Dean's Announcement of the Learning Policy Center

 From Alan Lesgold, Dean of the School of Education

Ordinarily, the development of a new activity in the School of Education requires extended deliberation and planning. Occasionally, however, a special opportunity arises that requires more rapid action. Recently, such an opportunity did arise. Last spring, the Provost, LRDC’s director (Lauren Resnick), and I discussed with Mary Kay Stein (our latest full Professor) what would make Pitt even stronger and harder to leave. Reflecting on that conversation, Lauren and I proposed that we create a Learning Policy Center to begin building on the many strengths we have at Pitt in learning policy and make us a leader in that area. I’m very pleased to report that the University will be investing substantial additional resources in the building of such a center over the next five years.

The Learning Policy Center will focus its efforts on research in education (and related arenas) that clarifies how to create effective learning opportunities for elementary, secondary and post-secondary students as well as preschool children and adults. It will publish its work in leading scholarly journals. In addition, it may on occasion develop research-grounded recommendations for states and school districts on ways to improve learning opportunities and outcomes for varied populations of students. Our teacher preparation programs do a good job of preparing individual teachers to teach specific subjects well, but there is quite a gap between the best approaches in which new teachers are trained and what actually happens in real classrooms. Established practice, school level leadership, and governmental mandates do not always foster the best possible teaching. Our school systems and higher levels of government need to understand both what levels of learning can be achieved for all students and how to help assure that these levels are in fact achieved. It is necessary also that the general public understand what levels of success are possible and what it takes to attain these levels.

Pitt is especially well positioned to address policy issues of this sort. The School of Education prepares the best teachers and school leaders for this region. Its faculty have contributed extensively to research on effective teaching, learning, and leadership across multiple subject areas and a diverse range of students. The Learning Research and Development Center has been a major contributor to, indeed a founder of, the cognitive science of instruction. The Institute for Learning has been addressing the challenge of improving teaching on a large scale in some of the largest school districts in our country. In addition to some of our School of Education colleagues here at Pitt, colleagues nearby, including researchers at Carnegie Mellon and at RAND Corporation, have been expertly evaluating various policies and projects for educational improvement and have pioneered the kinds of sophisticated statistical approaches needed to empirically test policy implementations. This is the right place for a learning policy center.

The Learning Policy Center will include existing faculty from several departments in our School, others from elsewhere within Pitt, affiliates from CMU and RAND, and several additional faculty to be recruited. It will be a School-wide institute, founded in collaboration with LRDC, and its core faculty will hold faculty titles in the School at large. Its founding director will be Mary Kay Stein. A search committee will begin looking for two junior and one senior faculty member shortly. In addition, we will be recruiting at least one post-doctoral fellow, more as additional funding becomes available from grants.

The Learning Policy Center will emphasize research and the establishment of an academic program that will train the next generation of learning policy scholars. Each of these pursuits is discussed briefly below.

Research. More than at any time in our nation’s history, learning is at the heart of local, state and national education policy debates and intentions. Policies establishing standards and requirements for testing are all, in principle, aimed at changing the kind and extent of learning in American schools.

The envisioned scholarship of the Learning Policy Center will take up and advance ideas that lie at the intersection of learning and policy. Over the past 30 years, there has been a revolution in our understanding of learning, the effects of which are just beginning to penetrate educational policy. Only recently have scholars begun to apply new theoretical understandings about the active, social, and subject-matter-specific nature of learning to the study of policy, organizational change, professional development, leadership, and assessment and accountability systems for the school world. The Center will become a nationally recognized resource to which policy makers at all levels (national, state and local) turn for the latest research on how students and adults learn and the implications of this research for the development and refinement of educational policy.

Academic Program. In a research university, strong research activities should be matched by strong graduate programs. In addition to learning through theoretically sophisticated and up-to-date coursework, students benefit from apprenticing themselves to active researchers who possess major grants in their fields of expertise. Students, in turn, are expected to produce dissertations that move their respective fields forward. This is our vision for Pitt.

While it is the collective responsibility of faculty to develop such programs, we very much hope that we will move quickly to develop a school-wide doctoral program that builds upon the new Center. Such a Ph.D. program would produce individuals committed to examining the relationship between policy and practice with a special emphasis on the role of learning from a social/organizational perspective that is well grounded in knowledge of individual learning. Together, the Institute and the degree program will play a nationally visible role in producing a practical theory that connects what we know about learning in the subject matters to an improved understanding of educational policies and the structures and processes of education systems at all levels from pre-school to adult learning. We shortly will convene both an open faculty discussion of such a program and a working committee to develop a program proposal for University-level review.