Pianta: Curry School of Education 'Poised for Promise'

May 22, 2012 — The University of Virginia's Curry School of Education stands ready to become a national leader in "innovation and impacts," two areas that aren't necessarily associated with education schools, Dean Robert Pianta told the Board of Visitors' Educational Policy Committee meeting.

"We're poised for promise. We can really go much further in the next five years," said Pianta, whose presentation included his vision for the school as well as a brief overview of the past five years and strategies for success.

Where Curry Stands

The Curry School is among the top three institutions influencing education policy, behind Stanford and Harvard universities, in the annual rankings of education scholars reported by Rick Hess of Education Week and the American Enterprise Institute.

The school's overall U.S. News & World Report ranking jumped 10 positions in 2010, from 31st to 21st nationally, and a number of its graduate programs are among the magazine's top-ranked programs this year: educational psychology/applied developmental science (No. 17), curriculum and instruction (No. 13), administration and supervision (No. 12), education policy (No. 12), elementary education (No. 10), secondary education (No. 8) and special education (No. 5).

Pianta credits strong faculty and hiring efforts for helping propel the rankings.

"We had great people already and have been very competitive in getting the best people to join us," he said.

Recent Progress

Pianta said Curry is emphasizing innovation and partnerships across schools, including the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Medicine.

The most recent example is its partnership with the Darden School of Business, to offer a dual-degree program, combining an MBA with an M.Ed. degree in education reform, to produce innovators at the intersection of business and education. Pianta and Darden Dean Robert Bruner, also at the board meeting, said the program has drawn strong interest.

Curry also has established three new research centers: The Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, which focuses on K-12 and higher education; the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness; and Youth-NEX: The U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. It has restructured its doctoral programs for quality and rigor; has begun offering online and off-Grounds courses to help expand the presence and influence of the school; and strengthened and focused faculty governance to emphasize academic planning.

The school also is shifting to new, direct-admit undergraduate programs, with kinesiology and communication disorders being the first offerings. Previously, undergraduate students transferred into those programs beginning in their third years; now they are admitted directly into the programs as first-year students. In addition, Curry now oversees its off-Grounds courses, degrees and certificate programs, which formerly had been under the purview of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

'Discover. Create. Change.'

Pianta told the board that Curry is focusing on research that makes a difference in the classroom. Specifically, he cited teaching assessment tools developed by Curry faculty and researchers that are now used in more than 50,000 classrooms nationwide, including every Head Start classroom in the U.S., and early reading assessments being used in Virginia and other states.

A goal of Pianta's is to establish U.Va. and Curry as an "agent of change in education," and he views Curry's people and the tools being developed as evidence-based innovations that will lead to this goal.

Pianta himself is one of these change agents. Case in point: his report on "Implementing Observation Protocols," released May 15 by the Center for American Progress. In it, Pianta argues that America's K-12 public schools can learn much about observing and evaluating teachers from their counterparts in the early childhood sector. His report examines lessons learned from observation in early childhood education – including the importance of standardization and the use of trained observers, methods for ensuring the validity and reliability of the instruments, and the use of observational measures as a lever to produce effective teaching – that may be helpful as states and districts begin implementing more rigorous observation protocols for K-12 teachers.

Pianta told the board that Curry is placing more emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics competency for K-12 teachers, in part by redesigning its largest program, teacher preparation, to better incorporate these areas.

Innovation is occurring in master's degree programs as well. Pianta said Curry is working toward making its master's programs more accessible by offering courses in population centers, such as Northern Virginia, and by streamlining programs to allow students to earn both undergraduate and master's degrees in four years.

In the coming years, Pianta wants to establish the U.Va. Institute for Innovation in Education to "foster, incubate, test and market innovations," he told the board.

Pianta noted that from 2006 to 2012, Curry's research support had increased by more than 30 percent, from $25 million to $33 million, and that the school had added approximately 30 full-time employees supported by external funding. "Managing to self-sufficiency" is how Pianta said he will guide Curry in his next term as dean, which begins July 1.

Board member John Nau noted that he attended a recent Curry Foundation board meeting and left "excited" at the prospects for Curry's future and impressed by the people drawn to its work.

In response to Vice Rector Mark Kington's question about major obstacles facing Curry and how the board could help, Pianta said on-Grounds research space is a serious challenge, as well as obtaining approvals for a new undergraduate degree program in innovation and social change and for the new innovations institute.

Glynn Key, who chairs the Educational Policy Committee, asked about the evolution of the student body at Curry.

Pianta responded, "We right-sized the doctoral program. We were too big. We also focused on more strategic recruitment for quality and diversity." He said he witnessed the results of those efforts Sunday at Curry's hooding ceremony, where he got to spend time with its most recent doctoral graduates who are now entering academic and leadership positions across the country.

Pianta is excited for the opportunity U.Va. and Curry have to be a "first-mover" and make a difference in a "major social challenge" – education reform, he said.

– by Rebecca Arrington