CONTACT: Elaine Ray, News Service (415) 723-7162
National higher education center charts a different course
When the federal government called the School of Education in February 1996 with the news that it had won the bid to house a $12.5 million research center, Associate Professor Patti Gumport, the chief author of the center proposal, had few clues about where to start.
"I had no idea what I was doing. Together we've built the center from scratch," Gumport said, crediting the staff, students and researchers who have helped the National Center for Postsecondary Improvement, or NCPI, hit its stride.
The NCPI is a national research and development center funded by a five- year agreement with the U.S. Department Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Its mandate is to focus on vital issues facing postsecondary education and to use researchers' findings as the basis for constructive solutions. In addition to Stanford, the centers' other major venues are the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.
"It cuts across three major universities contributing to its agenda," said Richard Shavelson, dean of the School of Education. "Higher education is clearly a very major concern in this country, and it's a concern to all of us on this campus. It's such an important kind of issue today that having the center in the nation is what Stanford should be doing." Shavelson adds that the NCPI serves as an important link to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, whose president is Lee Shulman, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education.
The center has 60 researchers representing 17 institutions. Half hail from the Farm. Its six project areas include research on higher education restructuring; school-to-work transitions; postsecondary achievement and employment outcomes; professional development to enhance teaching and learning; assessment tools; and improving quality, productivity and efficiency.
Gumport heads a project called "Postsecondary organizational improvement: restructuring and beyond" that examines how individual campuses adapt to changing political and economic demands. Gumport's current work is focused on three public institutions: UCLA, the University of Oregon and the University of Virginia.
"One of the reasons I like studying public research universities is that I find they have very specific mandates to handle state and local needs. I'm interested in studying them because it's heavily contested what direction they should go," said Gumport, who also is director of the Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research.
In addition to her own research, Gumport helps set the center's overall tone. She points to the center's logo, a multipaned window, designed to reflect the center's mission. "It's really about taking what was a tendency for there to be walls between higher education and those outside and making it into a window where we could meet and frame a discussion. It's a good reminder," she said.
Gumport said that often when higher education economists get together, they talk about colleges and universities as if they were an industry. Social scientists talk about these institutions in very different terms, "and so very often they talk past one another," she said.
To foster dialogue with outsiders, the NCPI sponsors twice a year the "Cleveland Panel," named after the city where the discussions are held. These panels are designed to engage educators, taxpayers, parents, students, faculty and employers in discussions about the center's emerging research. According to Gumport, the venue was chosen because many of the NCPI's researchers had prior connections in that city. The Cleveland Panel might serve as a prototype, she said, for similar exchanges in other cities as well.
"One of the things that's exciting about it is that they're people who don't normally talk together," Gumport said. "And it's also wonderful for us to be able to say, 'Does this research make any sense? How might we think about it in different ways?' "
Another important aspect of this collaborative mission, said Gumport, is communication among NCPI colleagues.
Last November, Gumport convened an all-day forum for NCPI's researchers. In her address to participants, she looked back on the center's first 19 months. The center's infrastructure was on solid footing and its research projects had been launched, she said. Some preliminary findings had emerged. Her focus, however, was reassessing the center's mission, keeping in mind a federal government review next fall.
"Of course, part of the focus of that review will be on compliance," Gumport told the 47 researchers who attended the forum. "Are we doing what we said we'd do, as well as doing it well and on time? Another dimension of evaluation is less tangible but no less important: Are we making an impact as a center, beyond our contribution as individual researchers? Before we can consider whether we are having an impact as a center, we need to ask ourselves what it means to be a center. I see our ability to collaborate as essential to our success."
Later that day the center's researchers practiced what is called the "touring method" to help enhance communication among NCPI colleagues. Once researchers met with colleagues in their project areas, each one moved on to a group made up of researchers working on different projects. They took turns focusing on the research agenda for a specific project area, so every project area was talked about by everyone.
Gumport's colleagues praise her approach. Shavelson says that the federal government's demands are so high and their funds are so limited that the concept of a center is "almost laughable because there is no there there." He praised Gumport for developing a larger agenda for the NCPI and knowing how each researcher contributes to the whole. "This is truly a remarkable accomplishment," he said.
"Patti worked very hard to come up with something that was not just a cookie-cutter approach to things," said education Professor John Baugh, who is part of a research group looking at how professional development can enhance teaching and learning. "It's really a wonderful honor and distinction that the NCPI was brought here."
In his part of the project, Baugh is looking at how community colleges and four-year state institutions can collaborate to help address the shortage of qualified K-12 teachers.
"There is an anticipated shortage of teachers throughout the country. In my opinion, it's essential to the welfare of the country that children from all backgrounds have opportunities to attend good schools. As we project population growth and trends, it's very clear that unless we take steps now to try to enhance and diversify the pool of teachers, the country's going to be in for a very difficult time," he said.
Baugh, who served as a faculty co-sponsor of the School of Education's Stanford Teacher Education Program, or STEP, from 1994 to 1996, said that the project has forced him to look beyond Stanford. "[The Office of Educational Research and Improvement] wanted to be very certain that we didn't feather Stanford's nest with this grant. It reinforced the national and potentially international significance of this project," he said.
Another of the center's projects is a series of surveys designed to gauge the relationship between employment outcomes and postsecondary education and the values that the groups and individuals place on postsecondary education. The National Employer Survey asked employers detailed questions about their workforce's education and training. The National Employee Survey will survey a sample of workers from the same establishments and the National Survey of Heads of Households will assess the experiences of students' parents.
"We're hoping to use the results of the survey," said Christopher Roe, associate director of the NCPI, "to feed into a lot of the research that we'll be doing at the center down the road."
By Elaine Ray