How Do We Decide What To Do?

by Alan Lesgold

.Welcome to this inaugural edition of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education online newsletter, PittEd. We hope that you find this a good way to keep up with what’s happening at your alma mater. For this first issue, I thought I might give you a glimpse into how we decide which faculty to hire and what programs to offer. Basically, we’re influenced in our decisions by three factors: student wishes and needs, institutional strengths, and public responsibility.

Student Needs
Student wishes and needs change from time to time, generally reflecting the availability of jobs and changing interests. But there are other, broader student needs. As the cost of higher education has risen, for example, the cost to students of a program has become more important. So, when we consider changing, adding, or deleting a program, we ask several questions.

First, would there be jobs for our graduates? For example, we have all the resources needed to prepare physical education teachers, but we currently don’t offer this track. The reason is that there are few physical education jobs available due to schools cutting back budgets. We therefore won’t offer a program that doesn’t enable successful graduates to find professional positions.

The second question is whether we have a program that provides the best possible training at the lowest possible cost. So, for example, we just revised our entire Master of Arts in Teaching program to require fewer credits but to better cover key topics needed to be a great teacher. We were able to cut the credit load by moving from only focusing on whole semester courses to making some of the courses into collections of modules of varying length. With each module being prepared by a real expert on the topic, it could be more time efficient and effective. (The topic of our improved teacher education program is further discussed in this newsletter in the article, “School of Education Makes Changes to Strengthen Teacher Education.”)

Institutional Strengths
Institutional strengths are always important, both in program design and in faculty recruiting. Being in the neighborhood of Carnegie Mellon and having the Learning Research and Development Center and the Office of Child Development here at Pitt, we have above average opportunities to attract and retain top people who research how different subjects are learned and how the mind develops over a lifetime. Recently, we realized that motivation and engagement was an increasing problem in the school world and that we had a good foundation on which to build up our strengths in that area, so we recruited several new faculty members with interests in motivation, persistence, and engagement. (One of these members, Ming-Te Wang, is featured in this newsletter for some of his recent successes.) Our strengths in literacy also build upon not only our current faculty but also colleagues in psychology, English, and other related areas. Our recently expanded strengths in educational policy built upon strengths across the University, at CMU, and even at RAND Corporation.

Public Responsibility
Public responsibility is important to our decisions as well. One example is our Health and Physical Activity (HPA) Department, which has expanded in recent years even though we don’t produce physical education teachers. There is abundant evidence that Americans need to be more physically active. We started with a modicum of strength, and this has grown as we added additional faculty. HPA Chair John Jakicic and his colleagues now represent one of the country’s finest research groups looking at how to help adults develop living patterns that improve their health—they’re so good that they even have me working out at 6 a.m. several days a week! Our efforts in urban education, including the expansion of our Center for Urban Education, also are a response to public need. Our task is to better understand what needs to change before we can count on every child having the chance to get an adequate education—and then to educate the public on what we have learned from our research. This is an important economic matter besides being a moral issue. An undereducated populace results in higher health costs, higher costs for prison, and lower quality of life for everyone.

Often, I am asked whether a particular faculty member will be replaced when he or she retires. The answer is that we try hard to use every faculty position to respond to student needs, build on our strengths, and serve the public responsibly. Sometimes, that is done best by directly cloning ourselves. Sometimes, it requires making changes as opportunities arise. I welcome your thoughts on how well we are doing in this regard.