
That interconnectedness fuels a commitment on the part of these scholars to help fix the broken system Bryk spoke of.
On the frontlines of that battle are the practitioners: teachers, administrators and policymakers. They increasingly are working hand-in-hand not only with researchers but with colleagues in the business school, because education, whether public or private, requires funding and management.
Stanford's Program in Ethics in Society in January sponsored a panel discussion on charter schools that drew a large and diverse audience. One of the speakers was Mark Kushner, founder and CEO of Leadership Public Schools, on whose board Stipek sits.
"I'm a teacher, and I've learned that running a business is really hard," he told the audience. It was a theme that ran through that meeting and through nearly every conversation conducted for this article. The world of education needs the world of management, and the world of business is increasingly interested in education.
At Stanford, the two schools have acted upon this mutual interest. They work together on charter school projects, host joint conferences, together run the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute for school administrators and have had a joint MBA/MA program for more than 30 years.
Strober is in charge of the recently revamped degree program, and her class, "The Economy of Higher Education," cross-listed at both schools, is one of its core classes.
"The cultures are very different in Business and Education," she said. "It's very interesting to watch students make that cultural shift daily. Lots of Education faculty had preconceptions regarding the business students, but by and large the faculty really enjoy them. They ask different sorts of questions; they use different sorts of reasoning."
Students must apply to both schools; the GSB admits them first, and applications are then sent on to the education school. Around 30 are admitted each year.
The leadership rosters of charter school organizations, education venture funds, educational entrepreneurial groups and Teach for America, to name a few, are packed with graduates of the joint program or with Stanford MBAs who concentrated on education.
One student who came to Stanford specifically to get the two-year joint degree was Gloria Lee, today the chief operating officer for Aspire Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that owns and operates high-performing charter schools in low-income neighborhoods.
If you want a joint MA/MBA, you come to Stanford, because as far as anyone here knows, it's the only such program in the country.
Looking back, Lee commented on how educators sometimes act as if they are immune to the principles of business.
"There is a real philosophy that 'we're different,' 'you can't apply the Starbucks principles to us, we're not McDonalds.' There's a real philosophical rejection of business thinking," Lee said, suggesting that can be a problem.
But at the same time, "educators are skeptical about people who think they know all the answers," which some people in the business world might appear to do.
"So the joint degree helps with actually creating bridges among people, it makes them conversant in both fields," she said.
The GSB has a history of reaching out to under-served educational institutions. Alumnus Dave Michael in 1992 established a local chapter of I Have a Dream and raised enough money to "adopt" entire classes of elementary school children in East Palo Alto. The Dreamers maintain mentoring programs and continue keeping an eye on the original adoptees, the vast majority of whom went on to college (http://www.ihadepa.org/index.htm).
But, as Lee and others say, conversations between people in education and business can be difficult at times.
Bryk, who teaches a course in the core program of the MA/MBA, said it took some persuasion recently to get a class of GSB students to visit a school in East Palo Alto. Bryk prevailed, they all went, and as a result, he said, "their thinking became more complex."
Stipek, too, acknowledged the challenges.
"There has been miscommunication between the two professions, and that's why we married them," she said. "You can't go around the Ed School. There is a set of knowledge about how to teach children. But they are very different cultures. Stanford is different in its level of commitment to make this work."
Kim Smith, who has an MBA from Stanford, has spent 20 years working at the intersection of the two fields. She is co-founder, former CEO and current executive chair of NewSchools Venture Fund, which invests in schools.
"There is huge potential at Stanford, and I give Stanford credit for having the first joint program, which has an impressive list of graduates," Smith said. "We were at the front end of the wave of business leadership management.
"Now, 30 years later, we're at a new inflection point with an even bigger opportunity, and Stanford should be out in front again. We've taken a step; now what are we going to do? If we're not going to fundamentally restructure the incentives in academia to motivate people to get out of their silos, to reward them, help them find dissertation committees, encourage and reward advisers, then they're not going to be able to get there."
Smith's great hope is to establish an institute independent of either school that could be flexible regarding the disciplinary rules of research, publication and tenure, which she believes constrain the best practical work.
"I watched Business and Education collaborate on [Bryk's] Spencer chair," she said. "They're fundamentally different disciplines.
"Sometimes they truly believe different things, and sometimes they just talk different."
But though they may talk differently, the two are irrevocably linked in their commitment to fixing the problem.
The Goldman Sachs Foundation in 2002 offered financing to create the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute (SELI), dedicated to the professional development of new educational leaders, and said it wanted it to be run jointly by the two schools (http://seli.stanford.edu). The foundation spoke to Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor in the School of Education, and she then went to the GSB. The institute has operated for three years and currently is seeking funding for new projects.
Darling-Hammond is one of two faculty co-directors of SELI; Jim Phills, director of the CSI, used to be the other.
"SELI reflects all the possibilities and perils of cross-disciplinary work. I learned a tremendous amount about schools," while director, Phills said. "I'm in awe at the management hurdles faced by school administrators. The challenge is how to integrate business and education."
His successor was Bryk, who took over with the creation of his joint chair.
"There's a very small universe of people who could have held Tony's chair," Stipek said. "They have to be able to sit in two schools meaningfully and must be prominent, and both schools must agree. It took awhile before the two schools could agree on anybody."
Bryk came here from the University of Chicago, which eliminated its own graduate school of education in 1976. By training, Bryk is an educational statistician, though his résumé as an educational reformer embraces multiple disciplines.
"We should be creating broader spaces with multiple visions," Bryk said one day recently in his office at the School of Education. "But education scholars are endangered."
"We carved up the disciplines," he went on. "But today problems require bringing people together, stronger connections to practice. I came here because Stanford's leadership understood this was a problem and were innovative regarding new structures and creating incentives to enable problem-centered research and development." But, he noted, there is much that separates the fields of education and business, and sometimes the faculty needs to be brought along.
Bryk's chair is funded by the Spencer Foundation, known for its unique approach to education funding. Foundation President Michael McPherson credits the founder, Lyle Spencer.
"He thought the foundation should be judged by its ability to achieve the highest possible return in effective new ideas per dollar," McPherson said. "We've always tried to think about how to promote ideas not just for their own sake but because they should have an impact on making education better. So the idea of encouraging a productive partnership between business and education was a logical one."
Though McPherson was not at the foundation when Bryk's chair was created, he, too, noted that it took several years before the idea could be implemented. Harvard turned down the chair; both Stanford and Michigan accepted it, but it took hard work for each to come up with a candidate. And when they did, they came up with the same one.
"If you had asked me, is there anyone in the whole country you'd want to hire for that chair, I would have picked [Bryk]," Stipek said.
Spencer has no immediate plans for more chairs of this type, however. One of its current emphases is a program called Discipline-Based Scholarship in Education, at Indiana University, in which graduate students from Education and Sociology train together. The foundation also funds individual research grants.
"Spencer is different than other foundations that just go after the things they're interested in," said Loeb, a recipient of more than one Spencer grant. "Spencer is not narrow."
"A superintendent or a principal obviously has to know about education, because those are the services they're delivering, but at the same time a school is an enterprise," McPherson said. "'No margin, no mission,' they say in the nonprofit world. You have a bottom line, revenues need to match expenses, and you have to make sound decisions on resource allocation. I think the idea of collaboration across that boundary makes an enormous amount of sense."
Bryk's commitment to cross-disciplinary collaboration as the most effective - indeed the only - way of correctly assessing problems and their practical solutions is mirrored by that of many of his colleagues. Bringing theory to bear on practice, the School of Education helps run Summit Preparatory High School in Redwood City, a charter school; with Aspire, it took over management of East Palo Alto High School, whose June 2005 commencement speaker was Stanford Provost John Etchemendy; it is one of the centers for the Carnegie Corporation's Teachers for a New Era initiative on teacher education; and SELI will soon house a training program for the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), another charter school organization.
Bryk, after a conversation about disciplinary collaboration, brought the subject back to the essential problem: education. He had recently read Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, and he connected the New York Times writer's take on globalization to the challenges in his own field.
"As a society, we're unable to move fast enough," Bryk said, referring to the imperative need to act on dozens of fronts simultaneously in order to get a grip on a world in which well-being and education are gradually eluding all but the most prosperous.
The stakes have never been higher, he said. "What will our children do? Will we get there fast enough? America has a colossal problem."