An Education Studies advisory board led by Professors of Psychology Steven Stemler and Anna Shusterman has been meeting to discuss the logistics required in creating a new College of Education Studies at the University. Additionally, in the past two months, a group of six faculty and staff—four of whom are also on the Education Studies advisory board—has also been meeting to develop a partnership between Wesleyan and Middletown Public Schools, in association with the potential new college. The work performed by each of these boards is indicative of growing conversation surrounding a possible expansion of Wesleyan’s Education Studies program.
In expanding the Education Studies program from a minor into a college within the University, similar to the College of East Asian Studies or the College of the Environment, the program would be able to hire its own faculty. The college would also be able to put on its own programming and offer a greater array of interdisciplinary courses in and related to the field of education studies. According to Stemler, this college would still be based pedagogically in the liberal arts tradition, indicating a strong emphasis on theory, history, and philosophy. In addition to courses focusing on education through an interdisciplinary lens, the college would most likely involve a strong service-learning component.
Stemler, as a co-coordinator of the Education Studies program, said that student interest has been increasing in recent years. Professor Amy Grillo also cited this momentum, offering recent developments in best-practice teaching theory and policy shifts under U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as possible causes.
“There’s always been this interest in education studies,” Stemler said. “We’ve just been missing it on campus, or it’s been coming to my office hours or Professor Shusterman’s office hours. Now that it’s more formalized, people are finding each other, and there’s more of a sense of community. So what we’re trying to do is build a structure where it can be more systematic if people like to think a little bit differently about some issues that they haven’t been exposed to prior to this offering.”
Under Shusterman and Stemler’s leadership, the Education Studies program transitioned from being a certificate to a minor when the University introduced the possibility of minors to its curriculum. This transition was partially due to confusion around whether an Education Studies certificate would result in a teaching certification, which was not offered for students as a part of the program. Though it has not been ruled out by the advisory board, Stemler said that implementing a structure for students to get certified for teaching is not an immediate priority for the potential new program.
“We don’t have the infrastructure yet, but it’s something that committee in the past five years has explored,” he said. “As I’ve spent a year on this committee, along with several other faculty, where we talked to all sorts of people from around the country who do teacher certification. The consistent message was, if you’re gonna get into [doing programming for Education Studies], make sure you’re doing something that no one else is doing. You’ve got to add value in some way, otherwise you can take resources away from other places. We’re conscious of that.”
According to Stemler, the program will likely develop into an internal college which requires students to link departments. As a mandated “linked” major, the program would require students to double-major in a different department, allowing the program to remain interdisciplinary in nature.
“There’s a very small minority of people who have voiced an interest in a major in education studies,” Stemler said. “I think the vast majority of people have no appetite for that, including myself, and part of the reason is because we don’t want to build a silo of this department that has its own resources. The philosophy of education studies that we’re embracing is very much in line with the liberal arts philosophy.”
As the advisory board of Education Studies has evolved, so has the subcommittee interested in creating a Middletown-Wesleyan collaborative. These two committees, Provost Rob Rosenthal said, are distinct, but are thought of as being connected due to their emphasis on getting Wesleyan students into the public school district.
With guidance from Clifton Watson of the Jewett Center for Community Partnership, this “Mid-Wes Collaborative” aims to work with the Middletown community to serve its needs, instead of imposing an education framework chosen by Wesleyan researchers.
“The Mid-Wes Collaborative will strategically leverage the University’s enthusiasm, human capital, faculty expertise, and on-campus facilities to support Middletown Public School’s priorities, built on the pillars of equity, innovation, and improvement,” wrote Director of the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships Clifton Watson, who sits on both the Mid-Wes Collaborative planning committee and the advisory board for Education Studies. “Student groups and individual faculty members and staff have long been invested in working in partnership with the dedicated teachers and administrators of the Middletown Schools. This effort signals that both [Middletown Public Schools] and Wesleyan are excited about being even more thoughtful in terms of what this work looks like across the entire school district, across academic content areas, and for the ‘long haul.’”
President Michael Roth ’78 also commented on the importance of looking to the Middletown community for how the Mid-Wes Collaborative should look.
“The idea is to create a collaboration with the school district so that Wesleyan faculty and students are doing projects that actually advance the goals of the school district, rather than us going to the school district and saying, ‘We have our goals as researchers and psychologists and sociologists, and we want you to be our experimental material,’” Roth said. “We want to see what their goals are.”
In planning the Mid-Wes Collaborative, the committee is working with Superintendent of the Middletown Public School District Michael T. Connor. Mid-Wes comes two years after Wesleyan announced the closure of Green Street Community Center in June 2017 and, according to Grillo, speaks partially to the need created by the center’s closure.
“I think when a university starts a program and then isn’t able to sustain it, it leaves a hole,” Grillo said. “But it also has ripple effects on all the other community partners that we have. So the kids who used to go to Green Street are now trying to find somewhere to be, and they might be choosing programs that they’re not a good match for, because that’s all there is.”
Grillo, who teaches a course called “Schools in Society” and a Practicum in Education Studies within the Education Studies minor, was hired last year in response to increasing student and faculty demand for offerings in the study of education at Wesleyan. She is a member of the advisory board working to develop the Mid-Wes collaborative and of the advisory board of the program. Through the practicum and other workshops potentially offered by the new program, Grillo hopes to give students the skills to come into the school district with an informed perspective.
“There is the much larger question of what is service-learning, and what does it mean to do service, and who are you really serving,” Grillo explained. “Are you just serving yourself or are you actually providing any value to the community you’re helping in? This connects the whole idea of ‘voluntourism’…. You do run the risk of privileged students at Wesleyan going into schools where they may not know anything about those people, so one of the things that we’re really focusing on is cultural competency, learning the questions you should ask. How do you listen and how do you think about—and become really aware of—your own power and privilege in relation to the people you’re working with?”
Rosenthal similarly emphasized placing care in the role the University plays working with the greater Middletown community.
“All the work we do with Middletown should be reciprocal,” Rosenthal said. “We should be collaborative. It should be mutually beneficial. In my own experience, teaching service-learning is very powerful for students. It’s a great pedagogical tool, but especially if it’s done thoughtfully and if what we do arises from the community, then it’s useful for the community as well. It’s like any relationship: You have to take care of it and be thoughtful about what you’re doing so it’s not one-sided in either direction.”
The advisory committees are continuing to meet on a bi-weekly basis, working toward a potential proposal at the end of the semester. When the structural proposal is completed by the board, it will progress to the Educational Policy Committee (EPC), which approves departments and programs at the University.
Data collected by the Gordon Career Center demonstrated that 17 percent of the Wesleyan Class of 2018 are working in the education field, making it the most popular post-graduation industry. According to Grillo, this data reflects a correlation between the qualities of the students who gravitate toward the field and the qualities of students who would choose a liberal arts education like Wesleyan’s.
“People come because they understand Wesleyan to be a place where you’ll be able to think about your education, have a hand in sort of building and constructing your own education,” Grillo said. “You know, in the true liberal arts sense. But I think Wesleyan is perceived as a place where students actually have the freedom and initiative to make their education happen the way that they want it to, and so if you’re attracting that student body, you’re naturally getting people who are thinking about teaching and learning…. They have ideas about their own learning and about what’s worked and what hasn’t in the past. It naturally attracts people who are prone to thinking about teaching and learning, and also larger social problems.”