When Yale students flocked to New Haven in late August of 2010, many had dreams of becoming electrical engineers. Or doctors. Or lawyers. Some were beginning to think about their senior theses, while others were still shopping more classes and majors than could possibly fit into their four years on campus. In that group of 6,000 undergraduate students were prospective mathematicians, authors, programmers, politicians. And teachers.
So, while those prospective biologists and historians and artists and programmers filed into their corresponding majors, each supported and financed by a strong network of faculty, Yalies who wished to become teachers geared up for the Teacher Preparation Program. But, on Nov. 15, 2010, those plans were abruptly terminated. A three-line email from head of program Jack Gillette GRD ’85 announced that the program would be dismissed. The news shattered the aspirations of many Yalies, with their post-graduation ambitions looking crumpled and unattainable.
The Teacher Preparation Program graduated students certified to teach in American public schools, a process that can otherwise take years beyond the four spent in college. So, its closing was a reflection of Yale’s culture: The study of education failed to be valued and regarded as highly as the liberal arts and sciences. Even when it existed, it did not count as a major.
The justification for the shutdown stemmed from an alleged lack of student interest. It seemed that many students were taking the program’s classes, but few were following through with the entire certification process. Additionally, the University pointed to a surging interest in Teach for America after graduation, an alternate form of teacher certification, that was limiting the popularity of Yale’s Teacher Preparation Program.
Nonetheless, students and alumni of the program were up in arms about its closing. They felt Yale was failing its very mission to which it commits itself: education. These protests and a persistent interest in many of the courses once associated with the old program sparked the reinstitution of some kind of formal program for the study of education. So, the Yale Education Studies Program was created in 2013.
This new program was presented as far more interdisciplinary than its teaching-focused predecessor. In the fall of their sophomore year, Yale students have the opportunity to apply to become an education studies scholar. After an intensive written application and interviews with Mira Debs, the program’s executive director, and other prominent program faculty members, a cohort of 20 students is chosen. It remains an add-on to any chosen major — the current cohort of Scholars includes mathematics, sociology, chemistry and psychology majors, just to name a few. After acceptance into the program, students are committed through graduation.
The program — home to 25 courses in eight departments, all of which give priority to these scholars — has a core curriculum and electives in each student’s specific area of interest. Its courses demonstrate the breadth of offerings. One course called “Propaganda, Ideology and Democracy” explores stereotypes in schools, the media and social movements. Another, titled, “Race, Ethnicity and Immigration” and taught by Grace Kao, the program’s new faculty director herself, is an analysis of factors on the educational market. And “Psychopathology and the Family” delves into childhood experiences, family functioning and counseling.
The faculty of the program, too, are multidisciplinary. The varied composition of each cohort allows the program to encompass a far more expansive perspective: It becomes a conversation between various majors in the context of the vastness of education itself. It bridges all the knowledge and theory learned elsewhere into something more applicable, real and meaningful.
In addition to Yale’s distribution and major requirements, as well as the program’s own core curriculum and electives, Scholars must complete field experience, which is often completed during the summer, and a senior capstone project. It is in these endeavors that the interdisciplinary nature of the program is so evident. Hong Bui ’18 researches how infants perceive social constructs, as well as how the schooling environment for children with ADHD can affect the efficacy of their treatment. José López ’18 works to improve upon and better understand the effectiveness of Yale’s own First-year Scholars summer program. Caitlin Dermody ’18 is a teacher’s assistant at the local Calvin Hill Day Care Center and spent her summer as an intern at the Brookings Institute, a renowned think tank in Washington, D.C.
“This has been one of my most serious academic pursuits here,” Dermody said. “It has been a guiding light.” To her and López alike, the curriculum of the program has been a significant undergraduate focus. “If education were a major here, I would major in it,” says López. For them, their majors are lenses through which they can view education.
For Bui, however, the program supplements her major, psychology, instead. “For me, I would only be able to do this program as an addition to the major, not a double major,” Bui said. The variety sparks conversations that would not be possible in an education major alone. The program does not operate in contention with majors, but rather works as an extension, a focus or an addition.
Commitment to this program is not to be overlooked. “The students here are amazing. This is like a minor, it’s really a lot of work,” Carla Horwitz, a faculty member in the Education Studies Program, said.
This new iteration of the program allows students to learn not only from professors, but also from their fellow Scholars. “Being part of a group of people who love and support the same thing [is] empowering,” Debs said. The program is no longer singularly appealing to prospective teachers. It now has three main tenets: research, policy and practice. So, while students are no longer going to come out as certified teachers, they are getting a much stronger and deeper foundation in education research.
“Pedagogy and teaching and learning and the way that education is central and impacts other narratives of life and instruction … I think [that] is very important,” Horwitz said.
Her opinion is shared among the scholars themselves. “[Education] can seem like a complex system, but with a lot of people tackling the different challenges, it makes it feel really worthwhile and inspiring,” Dermody echoed Horwitz’s sentiment.
López spelled out one reason why he thinks education studies is so important: “Education can’t be dismissed as a thing that people just know how to do.”
The program is, then, a unique area of study: It is education about education, Debs explained. And it incorporates access, pedagogy, teaching, policy, school establishment, agency and research in ways that simple teacher-training programs just do not. The scope of the program unites scholars who are all motivated around one thing, yet who are individually pursuing different courses of study in their time here. “There are opportunities for cross-section conversations,” Debs added.
The abundance of ideas brought to the table, however, can be too broad for some students. “Some people think that the program is very policy- and research-oriented,” Bui said. She thinks this could be due to Yale’s strong liberal arts attitude. López felt similarly: “It’s funny that practice is definitely not as encouraged [as research and policy], there’s not a lot of support for students to think about becoming teachers.”
But, this does not deter López — he sees teaching as the practical implication of this program. It should not just be about philosophizing about education, López argues, because theory can really benefit if it is led by practice.
Kao mentions this as well, explaining her reasoning: “Mira and [I] are both researchers, so for us that’s right on top of everything else.” She believes students should get exposure to all three tenets, especially research. The Teacher Preparation Program was intrinsically focused on practice, but Kao makes clear that the reach of this current program allows students to take better advantage of Yale’s resources and go beyond just teacher training. Education studies breeds not only teachers, but also lawyers, writers, politicians, journalists, psychologists and researchers.
Other elite schools have mixed approaches to the study of education. Harvard University has an entire graduate school dedicated to the study while Princeton University continues to have a Teacher Preparation program for their undergraduate students. The University of Chicago offers an education major to undergraduate students, with optional year-and-a-half extensions to receive teacher certification.
Kao’s and Debs’ dedication to research is just a single example of their commitment to the program and the scholars. They serve as role models and guides, educators and mentors to each of the scholars. “Professor Debs really pours her heart out into this program. She is really invested in how this program can change students,” López commented. Dermody agrees: “They are doing an incredible job.”
Because the program is not a major, it has less inherent structure. Instead of allowing this to become an obstacle, Debs and Kao have kindled a strong foundation for their cohort of students. They foster a community that would not be there without their leadership and passion for both the material and the scholars.
Approaching its fifth year, the Education Studies Program is able to appeal to both scholars who arrive at Yale on a drive track to pursue the program and those who happen upon it. Dermody recounted that she learned about the program during Bulldog Days, and that its existence was one of the major contributing factors in her choice to enroll. In contrast, Bui heard about the program from a friend during her first year on campus and was compelled to explore its details. And López was drawn into education after returning home to his Los Angeles public school to discover many of his most valued and remembered aspects dropped or changed.
However, as the scholars find themselves in this exceptional cohort, it becomes a community from the onset. The junior scholars have weekly dinners, and there are Education Studies Program coffee dates and specialized speakers — all of which unite this group of scholars both socially and academically. Senior scholars all take a course together for their capstone projects during their final semester at Yale. They become a support system for ideas, pressures and achievements in a way that is fulfilled by the commitment of their faculty.
As successful as the program has been in its pilot years, the lack of funding is evident to both the senior scholars and its faculty. Horwitz recognizes the financial shortcomings: “We need some serious funding commitment from donors and, hopefully, the University. [This] funding will allow us to grow in the way we all envision.” Kao added that it would be nice to have an endowment so that the program doesn’t have to do fundraising. More steady funding would also allow for more full-time professors to support the scholars. Kao explains that having these permanent faculty members who themselves are fully committed to this kind of research would allow the students to feel a stronger sense of community. Now the program works with many part-time lecturers, but Kao believes it would help ground the scholars if they could see professors finding a home in the same program they do.
López said that an increase in support for Debs and Kao, in the form of funding for projects, will make clear the University’s commitment to this field: “It would be recognizing that this work is important.” He said he has overwhelming gratitude about having a place in the classroom among peers where he can reflect on things he really cares about on a personal level, but he wishes there was a bit more support for the program. “[It] seems crazy to me that a university like Yale can’t recognize education as a serious subject of study [when] it’s what they are doing,” he emphasized.
The program’s small capacity also concerns the administrators and professors. Interdisciplinary co-curricular programs at Yale are highly popular, and this one is proving to be no exception. The program’s application pool expands every year -— this year they must turn away half the applicants. “The education world needs these scholars,” Debs explained. She added that it makes her increasingly uneasy not to have the resources to train and engage all the interested students. Kao and Horwitz also expressed their disappointment to turn away so many applicants. Increased funding for the Education Studies Program would allow for a higher acceptance rate.
“We just need more teachers,” Kao added.
Though the Education Studies Program benefits from continual student interest, this program is still finding its niche at Yale. Bui encourages “anyone who cares about education” to at least explore the program. Horwitz concurred: “We are at a crucial time now, and I think Yale has really realized — in part driven by students, in part by society in general — that education is a really important area of study, and we need to focus on it.” The benefits of enrolling are not just one-way: López said students can join a conversation “about how Yale can improve if they are given this platform.” Debs added that the program is a “grassroots up” endeavor; she hopes to expand it to support faculty members and graduate students in addition to the undergraduate scholars.
The scholars in the Education Studies Program feel passion, love and gratitude for its opportunities, mentorship and curriculum. “I am so grateful for this program. We are so lucky to have such strong faculty leaders,” Dermody said. The scholars each feel grounded and supported by the education studies faculty members above all. The community they foster drives the scholars’ passions and interests. López said that it’s about “fulfilling relationships and discussions rooted in personal experience.”
So now, when Yale students flock to New Haven every August, those future biologists and historians, artists and programmers still file into their majors and courses. But now, those eager prospective teachers can find their home in the Education Studies Program.
Shayna Elliot | firstname.lastname@example.org .