Bob Pianta: Leading Curry In New Directions

In his first five-year term as dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, Robert Pianta presided over the 2010 dedication of Bavaro Hall, a $37.4 million, 65,000-square-foot building that provided new office, meeting and clinic space, and allowed Curry faculty to come together in one complex.

Beyond Bavaro, though, Pianta and the Curry faculty have built partnerships that link the study of education to public policy, health and business. With the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, School of Medicine and the Darden School of Business, Curry is working to address national problems such as childhood obesity and troubled schools.

Meanwhile, applied research centers such as Youth-Nex, the Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, and the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness are developing tools and processes to help teachers and school systems improve their effectiveness.

"Dean Pianta's leadership has helped enrich the educational offerings of the University while raising the national visibility of the excellent work Curry School faculty are doing," John Simon, executive vice president and provost, said. "With new interdisciplinary programs launching and proven programs expanding, Curry is poised to make progress in addressing significant educational challenges in the years ahead."

In this Q&A with UVA Today, Pianta discusses Curry's strengths and the initiatives he expects to champion in the years ahead.

UVA Today: What were your priorities when you took the job as dean of the Curry School in 2007?

Pianta: When I first took the job as dean of Curry, the school showed tremendous potential for elevating its profile nationally and internationally, particularly regarding work in education policy and in redesigning preparation programs for teachers and educational leaders. I wanted to foster that.

I also wanted to engage more deeply with the University community. As a school of education in a public service-oriented university, I felt that we had a big role to play in helping the University engage with important social problems.

Over the course of the past five years, we've ramped up our research capacity. We've engaged with the policy community. We've worked with other schools within the University and we've launched international collaborations.

Q: What have been your greatest accomplishments in the past five years? Looking ahead, what do you see as your greatest challenges and what areas do you think you'll focus on?

A: I've seen a realization of the potential that has been present for a long time in the Curry School. My predecessor, Dave Breneman, did a great job of assembling talent. I was fortunate to inherit that talent and then lead the opportunity to extend and enrich it.

Early on, the faculty wanted to improve our doctoral program. We shrank the program's size and raised our requirements and that approach has shown great success.

We reshaped our program in education leadership. That also is showing great success.

We have worked closely with the School of Continuing and Professional Studies to consolidate our education degree programs so that we now can focus more fully on the needs of the state. We plan to create new opportunities for educators interested strengthening their credentials.

School districts often come to us with new ideas, whether for a degree program or an outreach program. We would like to be able to mobilize our resources quickly and be entrepreneurial, so that if we see a need for more speech and language pathologists in the state – and I can tell you, there's a tremendous need for that – we can respond, which we're doing right now.

Q: What contributes to Curry's strong national reputation and rankings?

A: Our strong national reputation and rankings are a product of tremendous faculty. There's absolutely no substitute for that.

We also do work that's relevant. We do work of a very high quality that gets noticed and our faculty go out and share that work in places where national impressions are formed.

Curry faculty are routinely represented in serious policy discussions with state and federal education officials, including Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education. We engage with the media, with public intellectuals such as Malcolm Gladwell, and with education experts at influential think tanks such as the Center for American Progress, the National Center for Quality Teaching and the American Enterprise Institute. Leading education policy thinkers on both the right and the left call us to find out what we're thinking.Our ideas are well received and this engagement enhances our visibility and our ability to accomplish our mission.

Q: What are the national problems in education that your experts and programs address?

A: Everyone agrees that having a good teacher is an important thing for a child. When I give talks on this and ask people to raise their hands if they remember a teacher who changed their lives, everybody raises their hands. But the question is, what is good teaching?

You'll often hear: "Teaching is an art." "We don't know how to measure it." "Good teachers are born and not made." We at Curry take a very different position. We study teaching scientifically, identify the features that are really effective and work with teachers to improve those techniques. And we believe we can teach our students to be excellent teachers.

Another area of great national importance is failing schools. We have partnered with Darden to create the Darden-Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education, which offers tools and training programs to teachers and administrators of troubled schools. In the past decade, this program has helped the staffs of numerous troubled schools nationwide turn their schools around.

Our work in the area of leadership in particular contributed to our recent selection as the home base for the prestigious national organization, the University Council for Educational & Administration, for the next five years. This vote of confidence by our peers expands our outreach to the preparation of every school superintendent and K-12 principal in the country, allowing us to share with them new ideas, new tools, new assets and new perspectives on the challenges they face.

Q: What are some of the research projects you're most excited about?

A: We've built a higher education focus within our Center for Advanced Study of Teaching & Learning, which traditionally has had more of a pre-K-to-12 focus. We've established a center with the Batten School on educational policy and workforce development, and we've launched Youth-Nex, a center that focuses on positive youth development.

In each of those centers, the goal is to create intellectual enterprise zones – engines of research and development that tackle important problems by bringing people together from different disciplines.

Jim Wyckoff, who directs the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness, and his colleague at the center, Tom Dee, have just engaged with the Washington, D.C. public schools to analyze their achievement data and make decisions about teacher effectiveness. This center has been doing the same thing with the New York City public school system for some time.

Youth-Nex is about to launch an initiative to take a new look at middle school. Given what we know about the development of adolescents, particularly young adolescents, we could do a much better job of educating them.

As for the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching & Learning, our work is expanding globally. We have developed tools for the assessment and improvement of pre-K teachers' effectiveness that are currently being used by every Head Start program in the country. In the K-12 sector, those tools have been featured in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Measures of Effective Teaching Study and internationally, they are being translated almost weekly into different languages. We're working right now in Israel, Turkey, Chile and Ecuador to help those countries tackle their teacher effectiveness challenges.

Outside of our research centers, a tremendous number of faculty are doing really interesting work in such areas as differentiated instruction – helping educators shift their teaching emphasis from memorization to critical thinking skills; and in the STEM disciplines, improving the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math.

Q: You also mentioned interdisciplinary initiatives within the University.

A: Within the University, we have a lot of interdisciplinary connections. We just established with Batten a route for their master's students in public policy to move directly into a doctorate in education policy. It is a joint sequencing of an academic program designed around a rigorous study of education policy.

We also have a number of connections with the School of Medicine. For example, we are collaborating on a project within Youth-Nex to address the complex problems of obese adolescents. Obese kids not only have health problems, they also tend to have social problems and do poorly in school. How do we understand all of the challenges facing a given adolescent and put him on a positive trajectory?

We work closely with the College of Arts & Sciences, particularly in our teacher preparation program, which allows Curry students to receive degrees from the College in different majors. A lot of undergraduates, particularly from the Department of Psychology, like to come to Curry to design applied research projects that get them out into the local public schools.

On the international side, we're about to join with colleagues from Indonesia to establish a diagnostic and treatment clinic for children with special needs. In combination with creating a certification program for teachers, this project really means the construction of a special education system for the country of Indonesia.

We also have a new program with the Darden School that focuses on innovation and education reform. This dual-degree program will enable students to get a Darden MBA and a master's degree in education from the Curry School in the same two-year timeframe that it takes to get a regular MBA. This collaboration also offers students immersion in the problems of education while capitalizing upon the mechanisms of the private sector to enact and enhance reform.

Q: What sets the Curry student experience apart?

A: Perhaps the most important element of a Curry education is the connection we make between rigorous study and real-world experience. It's one thing to sit in a classroom and learn about child poverty and how that affects learning. It's another thing to be immersed in a classroom situation where you're actually trying to teach a low-income child how to read.

Q: How do Curry's graduates fare in the job market?

A: Our teacher preparation program produces a large number of graduates who are vacuumed up by school systems, and increasingly by charter schools, across the country every year.

As for our leadership preparation program, those graduates, without exception, move on to leadership positions in school systems and other agencies.

And typically, our doctoral students – the next generation of researchers – have positions secured before they graduate. Jobs may be in academia, research think tanks or with R&D efforts in different contexts.

Q: How do alumni help Curry and what does Curry do to encourage them to stay connected?

A: It's been a priority for me as dean to connect with our alumni. One of the things that have been a great source of pride for me is to see what people are doing with a Curry degree.

It's not always a linear path. You don't necessarily see somebody finish with a teaching degree and then 13 years later be working as a teacher, or finish with a doctorate in social foundation and then be working as a professor. But without exception, whatever our graduates are doing, they view their experience at Curry as being foundational for their success.

We're also trying to determine what the interests and needs of our alums are. It's a varied group. Over the course of the next couple of years, we're going to be initiating much more contact with our alumni that will be both informational and personal. We're doing more on the website. We're doing more with reunions. We're doing more with newsletters that focus on particular programs.

Q: What keeps you awake at night?

A: Aside from the noise on the Lawn? My wife and I live in Pavilion I, so there's usually noise late into the night from the students. And there's a lot of construction noise on the Lawn right now.

But I sleep surprisingly well. I work with a tremendous team of people who are taking care of what needs to be taken care of and good things are happening.

Q: What's the most important advice anyone ever gave you and what advice do you give to your graduates?

A: My undergraduate adviser said, "Don't ever make two major changes at once." His point was that if you want to gain traction, do one thing at a time and stick with it. Don't try to do too much.

The advice that I give to students is, "Make your own opportunities." Don't think of your future as something that can be scripted or planned or that's going to be linear. Careers develop from confidence and passion and drive and engagement and the opportunities that pop up along the way. Just be on the lookout for opportunities and you'll find yourself doing something you love.

– Interview by Charlotte Crystal