Urban Education Meets the Digital Age

By Diane Krieger
Photographs by Mark Berndt

One hundred years young, the USC Rossier School of Education has reinvented itself as a dominant force for urban education in the new century

A senior leadership meeting at USC Rossier includes from left, Dominic Brewer, Lawrence Picus, Kathy Stowe, Dean Karen Symms Gallagher and Melor Sundt.Slideshow IconA senior leadership meeting at USC Rossier includes from left, Dominic Brewer, Lawrence Picus, Kathy Stowe, Dean Karen Symms Gallagher and Melor Sundt.
 Seven years into Karen Symms Gallagher's tenure, a new Academic Program Review from the provost's office caller her achievements “nothing short of a miracle,” adding: “She has managed a complete turnaround of the school. She can and should declare victory.”  Before the online MAT program, USC Rossier graduate about 100 teachers per year. But California alone needs about 10,000 new teachers each year. The only way to have a meaningful impact in this environment was to scale up. “This is the Asian century,” Gallagher notes. “China, Vietnam and India are starting to see that you have to invest in the children and youth of the country, getting them as much education as possible, because that’s the way to participate in the global economy.”

When the USC Rossier School of Education celebrated its centennial last year, it not only honored its storied past (it is the oldest education program in Southern California and at one time was the alma mater of nearly everyone who was anyone in the region’s school systems), but also announced a bold new future.

Dean Karen Symms Gallagher, who took over as dean of the school in 2000, has spent the past decade on a mission, leading her faculty, students, staff and alumni in a strategic plan designed to strengthen urban education locally, nationally and globally. The school’s endowment has gone up by nearly 50 percent, from $30 million in 2000 (including the $20 million naming gift from Barbara and Roger Rossier in 1998) to $41 million in 2010; and annual sponsored research has doubled from $3.6 million a decade ago to a current level of nearly $7 million.

Expect the numbers to keep growing. Last year, Gallagher wowed the national education scene by trailblazing the virtual domain with the first entirely online master of arts in teaching program to be offered by a major research university. Enrollment began at 142 in the inaugural year and hit over 1,000 this summer, making it the fastest-growing teacher preparation program, online or on-campus, at a not-for-profit college or university. Continuing at this rate, MAT@USC could be the largest not-for-profit teacher preparation program in the country in just three years.

In August, USC Rossier, in partnership with other major Los Angeles stakeholders, landed a prestigious three-year, $6 million U.S. Department of Education grant to turn around the lowest-performing 1 percent of schools in the L.A. Unified School District. The goal is to ratchet up citywide competition through the Public School Choice process. The USC team’s winning proposal was one of 49 funded projects selected from 1,700 applications nationwide.

As Gallagher sees it, urban education brings everyone to the table, helping meet the needs of “families living in poverty, schools with a large percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price school lunch, English language learners and under-resourced schools,” whether those needs crop up downtown, in the suburbs or in remote areas.

Faculty hiring at the school is keeping pace with these changes. In just the past two years, the school has added about 25 new full-time faculty, plus additional adjuncts. Without eliminating any permanent appointments, USC Rossier has repopulated itself with distinguished scholars (about three-quarters arrived in the past 10 years) who are on board with the changes that Gallagher has instituted.

Asked to imagine USC Rossier 20 years from now, she says: “I would like the school to continue to be seen as innovative and committed to the improvement of urban education. And to continue to do the research that helps the profession understand what we can do better.”

USC Rossier Faculty concur.

“The future is bright because we envision a new approach to excellence in which we use theory and research to impact the field,” says USC Rossier emeritus professor Myron H. Dembo, who recently retired after 41 years. “Many universities simply attempt to excel by producing more research papers. We are saying you attain excellence by original research, but at the same time apply research to improve practice. This is the unique approach that we are taking, unlike the Stanford or Harvard model where the traditional approach has emphasized research productivity. This will help us break into the top 10 schools of education in the country. It’s a different model for excellence.”

Assistant professor Katharine Strunk credits the faculty members Gallagher has hired. “They are doing important research in classrooms and in districts,” she said, “such as looking at supplementary education service providers’ effectiveness, examining teacher training, and studying governance and district reforms.”

Things did not look this rosy 10 years ago, when Gallagher was interviewing for the job she now holds; in fact, there was a distinct possibility the school might not have survived to see 100. In 2000, just two years after Barbara and Roger Rossier made their landmark $20 million gift to name the school, a blistering external review exposed systemic problems of staggering proportions.

What was wrong with the school? “Everything!” Gallagher says with brutal candor, quoting from the 2000 Academic Program Review, a report issued from the provost’s office every seven years that utilizes both self-study and outside evaluation: “Mediocre programs, mediocre students, mediocre faculty.” Rumors of closure were not without substance: A similarly dismal review released around the same time eventually led to the demise of USC’s nursing program.

But when Gallagher – who was then education dean at the University of Kansas – met with the search committee for the USC job, she told its members plainly: “I am not coming in to close the school. Don’t hire me if that is where you’re going.” She recalls, “Well, they hired me, so …”

Gallagher had won a reprieve for her new school, but the task ahead, she knew, would be unbelievably difficult. To name but a few areas of concern: rollercoaster budgets, abysmal faculty morale, undergraduate enrollment in full retreat, the university’s lowest GRE and SAT scores, graduate students languishing for want of faculty mentors and labyrinthine doctoral programs that seldom yielded any sheepskin.

A decade later, having brought it back from the edge, Gallagher presides over a school she and her leadership team have rebuilt from the ground up. Among their major achievements:

  • Stabilizing the budget by instituting strict enrollment management systems;
  • Eliminating the school’s arcane academic divisions and engendering a student-centered culture focused on results;
  • Eliminating the moribund baccalaureate degree program;
  • Replacing a bloated and incoherent Ph.D. program with a focused, highly selective one;
  • Overhauling and streamlining the Ed.D. program, allowing it to be completed in just three years through a pioneering “thematic dissertation” process;
  • Phasing out the counseling psychology concentration that, although top-notch, was out of sync with USC Rossier’s urban education mission;

Building up faculty excellence, with an emphasis on grant-supported research of national and international importance. “We had to jettison a lot of things we were not doing well,” says Gallagher. “That’s hard to do. But we also pledged to do what we can do well, focusing on four core academic themes: leadership, learning, accountability and diversity.”

Seven years into Gallagher’s tenure, a new Academic Program Review called her achievements “nothing short of a miracle,” adding: “She has managed a complete turnaround of the school. She can and should declare victory.”

The problems that plagued USC Rossier had piled up over decades, and many were not of its own making. The Civil Rights era had provoked massive social upheavals and sparked a rethinking of the role of education in shaping a better society. Many education schools were overwhelmed by the new demands placed on them to help prepare teachers and administrators who would lead the way in desegregation, Title IX, bilingual teaching and special education. Against this backdrop, in California, the Master Plan for Higher Education laid out a three-tiered system of public colleges and universities, creating, almost overnight, a network of Cal State campuses ready to train an army of new teachers – at a fraction of the cost of a USC education.

During the 1960s, a California master plan for public schools and universities expanded the state higher education system and put stronger priorities on teacher education. This undercut the value of USC Rossier’s flagship bachelor’s programs, chiseling away at what was once the school’s biggest source of enrollment. By 2000, there were fewer than 30 undergraduate education majors at USC.

USC’s overhaul of its general education program, part of President Emeritus Steven B. Sample’s push for undergraduate excellence in the early 1990s, dealt a financial blow to the school. Under the new plan, all GE courses (once a reliable source of revenue for professional schools) would be consolidated in USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences.

Other problems were USC Rossier-specific. For example, lack of central planning and rigorous oversight had made the Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs virtually indistinguishable from each other. Ponderous in size – enrollment hit 578 in 1999 – the doctoral programs were a deadend with many candidates destined never to finish. Overdependence on enrollment income had pushed the faculty-to-student ratio through the roof, while the requirements for graduation had become opaque, and required courses were difficult to schedule.

Gallagher tackled the numerous problems by first convening a three-day “Futures” conference. In attendance were not only faculty – the key planning team included Myron Dembo as well as current faculty members Melora Sundt and Robert Rueda – but also alumni and students. USC trustee and USC Rossier alumna Verna Dauterive EdD ’66 played a key role as well. Their groundbreaking work essentially overhauled the entire system. One of the first directives coming out of the conference in January 2001 was to split apart the Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs, reengineering both from the ground up.

“We decided the Ed.D. would become a three-year degree for working professionals, training about 150 students each year,” Gallagher says. “And our Ph.D. would be a highly selective, fully supported, full-time program for people interested in pursuing academic and research careers.”

The Ph.D. program enrolls just 12 to 18 students per year, all of whom earn their degrees in four years. Each student is on full scholarship and receives an annual stipend of up to $35,000, paid through a combination of the USC Provost’s Ph.D. Fellowship program, USC Rossier’s own coffers, and teaching and research assistantships funded by faculty grants.

Why the generous support? “That’s the price of staying competitive with peer programs,” says Gallagher. Unlike mega-programs at public universities, however, USC Rossier offers only one track for its Ph.D. candidates: urban policy. “We’re a private school,” Gallagher explains. “We don’t have to do everything. We can determine what we can do well.”

Keeping the Ph.D. program small and focused means candidates receive intensive mentoring by senior faculty. According to associate professor Darnell Cole, “That mentorship is essential to the kind of intellectual development, academic rigor and practical research skills that students develop during their time here.”

The Ed.D., on the other hand, is designed to fit the schedule of working professionals. (The average age of an Ed.D. student is 36, while that of a Ph.D. student is closer to 26.)

There are four concentrations for the Ed.D.: K-12 leadership in urban education settings, educational psychology, higher education/community college leadership and teacher education in multicultural societies. The students benefit from another USC Rossier innovation: the thematic dissertation. Instead of writing their theses independently, teams of eight to 10 students work together around a specific topic or theme, identified by the faculty adviser, with real-world implications.

“That is how things get done out in the real world,” notes Gallagher. “You don’t have a single researcher come in to solve a problem. You work in a team.” In fact, some thematic dissertations are proposed by school districts, so the effort becomes, in effect, an elaborate consultating report.

“They are solving problems of practice, not trying to write something that will win the dissertation-of-the-year award,” she says.

The team approach also helps keep students on track to graduate in three years. “Thanks to the thematic dissertation,” says Kathy Stowe, former executive director of the Ed.D. program who recently became an associate dean, “our completion rates are much higher than the national average.”

In drawing such a stark line between the Ed.D. and the Ph.D., USC Rossier has established itself as a pioneer. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has launched a program, the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate, based on USC’s model. Thirty-five research universities have signed on.

This revamped structure for its doctoral programs also has turned USC Rossier into a more student-centered environment, Gallagher says, pointing to the school’s Doctoral Support Center as an example. Recognizing that USC Rossier is second to only USC College in the number of doctoral dissertations it turns out – more than 100 each spring – the school established a service center to make sure those dissertations meet the university’s ironclad requirements. The center is the only one of its kind at USC. In addition to providing technical review, the center’s professional staff can coach students on everything from quantitative methodology to dangling modifiers.

Many graduate programs pride themselves on being tough – so tough that a portion of students won’t get through. Gallagher rejects the idea of accepting students in a program only to put “landmines, hurdles and hoops in their way, almost as if you’re hoping they’ll fail.” She explains: “This is the opposite of the mindset we’ve achieved in the USC Rossier School. We want people to graduate and do their work, and represent us well.”

For all of Gallagher's can-do optimism, these remain hard times for traditional schools of education. Alternate pathways to certifying teachers and principals are siphoning away students from traditional programs, and also siphoning away federal funds.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan threw down the gauntlet when he outlined why his department – with some $46 billion in discretionary funding – is looking for spending alternatives. “Many, if not most, of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom,” Duncan said in a 2009 speech at Teachers College at Columbia University.

Gallagher’s answer to Duncan’s gauntlet: the pioneering master of arts in teaching degree custom-made for the digital age. Dubbed MAT@USC, it’s an innovative partnership with 2tor, a company dedicated to high-quality online university education started by John Katzman, founder of the Princeton Review. Unlike other online initiatives, this is a full-fledged USC program – the same as the traditional on-campus MAT program, with the same tuition – requiring a year’s worth of coursework and 20 weeks of in-classroom practice. The program places the students in high-need schools in their own communities.

How can a USC student living in Duluth accomplish this?

Working with a full-time “guiding” teacher under the virtual supervision of a USC Rossier faculty adviser, each student uploads daily videos of his work in the classroom and participates in live video conversations. The result, says Melora Sundt, associate dean for academic programs, is far more frequent opportunities for assessment and strategizing than students receive in traditional teacher-training programs.

To help in the long-distance credentialing process, USC Rossier offers a nifty online tool called the Certification Map (www.certificationmap.com). This interactive site provides state-by-state information on how to become a teacher, what the certification requirements are and average salary rates. It also features a teacher credential blog. Developed by 2tor for MAT@USC, the Certification Map is a public service to the entire profession that has gained traction among educators on the Internet.

“We are on the homepages of a whole lot of schools of education,” says Gallagher.

Building on the program’s success, the school rolled out a second online learning program in September – also in partnership with 2tor – called MAT TESOL. A program for those wanting to teach English to speakers of other languages, MAT TESOL replicates USC Rossier’s existing curriculum in the same way that MAT@ USC does. It’s another area of teaching expertise in hot demand, and another that lends itself to the scope and scale of an online program.

Incidentally, online doesn’t necessarily mean out of state. Almost half of the current MAT@USC students live in California, says Gallagher. “We have people who live three blocks from the USC campus, but they can’t come to our full-time program.” Interestingly, the next largest geographic cluster is in Atlanta, Ga. The region has four education schools:

University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Emory University and Spelman College. But the USC name – along with the online format – is a big draw. Gallagher met a group of MAT@USC students at an Atlanta Trojan Alumni Association gathering. “Many of these people say they always wanted to go to USC,” she reports. “Now they can – without leaving home.”

Before the online MAT program, explains Melora Sundt, USC Rossier graduated about 100 teachers per year. But California alone needs about 10,000 new teachers each year. “Producing 100 of these means USC wasn’t even part of the conversation,” she says. “We were invisible.” The only way to have a meaningful impact in this environment was to scale up.

That may sound crazy, given that around the country, and especially in big cities, the economic downturn has resulted in budget deficits with dire warnings of schools in crisis. But don’t let the much-publicized teacher layoffs fool you. There will always be a market for teachers.

Between teacher retirements and growing student enrollment, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected that the number of teachers needed over the next decade will grow by 12 percent. “Teacher” is already the largest BLS category, with 3.5 million American workers in the K-12 public, private and parochial ranks. Union handwringing notwithstanding, it is not a profession in decline.

“Perceptions are a little skewed,” says Gallagher. “To protect themselves, districts will send out blanket pink slips in March or April. We hear about that. What we don’t hear about is that a large percent of [the laid-off teachers] will be rehired in August.”

Another cool Web tool sponsored by USC Rossier addresses this issue. Called Education World (www.teachingjobsportal.com), also designed by 2tor, it provides a central clearinghouse where school districts can post teacher vacancies. A color-coded map indicates where demand is highest. California pops out bright red – indicating teacher shortages are at critical levels here.

Most of those vacancies are concentrated in science, technology, engineering and math. In fact, just about every district in the country is starved for teachers in so-called STEM fields.

The push for getting more people – especially underrepresented minorities – into STEM fields is on. The Obama administration has earmarked $5 billion for it. For its part, USC Rossier has joined with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and USC College in a consortium that is building a searchable database on STEM-related projects throughout the university. Additionally, 16 percent of the MAT@ USC online students are in STEM concentrations, making the program the largest provider of STEM teachers in the country.

The good news is that, as the runaway success of MAT@USC suggests, the current crop of teachers-in-training is breaking traditional molds. For starters, they’re no strangers to technology.

“It’s just a generational difference,” says Gallagher. “These people are comfortable in virtual environments. They’re comfortable sharing their lives through social networking.” There’s a Facebook fan page for MAT@USC that recently got its 7,100th fan. These fans are breaking down into smaller groups: middle-school math teachers who love USC football; people who love Harry Potter or the Twilight series and want to teach literature. “You can build on that to form learning communities,” says Gallagher.

Another way USC Rossier has pushed the urban education envelope is with a global worldview that sees linkages between the problems of urban American schools and Asia’s emerging economies.

“What linkages might those be?” you wonder. That’s what a recent delegation from Vietnam wanted to know. Mark Robison, director of the Asia Pacific Rim International Study Experience, a unit within the school that coordinates USC Rossier’s international activities, recalls an interaction with the visiting group. “They were impressed with what they saw happening at USC Rossier, but they were vexed by the notion of urban education, since education in their country is largely rural,” he says. “At first, they had trouble understanding the relevance.”

Gallagher explains it thus: “We don’t use ‘urban’ as a geographical marker. Instead, we use it to refer to the kinds of students and school communities that one encounters in greater magnitude in urban areas – but that could, and do, exist elsewhere.” While it’s true USC Rossier is in the middle of a major metropolis, the issues at the core of its mission – questions of migration and immigration, diversity (cultural, racial, linguistic) and economic disparities – are all crucial parts of creating and sustaining an effective educational system, no matter where it might be.

As Gallagher sees it, urban education brings everyone to the table, helping meet the needs of “families living in poverty, schools with a large percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price school lunch, English language learners and under-resourced schools,” whether those needs crop up downtown, in the suburbs or in remote areas.

This was an answer that resonated with the Vietnamese officials. In fact, that nation’s Ministry of Education and Training is taking steps to replicate USC Rossier’s doctorate in education program in its own major universities. “We think the Ed.D. program is very practical,” says Do Huy Thinh, associate professor and director of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization regional training center. “We want to use the [USC model] to instigate change into the education system in Vietnam.”

Thinh’s ambitious plan calls for setting up the program at campuses in Hanoi, Hue and Saigon as early as 2011, with USC Rossier advising throughout the process. Thematic dissertation groups will be used to tackle real problems of practice faced in different provinces, he says.

In other outreach efforts, USC Rossier is taking advantage of its position at the gateway to the Pacific Rim to establish working partnerships with universities across Latin America and Asia. One involves a collaborative master’s degree with Peking University, among China’s preeminent centers of higher learning. Another, with the University of Hong Kong, will result in a dual-degree doctoral program. USC Rossier is “devising opportunities you just don’t find anywhere else,” says Robison.

For instance, the international study experience’s marquee program introduces USC Rossier students to urban education on a global stage. In 10-day trips – open to students in both the doctoral as well as the MAT programs – participants visit China, Singapore, Vietnam, Kuala Lumpur and other destinations that “open students’ eyes to different perspectives and what we have in common,” Gallagher says.

Former executive vice provost and current USC Marshall School of Business professor Michael Diamond, who also holds joint appointments in education and social work, helped launch the study program. He notes that many of the problems confronting education at all levels in the United States are being confronted in other countries. “Every one of us is going to operate in a global environment, and we have to learn to do it on the ground,” he says.

Now USC Rossier is taking these global relationships to the next level. Two years ago, Gallagher and USC Marshall School Dean James Ellis started a spin-off of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities. That organization, cofounded in 1997 by USC President Emeritus Steven B. Sample, brings together the presidents of 42 research universities on both sides of the Pacific Ocean to discuss shared goals. Gallagher and Ellis decided to convene a similar executive group – composed of education and business deans from West Coast universities – and bring them together with their counterparts in Russia, Japan, Korea, Central and South America, Australia, and New Zealand. “We’ve given ourselves three years to establish strong partnerships around research, technology and their impact, and teacher education,” she says.

“We all have similar challenges,” Gallagher adds. “For instance, as many of the countries begin to expand into the knowledge economy, and women and other groups gain access to new opportunities, you see the same problems we’ve had here in terms of getting people into teaching and keeping them there.”

“This is the Asian century,” Gallagher notes. “China, Vietnam and India are starting to see that you have to invest in the children and youth of the country, getting them as much education as possible, because that’s the way to participate in the global economy.”

At the school’s 100th anniversary gala on Feb. 1, it was announced that event proceeds would go toward two new global initiatives. The Cindy Hensley McCain Global Educator Fellowship, named in honor of the USC Rossier alumna whose husband was the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, is a travel award for aspiring teachers and school-based educators who face global challenges in meeting the learning needs of children and youth. These are educators who rarely get international travel opportunities. The second initiative, the Steven B. Sample Global Education Leadership Fellowship, will enable USC Rossier Ph.D. and Ed.D. doctoral candidates to participate in international study tours to Asian Pacific and Latin American schools and universities, government ministries and NGOs. The first trip, to Southeast Asia, took place in August and included fellows from both groups.

Good management is obviously an essential ingredient for a good school, and, historically, USC Rossier has been the prime mover in training education policymakers. “There’s no question that, here in California, USC Rossier graduates hold the highest number of superintendent positions in the state,” says Michael Escalante EdD ’02, recently retired superintendent of the Glendale Unified School District. “I think one of the best ways of measuring a school of education’s impact is to look at the number of effective and successful educators out in the field,” he says.

There are about 1,000 school districts in California. About 70 of these districts have superintendents who are USC Rossier graduates. That’s impressive, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the school’s glory days. According to Southern California and Its University, 100 percent of Los Angeles and San Diego county superintendents were Trojans in the 1950s and ’60s, as were nearly 50 percent of all Los Angeles County school principals.

In its heyday, USC education dean Irving Melbo famously could get school superintendents to resign just by picking up the phone, and name their successors with equal ease. Those days are gone forever, says Gallagher.

When she first came to USC, she met with a group of influential alumni called the “Dean’s Superintendents Advisory Group.” The members complained bitterly about the deterioration they had seen in their alma mater. Gallagher listened, and then she made them a promise: that they would be proud to be Trojans again and that she would bring back excellence, but with the proviso that it would not look like it had in the Melbo years. It would be a new kind of excellence.

“I don’t aspire to that,” says Gallagher of her predecessor’s kingmaker role in the region. “Even if I thought it could happen, I don’t know what each district needs.” She promises, though, that “we are going again to be seen as producing leaders, whether for classrooms, the principal’s office, or superintendents or community colleges.”

Ten years on, she seems to have delivered.

At the school’s glittering gala centennial celebration, she flattered a crowd of alumni, faculty and supporters by saying, “Like Jack Benny, no one in this room looks like they’re over 39.” Then she added, more seriously, “That’s because the USC Rossier School doesn’t think or act like it is 100 years old.”

It certainly doesn’t.

Jeremy Deutchman and Allison Engel contributed to this story. If you have questions or comments on this article, please send them to magazines@usc.edu