Best of the best

Andrew Porter, GSE Dean Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

As an undergraduate at Indiana State University, Andrew Porter tried his hand at chemistry.

It didn’t take, so he turned next to mathematics.

He enjoyed math a bit better, but as the end of his college career approached, he found himself considering a different path for graduate school—psychology. And he would have likely taken that route if not for a call from the person who would become his mentor—Julian Stanley, a professor in University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Education Psychology department.

“[He] called me up and said, ‘We think you’d be perfect for this program,’” says Porter. “I didn’t even know Ed Psych existed. But he made it sound so great and I went up, took a look around, fell in love with the university. He wanted me to become a psychometrician, an applied statistician, which fit my math interests. It’s something I hadn’t even been thinking about.”

In the 40 years since, Porter has worked as a researcher and educator, conducting studies on how teachers decide what to teach their students and leading an effort to develop and disseminate an assessment tool for school leadership. Since August of 2007, he has also worked as the Dean of Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

Before coming to Penn, he worked at Vanderbilt University as director of the Learning Sciences Institute and has served in leadership positions on numerous professional organizations. He is former president of the American Educational Research Association and the current Vice President of the National Academy of Education.

Porter says his goal is to make GSE the best of the best—the go-to school for forward-thinking research about education policy, philosophy and history—as well as a place that produces educators ready to engage in Philadelphia and the world. “When you are small, you have to be of the highest quality,” Porter says. “That’s what I believe in and what I like. ... When you’re small, there are no excuses.”

Q. You’ve been here for a year-and-a-half now. How have you settled in?
I can’t call myself the new kid anymore. It is the first big city that I’ve ever lived in. I define big city as having a Major League Baseball team.
I live right here in West Philadelphia. I love that. I love being able to walk to work. I love living in the catchment area where our Penn Alexander school is. I have a 14-month old daughter, Grace, who I’m planning to have go to Penn Alexander. I’m very excited about that.
Probably the biggest transition though, doesn’t have to do with going from Vanderbilt to Penn, but going from being a director of research centers that I have been for quite some time, to being a Dean. Those duties are different ones from one another.

Q. How so?
It’s just much more complex—the portfolio of activity, the areas of leadership as a Dean. I’m enjoying it; I’m finding it a challenge. You can say, ‘Well why be Dean now, or a Dean here?’ The answers are several, but one is, this is a small ed school. We have about 40 standing faculty, we have about 1,000 students. I like that idea of small. I can know each and every one of my faculty and their work and know it well. I can hold lunches with my students and over time, get to meet first-hand a very large number of them and hear directly from them what they like and what they don’t like, where they’re going and how they want to get there. This is exciting to me. I can have every member of my faculty in my house for dinner—and I have. It’s at a level where you can be involved and knowledgeable in depth about what’s going on.

Q. How does GSE forge an identity at such a big university?
Obviously, it’s always a work in progress. Since being here, I am convinced that the University of Pennsylvania is the best university in the world to be an ed school in. I say that because on the one hand, what everybody knows is, it’s truly a great university, but secondly, people here like to say ‘Well, we’re founded by Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Franklin was a practical man.’ Education is nothing if it’s not practical. I find, over and over again, faculty from across the schools and colleges wanting to be involved and my fellow Deans helping us make connections.

Q. What are your goals for GSE?
Our goal is to be the intellectually most exciting place in education in the world—the place that others look to for the ideas. That’s what we want. It’s a lofty goal. I think we’re already many steps there. We have two strategies for doing that—one is to do the research and development work that can change people’s ways of understanding what’s possible, give them tools to create new initiatives.
The other strategy is the obvious one—to try to produce the next generation of leaders in education. That’s where all of our programs come into play. We’re just now finishing admissions for next fall’s Ph.D. group. The applicants are fabulous. We have Ed.D’s—education doctorates [which are] more orientated toward practice rather than research. We’re very proud of our Teach for America program, which has 250 students as teachers of record in Philadelphia schools. These students are unbelievable. They come from across the country. It’s an extremely selective program. These guys are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and are out to make a difference. Will they all stay in teaching? No. I want in, let’s say 20 years, one of them to be a Supreme Court justice. How powerful could that be?

Q. Do you see that as one of the big issues in education—retaining teachers?
We have two experts—Richard Ingersoll, and Ed Boe—who work on this problem. Obviously what you want to do is to retain the best and get rid of the worst. It’s an issue in every sector—education is no exception.

Q. GSE is involved in Philadelphia elementary schools. What are some highlights?
Penn Alexander is a wonderful example. It’s where I want my daughter Grace to go. We have two schools we work with as the ‘external provider’—that’s a thing that happens here in Philadelphia. Lea and Wilson are both in West Philadelphia. Those schools were on the state hit list for failure. They are no longer. We were the only external provider that was re-upped by the district for a three-year period rather than the typical one-year-at-a-time. We’re very proud of that. We’re trying desperately to open a high school. We are having no success, but we’re on it like a pit bull. ... I surely do hope it will happen. I think it would be wonderful for the students in West Philly. Seventy percent of [students] would come from all of West Philadelphia, not just the Penn Alexander catchment. The other 30 percent would be from the school district at large. I think Penn Alexander, in a way, is proof of concept. We can and we would deliver a quality school experience.

Q. And internationally?
On the international side, our Vice Dean for international programs—Cheng Davis—has been running all kinds of programs. Just one example—we have young people who are the future leaders of China coming and spending time here at Penn as a part of their education program. We are initiating a major international comparative study of education of high school teachers focused on chemistry and mathematics. We have nine countries signed up.

Q. Let’s talk about No Child Left Behind [NCLB], which assesses student, teacher and school performance.
With that much money involved, everyone’s going to have an opinion about it. It is up for reauthorization, although that process was slowed down by the kind of distractions one gets when one has a national election for a president. There are many pieces of NCLB, but the one that gets the most attention is the school accountability piece. At the heart of that is the idea of student achievement testing in every grade, 3 through 8, at one grade level in high school in reading and mathematics, and science testing in one grade level—elementary, middle and high school. This is much more student achievement testing than there was prior to NCLB. These data are to be used to see whether a school is getting better, and the index is a very crude index. You’re supposed to have 100 percent of your students proficient by 2014. Your students are measured as either proficient or not. In the interim, they’re monitoring according to what they’re calling this aggregated data by groups, so students with disabilities verses not, English language learners versus not, boys versus girls, black, white, and on and on.
We’re not going to get 100 percent of our students proficient by 2014 and there are a variety of both substantive and technical reasons for that. Some people would like to throw all of [NCLB] out. Others would like to modify it so that it is workable. I fall in the latter camp. It does have to be modified to be workable. There are already states where over half of the schools have been judged to be failures by this. That’s too many. Why do I want to adjust it so that it’s workable? Because in all of my days in education, I have never seen the widespread commitment to ‘How can we get better?’ than I’m seeing today. ... NCLB focuses attention on all kinds of students. There’s no hiding. In that way, I like it.

Q. There’s a new President and administration. Do you anticipate a different focus on education from the federal level?
Education was not a big issue in this campaign, so it’s interesting to see in the stimulus package, $100 billion for education. That’s a lot of money. I wish I knew exactly where all of it was going and how. There’s some neat things. For example, I understand there’s going to be $350 million, maybe $450 million, for help in building state database systems. And you say, ‘Well, that’s not a very sexy item.’ When [NCLB] said, ‘We’ll test students in grades 3 through 8,’ it no longer was possible for a state to say, ‘We won’t have longitudinal data on students.’ That meant they were going to have to have a student ID, but many states have been unable to bite the bullet. ... They’re going to make a big investment in the stimulus package in increasing that work. We have here on our faculty, a professor, John Fantuzzo, who has a KIDS data system which brings together data on preschool children across various sectors, which are ordinarily like silos. You’ve got student achievement data, you’ve got welfare data, you’ve got legal system data—this pulls it all together. I think this stimulus package might help support that work.

Q. Does the tough economy create particular challenges for GSE?
The economy creates challenges for us all and GSE is no exception. We’re going to have some tough times—gifts are down at the present moment. Our enrollments are not down and we are a tuition-driven place. We have some aggressive programs to try and stimulate that work and our contracts and grants are up 51 percent from last year. I think there’s a sense of momentum. I hope this economy doesn’t kick that out from under us because everything else being equal, it’s great to feel like you’ve got momentum.

Originally published March 5, 2009

Originally published on March 5, 2009