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May 30, 2014

Q&A: Stipek on how Stanford GSE is meeting challenges in Education

The new dean discusses the Common Core standards, research partnerships in education, preparing teachers and other subjects.

By Brooke Donald and Jonathan Rabinovitz

Deborah Stipek

Deborah Stipek

Photo of Stipek
(Photo by Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Deborah Stipek last month began a new term as the I. James Quillen Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, succeeding Claude Steele, who became provost at the University of California, Berkeley.  

Stipek certainly knows the job and the GSE — she served as dean from 2001-2011. “It feels a little like coming home," she says, while remarking upon some major changes in the neighborhood.

Nationwide, educators are now focusing on the Common Core State Standards, which set new goals for what children should be learning in math and English language arts. There also has been increased attention to the quality of teacher education programs, with the federal government preparing to roll out its own set of criteria for rating their effectiveness. And advances in education technology — the sudden emergence of MOOCs, for instance — provide new avenues for teaching and learning.

Against this backdrop, there is a critical need for high-quality, reliable research and scholarship about education.

“These new developments give the GSE both new responsibilities and opportunities, and they make us more relevant than ever," says Stipek, who last year was named the Judy Koch Professor of Education at Stanford, partly in recognition of the research initiatives that she has launched in early childhood education. An edited interview follows.


How do concerns about the Common Core and teacher preparation affect the direction in research and practice at the Graduate School of Education?

Nationally, the primary concern in public schools right now is bringing teachers up to speed with the kind of teaching the Common Core requires. That has to be one of our primary concerns here at the GSE; that has to be a driving force in our pre-service teacher training, in the professional development we offer, in our collaborations with school districts, and in our research on learning and new educational technologies.

What do you see as the GSE’s role in preparing teachers?

One of our roles is to serve as a model, demonstrating what you can achieve with a research-based, well-resourced teacher education program — what you get when you really invest in preparing teachers well and when you make preparing teachers a central mission of your school and of your university. We have extraordinary support from Stanford President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy. They are very public about how much they value the work we do in teacher education. Their enthusiasm has been a significant factor in our ability to offer a very high-quality program.

Almost from the day they arrive our students in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) are placed in classrooms with experienced, highly effective teachers who serve as coaches and mentors. They are taught by Stanford faculty who are leaders in their fields and know and contribute to research on effective practice. As a result, our graduates stay in the profession much longer than is typical for new teachers, and they excel in the profession. They become leaders, themselves, in their schools and in education at large. They are making a difference in thousands of children’s lives and they are impacting the way schools and districts operate.

What do you say to critics who maintain that teacher preparation programs aren't preparing teachers well?

There is a large group of people who think you don't need to train teachers, you just need people who know a subject; if you know math, you can teach math. They don’t appreciate how complex teaching is. We need to think about preparing a teacher in the same way we think about preparing a doctor or engineer. I’m all for people questioning how the country is preparing its teachers, but the solution to poor preparation is not to stop preparing teachers, it is to improve the quality of the preparation.

The Department of Education is developing criteria for judging teacher preparation programs. I think they should be held accountable, and inadequate programs should be called out. I worry, however, that the criteria will end up being as simple-minded as those we have seen used to judge schools, and that all the attention will go to identifying schools that are not doing a good job with none to understanding what effective teacher preparation looks like and how as a nation we can improve teacher preparation and ongoing support.  

Given that there are some several million teachers in the United States, can the GSE make a difference in teaching?

The GSE is already demonstrating the value of really effective pre-service teacher preparation and how to do it well. We have educators coming from around the world to learn from what we do. Our research on teacher education and on how people learn is shaping the understanding of what makes a teacher effective. And we incorporate our doctoral students, who are learning to be researchers in the field of teacher education, into STEP; when they graduate, they bring the knowledge they have gained here to teacher preparation programs everywhere. My goal is to ensure that we are playing a leadership role in the conversation about how to improve teacher education in this country.


How is Common Core affecting teacher training?

Common Core is putting demands on teachers that are far beyond what they ever have had to do before. For example, they are being asked to prepare students to think critically, to engage in deep analysis, and to apply what they know to novel contexts. Here at the GSE, we’ve known for a long time that these are the hallmarks of good teaching; you don't teach by having people read a chapter in a textbook and then answer factual questions at the end of the chapter. You teach by engaging students in active problem solving, in critical thinking and debate, in negotiating different points of view. We're asking teachers to teach in a way that they have not experienced themselves. That's a big ask.

Is it worth it?

The Common Core is probably the best thing that's happened in recent years to education in the United States. I hope we have the grit to work through the challenges: It would put the country in a new place economically and competitively. And the emphasis on critical thinking would improve our democratic functions.

How is STEP preparing teachers for the changes in standards?

We are in a very good position. In a way the rest of the country is catching up to the teaching approaches that have been taught in STEP for a long time. Now, instead of having to train our teacher candidates on how to survive in schools that emphasize multiple-choice tests, we can help them to be leaders in their schools.


What is the significance of the partnership the GSE has with the San Francisco Unified School District?

The partnership between Stanford and SFUSD is about five years old, and it is growing. There are now more projects — about 30  — in which GSE professors’ research is designed specifically to address issues identified by the district. Faculty and graduate students are studying English language learning pathways, the use of technology in the classroom and strategies to increase reading comprehension, among other subjects. The collaboration gives the GSE an opportunity to make a measurable difference in the quality of education experienced by a very diverse population of students. Because the district identifies the issues, the research has a high likelihood of having an effect on policies and practice. In turn, we at the GSE are strategic in the kinds of projects that we take on — we select problems that districts around the country encounter, so the lessons learned at SFUSD are useful beyond that district.

You recently announced new funding for faculty research, as part of the partnership.

Yes, the new Incentive Fund enables faculty to bypass traditional funding application processes, which can often take more than a year and do not necessarily align with the district’s concerns. It will also allow a much more timely response to district research needs. In addition, we are able to support the district through our established data sharing agreements, which makes GSE the home for some SFUSD data (with strict measures to ensure student privacy).  This gives us the capacity to respond to district questions quickly and to address broader policy issues that SFUSD shares with many other districts across the country.  

How else does the partnership aim to produce research that has a direct effect on the district’s work?

The GSE and SFUSD just established the Action Research Team. In the next school year, three or four of our doctoral students will be working as research assistants under the direction of the SFUSD’s Research, Planning and Accountability Department. It’s a great opportunity for students to learn how to form relationships with key district personnel, work closely with practitioners and have hands-on experience with large data sets. Their findings will be used in real time to evaluate and inform the district’s decisions. This is a resource the district didn’t have available to them before. 

Is the GSE looking to concentrate its research in San Francisco?

Our faculty is doing research in districts across the country, actually, throughout the world, and that’s not going to change. No one is going to tell our faculty they can't work in New York or LAUSD. And what we're learning in San Francisco is being transferred or used in other places they're working. We see tremendous value in the unique sustained relationship we have with San Francisco and we've created an infrastructure that makes it easier for faculty to do the research they want to do and for the district to get empirical evidence to guide their policy decisions. But that doesn't mean we can't be of value or can't produce important knowledge in other contexts or districts across the state and nation. I think a diverse portfolio is important.

And what is the GSE doing to advance the next generation of education researchers?

For more than a century we have been preparing the world’s top scholars of education. We can do that in part because we have such an outstanding faculty. We are training students to do disciplinary-based, rigorous research that is relevant to educational practice. More than any other acclaimed doctoral training program, our students have opportunities to work directly with policy makers and practitioners. Their research questions are informed by the real world of education and they learn to produce knowledge than can inform practitioners and policy makers.

Funding students is the biggest challenge. We’ve just announced guaranteed funding for the fifth year of doctoral work for students who have completed all requirements except for their dissertation. Nationwide, graduate school has become more expensive, and offering fifth-year funding is necessary for us to continue to attract the best candidates. It frees up graduate students to do the kind of work we have been talking about rather than take jobs that delay their progress.

Also, I just learned that Stanford has been awarded a new $4 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences [the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education] to continue our doctoral training program in quantitative education policy analysis. I believe that we’re one of five universities to get such funding, and that underscores the unusual role we’re playing nationally in doing interdisciplinary training of researchers in education. (The program is managed through the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis by GSE faculty members.)

Photo of Stipek
(Photo by Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)


Are past approaches to research and practice still relevant given the recent boom in online learning and other educational technologies?

The potential offered by advances in technology is absolutely extraordinary. The general principles of effective teaching and learning apply to online as well as face-to-face learning situations. Extant research on effective teaching practices and how people learn apply. But the new educational technologies bring up all kinds of new research questions that our faculty and students are now working on.

So how does educational technology fit into the GSE’s mission?

I have been concerned about how quickly we jump on education bandwagons in this country without knowing how or even whether innovations work. Educational technology is no exception. What the GSE can bring to this burgeoning field is systematic analysis of how and under what circumstances it improves learning.

Does that mean the GSE sponsors research on MOOCs [massive open online courses]?

Not just MOOCs. There are many ways in which technology is being used to teach. There are initiatives like Khan Academy in which students learn from an expert. There are schools like Rocketship, where students spend a substantial portion of their day engaged in learning activities on the computer. The flipped classroom is another recent innovation. Simulations have been developed to enhance science learning. You can do a chemistry experiment online now. Four-year-olds are doing math and literacy activities on iPads. All of these innovations need to be studied so we know what works, how it works, and for whom.

Our faculty and students are doing rigorous research on educational technology with partners across the university, and a number of our faculty members are offering online courses. We work closely with the Vice Provost for Online Learning, and together we opened this month the new digital learning research center at the Barnum Center, under the direction of two of our professors.

What about new areas in education besides information technology and online learning?

We want to play a role in the new frontier of brain research on learning. On July 1, we are welcoming to the GSE faculty one of the leading researchers in neuroscience, Professor Bruce McCandliss, from Vanderbilt. Bruce uses fMRI technology to examine typical and atypical reading development to improve reading interventions for children, as well as to study the impact of interventions on changes in functional brain activity. He will make sure that the GSE is a leader in this rapidly growing area of research.


How can the disparities between poor and rich students, white and students of color be narrowed?

First we have to recognize that schools are limited in how much they can bridge the achievement gap as there are so many forces that make learning a challenge for kids living in poverty. Nutrition, exposure to violence, financial instability, homelessness, access to health care affect children’s ability to learn. We cannot expect kids to just go to school and turn off all of the emotional and physical challenges in their lives. The achievement gap based on income has gotten worse, not better. As incomes have become polarized, so has the achievement gap. Income matters.

I don't want to dwell on this because it sounds too much like an excuse. But I think we have to remind ourselves that although we can do a much better job, improving education is not going to make the achievement gap go away completely.

Our strategies to reduce the achievement gap need to start early. We now recognize that learning begins when children are born and the achievement gap is well developed before children enter school. A tremendous amount of brain development occurs in the first five years — development that lays the foundation for future learning.  That development is affected by the environment. The research on early childhood by GSE faculty is helping us understand what kinds of experience matter most and what kinds of interventions will be most effective in ensuring healthy emotional and cognitive development.

Research at the GSE is also designed to improve the quality of education that children receive.  There are significant inequities in the experience and subject-matter knowledge of teachers working in schools serving students living in poverty, and schools serving these students have fewer financial resources. Some of the work we do addresses these inequities. Our direct experience in East Palo Alto Academy helps us develop a deep understanding of the challenges faced by students, families, and schools in low-income communities.

You can’t close the gap if you don’t understand it. Research at the GSE is shedding light on the nature and extent of this problem and the strategies that have the best chance of closing this gap.


You're dean, but you're also a researcher. What are you working on?

I'm interested in the quality of teaching and learning opportunities that children have. Currently I am studying this in the context of early math. Math has not been given a lot of attention in the early years, especially at pre-school. The focus typically has been on reading. But we now know that math learning in early childhood is a strong predictor of later success in school, and that young children can learn math and enjoy it. With support from the Heising-Simons Foundation I am leading a national network of scholars who are developing collaborative projects designed to improve our knowledge of how to support young children’s math learning.  We're organized under the name, DREME, Development and Research on Early Math Education.

How does it feel being dean?

It feels a little like coming home. I have enjoyed reconnecting with folks around the university and the many good friends of the GSE that I got to know when I was dean before.  I look forward to resuming my life as a faculty member (best job in the world!), but I’m happy to be where I am while I am needed.


Jonathan Rabinovitz, Director of Communications, Stanford Graduate School of Education: 650-724-9440,


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