School & District Management

University of Chicago Steps Up Work on City Schools

By Debra Viadero — September 13, 2005 4 min read
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The University of Chicago, criticized a few years ago for closing its venerable education department, has lured a prominent education scholar to join its faculty this fall to head a new interdisciplinary committee focused on improving urban schools.

The hiring of Stephen W. Raudenbush, an expert on education research methods from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, marks the university’s latest step to re-engage itself in K-12 education and carve out a new mission focused specifically on improving public schooling in Chicago and other large cities.

“We’re in an environment where city officials and the civic community are hungry for the capacity to improve public education, and we think we have better capacity for improving education than any other institution,” said Richard P. Saller, the university provost.


It was Mr. Saller who presided over the department’s dismantling when he was the dean of the university’s social sciences division. The demise of the department in 2001, more than a century after its founding by the education philosopher John Dewey, drew criticism from scholars and former students. The closing followed a review that raised questions about the quality of the department’s research and its commitment to teaching.

“It was probably the single most difficult thing I’ve had to do as an administrator,” Mr. Saller said in an interview last month. Since then, he said, “I was looking for opportunities in education but I didn’t want to replicate the problems the department had before. I think we’re there now.”

Keeping a Hand In

With its former education faculty retired or scattered throughout the institution, the University of Chicago kept a hand in local school improvement efforts through two campus-based groups: the Consortium on Chicago School Research, an independent research group founded in 1990 by Anthony S. Bryk that evaluates policy changes in the city’s public schools; and the Center on School Improvement, now called the Center on Urban School Improvement.

The latter group oversees the university’s first charter elementary school, the North Kenwood/Oakland School, which opened eight years ago. This month, the center launched a second charter elementary school, the Donoghue Charter School. Plans are in the works for five more charter schools over the next four years, including a small high school set to open next year.

“I don’t think you can find a top-tier research institution anywhere in the country that’s doing that,” said Timothy F.C. Knowles, a former Boston school official who was recruited to head the center two years ago.

He said the center, which is located in the same building as the research consortium, also oversees a citywide support network for beginning teachers, maintains a digital library documenting the work of exemplary urban teachers, and conducts research that grows out of problems identified by practitioners. It also launched a master’s-degree program for urban teachers. The first nine students in that program graduated this summer.

Not quite the same as a full-fledged department, the new Committee on Education that Mr. Raudenbush heads will draw faculty members from departments across the university to pursue research in urban education. While the committee will take graduate students under its wing, the degrees those students earn will still come from other academic departments, such as public policy, sociology, and economics, according to Mr. Saller.

Mr. Raudenbush said the promise of substantial resources for the committee’s work and its narrowly focused mission attracted him to his new job.

“It’s much sharper than you would typically have in a school of education or a department on teaching in urban settings,” he said. “I think Chicago represents the best opportunity we have nationally to solve problems of tremendous national importance.”

Fusing Practice and Theory

David F. Labaree, the author of the 2004 book The Trouble With Education Schools, said the changes at the university illustrate the challenge that elite education schools and departments face as they try to balance scholarship with social relevance.

“In Chicago, they’re saying, ‘Well, we got rid of our education department, and now it’s really hard for us to be a serious university in the city of Chicago without having a serious investment in education,’ ” said Mr. Labaree, who is an education professor at Stanford University.

Patricia A. Graham, a former dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education who has been an outside adviser on some of the changes, called Chicago’s approach promising.

“This shows that it’s possible for a major research university that does not have a school of education to maintain a research program in the field that brings problems of practice to the world of theory,” she said.

Ultimately, Mr. Saller hopes to raise a $110 million endowment to support both the university’s intellectual and practical efforts in urban education.

The university recently announced that the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation would provide $5 million to support the center’s work.

“We’re still very much in the process of developing all this,” said Mr. Saller. “One thing we are very clear about is that it’s important not to have education research segregated in one school or department, but to keep it in constant contact with other schools and departments.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as University of Chicago Steps Up Work on City Schools


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