Dean Bob Pianta says public education schools have a duty to take the lead

Bob PiantaOver the past few months, Curry School dean Bob Pianta has been speaking out about what he believes to be the responsibilities of education schools. In January, he wrote a commentary for Education Week called “Academics Can’t Shy Away From Public Role,” in which he said that the relevance of education schools may depend on the capacity of faculty to engage with stakeholders outside our institutional walls.

In February, his op-ed in the Washington Post, “Teacher Prep Programs Need to Be Accountable, Too,” ended with this statement: “Regardless of which path we choose, we must take responsibility for both our mission and its outcomes — and work to solve our problems rather than complain about them.”

Pianta walks the talk. He is ranked 22nd among all university-based scholars in the US who are contributing most substantially to public debates about education, according to the 2015 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings.

In this interview, Pianta delves further into his convictions about the public responsibilities accruing to education schools, in general, and their implications for the Curry School.

You have been speaking out very publicly lately about the roles and responsibilities of education schools. Why now, and what has most influenced your thinking about these issues?

You have stated that you believe education scholars have a responsibility to engage in the public debate over education policy. What is the range of activity you have in mind?

Why have scholars often been reluctant to jump into this fray of the public education debate?

First, we’re not trained to do that. We’re trained to be scholars. We’re trained to pay attention to a certain set of methods for acquiring information and reporting that information, and most often we report that information to our peers who are trained similarly. Skills in the communication of information that public decision makers or the public at large would find useful is not part of our professional training on a routine basis.

The other challenge is that the public square is often a place where issues are presented from various angles, and those angles are informed by social, cultural, economic, political and sometimes moral values that are different from the primary organizing principles around the way we do our research. We do our research in an effort to try to describe and predict as objectively as we can the information available on a particular phenomenon. Often, we find when we enter the public square that our results are taken and forced to fit a particular frame of reference or particular angle or particular bias that we may not—and often do not—agree with.

How is the Curry School supporting its faculty members to bring the findings of their research to bear on public policy discussions?

One of the very first things we did when I became dean was to build a communications office and to attend to the ways in which we can communicate with the public at large. We do a very good job of identifying relevant faculty work and making sure it finds its way into various media vehicles. We also provide training for faculty members who are engaging the media. I think our attention to the media is one reason why our faculty rank very highly in terms of their presence in the public square and, by virtue of that presence, their influence on policy. The way we value engagement in the public square—faculty presentations to state government or work with districts in the field, for example—is also codified and informs the judgments made about all sorts of aspects of faculty performance as we consider annual reviews and promotion and tenure dossiers.

What is the most innovative step the Curry School has taken to bridge the divide between the academy and the public square?

(Learn more about the Jefferson Education Accelerator.)

You have also spoken out about the responsibility of teacher preparation programs to quantify the effectiveness of their work. Why are you so willing to address this issue head on when others have raised such vigorous objections to every federal government proposal so far?

An area of great public interest and debate in the last year or so has been the federal government’s requirement for states to develop systems determining the impact of teacher preparation programs on the learning of students in K-12 classrooms. … This is a controversial idea, because it’s new and different. I think it has taken teacher preparation programs a little by surprise. It’s a complicated challenge to sort out, as well. … I felt it was important for us to help shape the debate and be responsible, as producers of teachers, to gather evidence about our teachers’ impact as they leave us. I think this is part of our credibility as a profession nationally. …

The complexities are real. How does one gather all this data? What assessments should be used to gauge effectiveness? How do we track teachers across multiple states? These are all challenges, but I don’t think we should shirk our responsibility in light of those challenges.

It’s our responsibility to mount an effort to address those challenges systematically. Over the next five or ten years we should move from not knowing anything about our program graduates to being able to paint a reasonable picture of the relative impact of teacher preparation overall based on a broad array of credible evidence. This is really important for the field and … would be of tremendous importance to help the field shape another generation of even better programs.

Absent that information I think we keep spinning our wheels and having the same conversation over and over again. The profession ultimately ends up on the defensive side of this equation when the public is interested in knowing how effective we are. There are alternative programs that are developing in response to the need for more effective teachers, and the field of teacher preparation stands by and watches that happen.

Higher education has a critical role to play in the preparation of teachers. In fact, we may be uniquely suited for it. So we need to be able to back up that claim, and as professionals I think we have responsibility to gather as much information as we can about our work so we can continue to improve it.

How does the Curry School know that its own teacher preparation program is effective?

What is the most important action education schools can take to ensure that assessments of their programs are fair and reasonable?

As we think about assessing the performance in the field of teacher preparation program graduates, it’s really important to think about whether those assessments are appropriate for the various roles teachers are going to be playing. The initial proposal of the federal regulations was to use only results from state high-stakes standards tests—usually called value added measures—to a determine teacher’s performance.

That met with a lot of objections. I was on the record as objecting to that as well, because I felt like it was a very narrow assessment, and it applied to only about half of the teachers (because high-stakes tests are not given in all grades and all subject areas). What has been really notable in the new round of federal regulations is a considerable degree of flexibility around the kinds of assessments that can be applied to graduates’ performance. It could include achievement tests. It could include tests that teachers develop and implement on their own. It could be student surveys, or it could be observations.

I think that flexibility is really important, and it enables teacher preparation programs and faculty to have a dialog about the priorities for measuring their graduates’ performance and then begin to align those with the kind of information that’s collected by districts or will be collected by states.

Again, these are going to be challenging pieces of alignment and calibration, but I think the flexibility provided in the proposed regulations will enable that kind of flexibility to build a better system.