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From the dean: Our contributions to North Carolina schools

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Bill McDiarmid

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I’m often asked what the School of Education at Carolina is doing to help schools in North Carolina. Previously, I have described projects such as Madres para Niños and the Targeted Reading Intervention as examples of research-validated programs that our faculty have developed for families and students in the state. Most recently, our faculty and doctoral students collaborated with Durham Public Schools and the Durham Association of Educators to secure an NEA Foundation grant to improve the school success of African-American males. Another NEA Foundation grant is supporting a project to help North Carolina high school students complete Algebra I successfully after previously failing it─ a particularly important milestone because passing Algebra I is required for high school graduation. These are a few of the efforts underway to directly improve the life chances of North Carolina children and youth.

But Carolina’s School of Education has a special mission as part of a research-intensive university:  To conduct rigorous and innovative research to improve the learning and lives of students in the state and beyond. One of the challenges I face as dean is helping external audiences understand this mission. Examples of direct instructional interventions and assistance to schools are much more visible and understandable to folks outside the academy. Yet, a major reason that past efforts to reform schools and instruction have failed is that they were established on vague theories, faulty or no research, or were inadequately evaluated – or all three.

Although “theory” is often derided by both those within and outside schools, almost everything educators do is based on some theory whether about how people learn, who can learn, what constitutes effective pedagogy, what students should learn, how students develop cognitively and socially, and so on. Just because educators, curriculum developers and policymakers don’t make their underlying theories explicit – either to themselves or others – doesn’t mean they don’t have them. So, one of the critical roles of research is to make explicit the theories that are implicit in particular instructional methods, curricula and policies.  If our actions are grounded in tacit theories, changing our actions requires surfacing, analyzing and rigorously testing these theories. This is a primary purpose of research.

Equally important is research on conditions in schools and communities, curricula and instructional practices, student learning in classroom contexts and so on. Unfortunately, the history of education is rife with examples of educators adopting curricula and instructional practices that are little more than somebody’s good idea. Only recently have we begun subjecting instructional practices to the rigorous research that is essential to ensuring we are investing our resources in ways that will make a difference for every student.  In the past, those of us in the academy have not conducted the research needed to assure practitioners that the curricula and instructional practices they are handed will produce positive results for all their students.

Faculty in the Carolina School of Education are engaged in both types of research described above – both basic and applied. Space limits the research projects I can describe here (visit Faculty & Research for more examples) but I want to offer a couple of examples. Jeff Greene and his graduate students are studying how students’ ideas about what knowledge is and what it means to know something is related to how they learn. The work has profound implications for both curriculum and the types of learning opportunities we create for students. In addition to the research itself, Jeff’s project provides several graduate students opportunities to develop the skills and knowledge needed to conduct high-quality, rigorous research after they complete their degrees. This represents another School of Education mission that is not widely recognized:  Preparing the next generation of educational researchers.

In the second category of research – applied research – is the work of Patrick Akos. In collaboration with Dennis Orthner from the School of Social Work, Patrick has been studying how a curriculum that makes explicit connections between the middle-grades curricular content and real-world jobs impacts students’ engagement and achievement. Patrick’s and Dennis’s research has demonstrated the power of such a curriculum in the hands of teachers trained to use it.

Certainly, faculty at other UNC system schools of education conduct research. At Carolina, however, research productivity is the primary criterion for promotion and tenure.  Faculty may do sterling outreach work to practitioners and schools and be excellent teachers. If, however, they fail to conduct sufficient high-quality and relevant research and publish in top journals, their chances of being promoted and tenured are slim at best. The criterion includes making a nationally recognized contribution to knowledge in their field – a high bar, indeed.

We will continue to build the partnerships with schools essential to providing as much support for practitioners as we can manage. At the same time, we have an obligation to conduct the research needed to ensure that families, students and practitioners have the research-validated knowledge and tools they need to succeed and thrive. Finally, we also have an obligation to nurture and mentor the next generation of researchers. Thus our contribution to North Carolina schools is much broader, though less visible, than our direct outreach to schools and the preparation of educators, counselors and school psychologists.