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School of Education is on the brink of renewal

Stanford's top-notch School of Education is at a crucial juncture, facing faculty turnover and an uphill battle to raise money to support graduate students and upgrade its buildings, Dean Richard Shavelson told members of the Faculty Senate on March 5.

In the next five years, almost 40 percent of the school's 38 faculty members will retire. "The potential is tremendous for renewing the school," Shavelson said. But the tight local housing market could make it difficult to find and attract the top talent to Stanford, he noted.

Securing stable sources of graduate student support is another big challenge, he said. Since the school has no undergraduate programs, there are very few teaching assistantships to support graduate students. Moreover, unlike the other professional schools, neither its alumni nor its supporters provide a rich source of student support.

"Many people who want to give to education . . . don't see the link between the work that we do and the school that their kids might go to," Shavelson said. "So this is a hard sell for us. We're working hard but it's an uphill battle."

The end result, he continued, is that all but a few of the doctoral fellows must work on research projects supported largely by grants from the federal government and foundations.

"We are largely supporting our graduate students on the research that we do," he said. "If there is a dip in the research activity, then we could be affected quite strongly."

The school also is struggling to secure funds to upgrade Cubberley Hall, an aging building that lacks the infrastructure needed to support research, teaching and learning today, Shavelson said.

"We need to get more research space out of the building and to create technology-intensive classrooms and laboratories for our academic programs and research," he stated, in a written report submitted to senators.

Many of the programmatic challenges faced by the school grow directly out of the challenges facing America's schools, Shavelson noted. One such challenge involves exploring ways to create teaching/learning environments that maximize the educational benefits for culturally, ethnically, linguistically and economically diverse student populations.

The integration of information technologies into the classroom is another area of growing concern among educators, he said. In response, the school has developed a new master's program in Learning, Design and Technology.

"The real challenge is not to let the bells and whistles of newly evolving technology drive educational environments, but to develop design principles for creating teaching-learning environments that are technology-intensive when technology can provide value added in reaching educational goals," Shavelson said.

As the school begins to rebuild itself for the next millennium, he said, it will remain committed to its original mission of generating knowledge that informs practice and policy aimed at improving teaching, learning and administration.

"Our challenges are substantial [but] they are fun and exciting," he said, underscoring the fact that he is surrounded by "a great group of people."

The school has been ranked consistently as the top education school in the nation with respect to the quality of faculty, students and research leadership, he said.

Its faculty of 38 boasts four former presidents of the American Educational Research Association; 17 members of the National Academy of Education; four members of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences; three members of the International Academy of Education; two members of the American Philosophical Society; one member of the Royal Academy of Arts in England; two Humboldt Fellows and one MacArthur Prize winner.

Two-thirds of its students over the past 10 years have entered research occupations as university faculty or associates at research institutions such as the RAND Corporation. And five of the past 10 presidents of the American Educational Research Association were graduates of the school. "Our students are genuine leaders in their fields," he said.

In a question-and-answer session following his presentation, Shavelson was asked to comment on the recently released report of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study that showed U.S. students'achievement rankings have plummeted.

According to the report, the nation went from a respectable level of mathematics and science performance in the fourth grade to mediocre performance in the eighth grade, to dismal performance, even among the top mathematics and science students, in the twelfth grade.

"I think it's a wake-up call," said Shavelson, who cautioned against the tendency to look for a quick-fix solution.

Part of the problem is a mathematics and science curriculum that has been described as "an inch deep and a mile wide," meaning it has more breadth than depth, he said.

"What happens is that each year, the teacher in mathematics picks up last year's topics and starts to review them. And then they run out of time so they keep re-reviewing the same low-level stuff throughout the grades," Shavelson said.

Another problem is that the testing systems in the United States take a generalist approach that isn't curriculum-linked. "If you look at other countries, like Australia for example, there's a matriculation exam in physics which is really physics," he said. "Their testing system says, 'This is valued knowledge and kids need to have that knowledge.' So I think we are sending the wrong signal: 'Take the course and forget it tomorrow because you've got to take the review for the SATs.' "

The low achievement results may also reflect the fact that as American kids get older, there are many other demands on their time, such as television and extracurricular activities, Shavelson said.

"I think as a society, we have some real issues about what we're willing to give up," he said. "And I'm not sure we're willing to give up some things to reverse that achievement pattern."


By Marisa Cigarroa

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