Committee on Education gets a boost from Lewis and Sebring’s $5 million gift.
In the struggle to improve public education in America’s cities, identifying and rewarding effective teaching is a hot strategy. This wave of school reform creates incentives for teachers whose students learn the most, as measured by standardized tests. But Chicago economics professor Derek Neal has found unanticipated negative consequences: by placing teachers in competition with each other, such systems can discourage the sharing of precious teacher expertise. Neal’s current research looks instead to model an incentive system that rewards not only teachers who succeed but those who help their colleagues succeed. Put an economist (or a sociologist, psychologist, mathematician, or policy professor) in the same room with public-school teachers and administrators, and good ideas crop up. That’s what the Division’s Committee on Education does—and what a recent $5 million gift from University trustee Charles Ashby Lewis and his wife Penny Bender Sebring will help it do even better. Founded in 2006, the Committee on Education works closely with the University’s Urban Education Institute (UEI) and the four charter school campuses UEI runs on the South Side of Chicago. Lewis and Sebring’s January gift to UEI was only the family’s most recent. Their nearly $15 million of support over the past ten years has been a key driver of UEI’s development into a model for school reform in cities across the United States. The Committee consists of nine faculty members in the social sciences, one in mathematics, and one in public policy, along with the directors of UEI and the director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR). Many of them conduct research that informs practice in the schools, draw on the expertise of teachers and other UEI practitioners to inform their research, or both. Several faculty also work with CCSR, the arm of the institute that, since 1990, has maintained and analyzed an exhaustive collection of data from Chicago Public Schools. Sebring cofounded CCSR with former U of C sociology professor Tony Bryk and later became involved with the Social Sciences Division when she and Lewis joined the Visiting Committee in 2000. In the early days of the University of Chicago Charter School, before UEI or the Committee existed, Lewis says, he and Sebring were in constant conversations with Richard Saller (then dean of the SSD and later provost of the University) about how to build on the work Bryk was doing to improve urban public schools. “There were three things that we thought were critical,” Lewis says. “Based on my experience as an investment banker, I first named two pieces: long-term, dedicated leadership and a sound financial foundation.” They later added to these requirements the need for a committee on education “because,” Lewis recalls, “this work had to be grounded in the faculty and owned by them if we wanted it to persist.”
Stephen Raudenbush chairs the Committee on Education.Lewis and Sebring endowed a professorship in SSD in order to help attract an outstanding leader to the Committee, a venture that was different from any existing department or school of education. It was the anticipation of the Committee’s unique structure and especially its bloodlines to UEI that drew that leader, Stephen Raudenbush, to Chicago from the University of Michigan in 2005: “The idea of building interdisciplinary scholarship in education that would be closely in collaboration with ambitious practical work going on in the schools was an exciting idea to me.” And it’s an exciting reality, says Raudenbush, who’s now the Lewis-Sebring Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology and the College. “What makes the Committee different,” Raudenbush says, “is that it’s deeply embedded in the disciplines at the University of Chicago. Schools of education—particularly those in research-intensive universities—often become isolated from the social sciences disciplines. But we integrate with them.” The Committee isn’t formally married to UEI, and its faculty members aren’t required to work with UEI. But the opportunity to do so is one that professors with an interest in education find hard to pass up. Part of their foundation’s most recent gift, Sebring and Lewis hope, will be used to create incentives for faculty to forge more collaborations with UEI. The current work of Susan Goldin-Meadow and Susan Levine on early language development is one example. The psychology professors began following the children in the study at age one and will continue through age ten. This unusually wide scope will allow them to observe links between early language acquisition and the emergence of reading comprehension. Reading comprehension is the culminating step of learning to read, and solid literacy education is an imperative that too many urban public schools fail to provide. Because of the UEI-Committee partnership, Goldin-Meadow and Levine are taking their basic research a step further. At a recent meeting of Committee faculty, they shared five hypotheses, based on their work to date, of early interventions in children’s education that could significantly improve their language development and, later, their reading skill. While the interventions are truly hypothetical, Raudenbush says, even the possibility of bringing their basic science research to bear on the education of real children is inspiring to faculty. “A lot of this,” says Lewis, “is knitting things together. The Committee is a new model for how faculty with appointments in the disciplines can come together to work on common intellectual interests. And the collaboration between UEI and the Committee is a new model for how a research university can build knowledge about how to do urban schooling better.” Besides helping to multiply conversations between researchers and practitioners, Lewis and Sebring’s generosity will benefit up-and-coming social scientists by extending support to the Committee’s flourishing predoctoral fellowship program. “The strengths of what we’re doing are using the highest standards of social science to come to bear on the improvement of education, on the one hand,” Raudenbush says. “On the other hand, we work closely with people who are deeply engaged in creating terrific schools and others who are trying to make existing schools better. I think that basic strategy is potentially very powerful for generating new knowledge and for encouraging educational innovation.”