Out of the shadows of the Vanderbilt constellation has emerged a glittering star. During the past decade Peabody College of education and human development has been quietly elevating its national reputation as one of the most—if not the most—respected schools of education in the country.
For the past two years, U.S. News & World Report has named Peabody’s graduate education program as the very best in the nation. As if those accolades weren’t enough, the subspecialties of administration/supervision and special education also have been ranked No. 1. Other Peabody subspecialties ranked near the top of the academic food chain include education policy (fifth), elementary education (fifth), educational psychology (seventh), and higher education administration (eighth).
For Camilla Benbow, the Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development, this enviable position is all part of a well-laid strategic plan. About 10 years ago, she says, Peabody set out to become the leader among schools of education by attracting and hiring the best faculty it could find—great educators and researchers who could capitalize on its goal not only to advance teaching, but also to understand and elevate human development.
“Those two missions actually reinforce each other very nicely,” Benbow explains. “Learning pushes development, but development also pushes learning. What we’re about is enhancing human potential.”
Only 30 years ago it seemed like the school was chasing a mirage. In 1979, when Chancellor Alexander Heard signed the historic merger agreement that enfolded the financially struggling George Peabody College for Teachers into Vanderbilt University, many felt as if the university was unwisely making room for an awkward second cousin. Despite great angst, anger and argument among faculty and students on both sides, Peabody became the ninth school within the university. Defending his decision to the Peabody Board of Trustees in 1979, Heard predicted, “[This] will not be easy by any means, and it involves a lot of risks for the present Peabody College and the present Vanderbilt University, but it seems to be a risk worth taking [because of] the educational significance of the missions we think we can achieve together.”
Turns out the chancellor’s instincts were right. “Peabody has earned its reputation as the best graduate school of education for a good reason,” says Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “It’s good to see that an institution committed to high-quality research can provide a recipe for gaining recognition among its peers on a national level. Peabody’s success story should be a model for schools of education around the country.”
A major factor in recruiting and retaining the nation’s top educational scholars is the fact that Peabody now has 11 endowed faculty chair holders, who help set the bar even higher for faculty performance and bring in additional financial resources. Peabody and Vanderbilt have forged a powerful synergy, based largely on quality research being generated by the faculty. “We’ve become kind of a Mecca of research methodology in educational research,” says Craig Kennedy, associate dean for research, professor of special education and chair of the department, and associate professor of pediatrics. “We have a lot of collaborations going on between research methodologists and content experts, so we can do research that a lot of other universities can’t because they don’t have that assemblage of people.”
With 125 faculty members garnering $54 million in research funding last year, Peabody scholars brought home the largest share of the available pie, in part because they were investigating issues related to wide-sweeping education reform. When education reform became a priority for both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, policymakers went scrambling for expert voices to help them shape one of the most important debates of the 21st century. Because Peabody scholars were already applying rigorous scientific methods to the topics they were exploring and had hard data to back up their claims, legislators and think tanks across the country naturally began to seek out their opinions.
“It’s very important that Peabody remain part of the reform movement,” says Jim Cooper, Democratic U.S. congressman representing Tennessee’s Fifth District. “A lot of policymakers are being whipsawed right now. We need guidance. We have the education of children before us, and we need to know what path to go down.” He adds that academic environments like Peabody’s have the potential to merge the theoretical with the practical—to do first-rate research, but also to produce first-rate teachers who can put innovation into action.
In April 2010, representing the interests of schools of education, Dean Benbow testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). HELP is charged with reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was converted into No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by President Bush and recently overhauled by the Obama administration.
Sen. Harkin says he is optimistic that he can lead a bipartisan process to implement changes that will ultimately lead toward achieving equity and excellence in American education. As part of that plan, he says, “We want to give teachers credit for student growth and reward schools for significantly improving student achievement. We must ensure that our students have great teachers and leaders, and that educators have the support they need to do their jobs well.”
From his vantage point of formulating a national agenda, Harkin sees a cultural shift happening in education as more people use data to drive both policy and practice, as well as a growing appreciation among policymakers for the importance of research. “Many of the most successful reforms are built on a foundation of data, and it allows us to approach teaching in more scientific ways,” he comments. “While we have more to learn in this area, I think we have made strides.”
Unfortunately, for nearly 100 years, hard data relating to education research in the United States was nowhere to be found. In the early 1960s, says Whitehurst, the RAND—a large international research organization—was commissioned by the federal government to review all research that had been done on American education and, based on their findings, to propose how to improve the nation’s schools. The RAND concluded that so little research had been done that essentially nothing was known.
In 1999 the National Academy of Sciences was given a similar task and surmised that, 40 years down the road, still almost nothing was known. They also concluded that in no other field but education was the research base as weak. By and large, educators were operating on professional opinion and best guesses to determine how to teach our children.
“Now that’s changed,” Whitehurst says. “Much more good research is going on than even a decade ago. Nearly all the conversations now are within the ballpark. A decade ago the ballpark wasn’t even visible.”
Part of the lag can be blamed on the dearth of financial investment in empirical education research, says Benbow. During the past 100 years, the United States has steadily invested in medical, agricultural and technological research. As a result, those fields have made colossal advancements. Not counting recent federal stimulus money, the United States spends about $36 billion a year, for example, on medical research. By comparison, it annually devotes about $750 million to all education research.
Historically in education, rather than continually and deliberately building upon a knowledge base, the major focus instead has been on access. The government made it mandatory that all children from all racial and socioeconomic groups attend school, and it funded programs to make that possible.
What the mandate did not do was broaden the understanding of what differentiates a high-performing school from a low-performing one; or identify the characteristics that make one person a great teacher and another person a mediocre one; or reveal the best way to teach language arts to an impoverished fifth grader in an inner-city neighborhood; and so on. American education became a state, district and neighborhood crapshoot. Schools were built, teachers were hired, and the luckiest kids finished high school prepared to tackle the rigors of college while the unluckiest kids finished high school—maybe—lacking the skill sets necessary to make a decent living or advance in life.
In 2001, No Child Left Behind became the law of the land. Despite its inherent flaws, NCLB revealed alarming cracks in the veneer of American school systems. Upon further inspection, the disparities were appalling. Whitehurst says, “If you’re in the fourth grade in elementary school, the difference between having a really good teacher and having a really bad teacher is almost a third of a year of growth during the course of a year. Few other service industries would ever allow that type of variation.”
Yet the question remains, What should we do about these problems? Peabody researchers have been uniquely positioned to figure that out by conducting scientifically based, randomized clinical trials. The focus of ongoing studies at Peabody ranges, says Kennedy, “from the question of how to teach children with autism who are nonverbal, to the question of whether or not you actually get child-performance changes in public schools by paying teachers based upon their students’ performance. That’s a huge continuum of research—from looking at the individual child to working with multiple states’ school districts. It’s really unique for a school of education.”
In fact, Peabody faculty members have been so aggressive in their study that they have organized 17 research and outreach centers within the college—more than at any other school of education in the country. These garrisons of investigation include the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, the National Center on Performance Incentives, the National Center on School Choice, and the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities. A primary mission for these centers is to “create knowledge for policymakers so they can make decisions about policy based on evidence rather than belief,” Benbow says.
One of the hottest topics in education today is the idea of paying teachers an incentive bonus if their students excel on standardized measurements of learning and progress. Matthew Springer, assistant professor of public policy and education, serves as director of the National Center on Performance Incentives, based at Peabody. Beginning in the 1950s, virtually all schools established teacher pay scales according to two criteria: years of experience and degree held. The longer teachers worked in the system and the higher their post-baccalaureate degree, the more they were paid. When NCLB came into practice, it revealed that students of more seasoned and better-paid teachers were not necessarily the highest achievers. A hue and cry arose from the public demanding that teachers’ compensation should be based instead on the test scores of their pupils.
Until now, Springer says, “we’d never tried to study systematically whether pay-for-performance is a good policy or not. We know from a growing body of research that the relationship between a teacher’s years of experience and the degrees they hold are not necessarily correlated, if correlated at all, with student outcomes. So there must be a better way. We just don’t know what a better way may be.”
Most school districts spend about 80 percent of their operating monies on teacher salaries. However, as certain students fell behind the curve, policymakers began asking if this was the best use of their resources. Unfortunately, nobody knew the answer to the question. The National Center on Performance Incentives is now conducting a wide-ranging empirical study in schools in Nashville and Round Rock, Texas, to determine if, over a three-year period, middle-school math students are more successful at reaching academic benchmarks if their teachers receive a performance bonus. Using previously established district benchmarks, the study is paying individual teachers a $5,000 bonus if their students reach the 80th percentile; a $10,000 bonus at the 85th percentile; and $15,000 for achieving the 95th percentile.
Beyond performance incentives and student-achievement data, the study is also looking into teacher attitudes, teacher perceptions, instructional practices, teacher attendance and professional development to determine if any of these factors shed light on the issue. The idea is to discover a formula of elements that makes someone a “great” teacher, and then develop strategies to transfer that formula to current and future educators. “Compensation may be only one part of the puzzle,” says Springer. “It’s not going to be a silver bullet, even if it is proven to be effective. We really must look at reform of the entire system itself.”
Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution agrees. “Research needs to tell us what works and how we can get teachers to engage in the classroom,” he says. “A lot of that will involve classroom skills, but a lot will also depend on support in the classroom, the curriculum set up by the school, an accountability system that makes sense, and peers who teachers can relate to. It’s not simple, and it’s not one thing.”
In addition to collecting data, Peabody is also addressing education reform at the grassroots level. Beginning in the fall of 2010, it will begin offering a master’s degree in teaching and learning in urban schools. The idea is that teachers who work in the poorest school systems with the most disadvantaged students are more likely to be successful if they receive specific training for that job.
Dean Benbow compares the concept to that of the 1970s when teachers began training to work with children with special needs. At the time, special education was quite controversial, dismissed by skeptics as another education fad. Today, however, those same skeptics admit that special education is an undeniable success story.
“We’ve made huge progress because we’ve done a vast amount of research in special education,” Benbow says. “We have seen that if investments are made in research and development of leaders and teachers, the trajectories of kids can be changed.” She argues that with the same investment, urban education can become equally successful, turning around students who come to school under the most challenging of circumstances.
The urban schools master’s program is free to the 24 graduate students enrolled in it, and comes with a five-year teaching commitment. Starting off, the program contains three strands: middle-school math instruction, science instruction and literacy, which are the most critical areas for students living in urban poverty. The Peabody graduate students are placed into schools in cohorts of seven or eight so they will not feel like they’ve been airdropped alone into a hard-to-staff school. The beauty of this initiative, says Jesse Register, superintendent of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, is that “teachers get a free master’s degree and we get top-quality teachers.” If the program works, he hopes to expand it to other grades and institutionalize it as an ongoing collaboration between Metro Schools and Peabody.
During the 2009–2010 school year, Nashville public schools had 76,000 students enrolled—60,000 of whom were considered disadvantaged. They came from 80 different countries and spoke 120 different languages in the home, so many of these children were learning English for the first time in the classroom.
“The demographics have changed so fast that the district has not been able to keep up,” says Register. “We can’t make incremental changes and become successful. We must transform the school district. We must learn how to do things that we’ve never been successful with before. And Peabody and Vanderbilt have a role to play in that.”
One way in which Peabody and Vanderbilt contribute is by deploying its graduates into the teaching workforce. However, a problem for Peabody—and for nearly all schools of education—is that many students train for four years to become teachers only to drop out of the profession in less time than it took for them to earn a degree.
“Somehow, we have to match education with tenure,” states Rep. Cooper. He also worries that while Nashville boasts the top school of education in the country, the same cannot be said for the schools in the district where it resides. In fact, some Metro Nashville schools are deemed among the worst in terms of student performance.
“It’s gratifying that Peabody is so successful and doing so well. They’re doing a better job than anybody else in America. But it’s disheartening that the American school system isn’t doing better,” Cooper laments. “In Tennessee we rank among the top three states for the quality of our roads. Why aren’t our schools in the top three? Because we’re willing to pay more for our roads than for our schools.”
Peabody College at Vanderbilt—and, before that, George Peabody College for Teachers—has always ranked among the most prominent training grounds for America’s educators, respected for its innovative and forward-thinking pedagogy.
“To maximize education today and tomorrow, students need a broad educational experience to cope with the fast pace of change and expansion of knowledge,” says longtime Peabody supporter H. Rodes Hart, BA’54, who chairs Vanderbilt’s Shape the Future Campaign. “Exploiting evolving technical knowledge and rapid change in learning techniques is essential for maximum preparation to compete in the future, and Peabody will lead the way.”
Peabody has produced generations of teachers, principals, superintendents, university presidents and other leaders who have had a major impact on children’s education. Still, Craig Kennedy concedes that despite what he calls “beacons of excellence,” the college cannot be expected to overcome the avalanche of educational woes experienced by the nation’s schools even as it turns out determined, qualified graduates.
“Unfortunately, it’s not just weak teachers who leave the profession,” he says. “It’s often some of the best teachers who get frustrated and leave.”
On the other hand, despite the bleak backdrop facing many who enter the education job market, this is probably one of the most exciting times to become a teacher. The nation has reached a turning point and is on the cusp of revolutionary change, starting with the Obama administration’s lure of Race to the Top education funds. In the first round of funding, only two states, Tennessee and Delaware, had applications deemed strong enough to warrant Race to the Top awards. With the help of numerous educators around the state, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen landed $500 million in bonus money to improve the quality of education statewide.
As part of the process, Bredesen’s office asked Professor Springer to lead research studies to track outcomes of some of the innovative practices being put into place. The research component is still being designed and will inform the process as it moves forward.
Springer says, “When the state reached out to me, I saw Race to the Top as an opportunity to ensure that the work we were doing had a meaningful impact and potentially would help improve educational opportunities for all children. The heart of the effort is not to conduct the next great innovative study, but to answer questions that can help inform practice and policy.”
Although he’s proud of the effort made to get these new federal funds and excited about how they will be spent, Rep. Cooper sees another side to it. “Great education is not built on one-time windfalls,” he insists. “Isn’t it interesting that it took almost a lottery-size winning to help us do things we probably should have done anyway? This one-time gift can boost us, but what happens when the gift runs out?”
The answer may depend in part on the agility of Peabody scholars as they quickly implement studies, evaluate outcomes and make recommendations. It also may depend on Peabody graduates who are working in the trenches, trying out innovative teaching practices. Momentum is certainly on the side of both the researchers and the educators out in the field. As education reform continues to rumble fast and furious across America, Peabody faculty and students are in a prime position to help lead the charge.
A freelance writer since 1985, Lisa A. DuBois has penned stories for magazines, newspapers, podcast, radio and television, and is a frequent contributor to Vanderbilt publications. She is author of the nonfiction book More Than a Place: The Origins of a Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, and is completing the manuscript for her second book, Ambition and Energy: The Cockrell Family, to be published later this year. DuBois resides with her husband in Houston.
© 2013 Vanderbilt University | Photography: MARY DONALDSON, Gediyon Kifle, Ting-Li Wang, STEVE GREEN
Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.