Susan Fuhrman, Education Policy Expert and President of Teachers College

By Audra Nelson

Pragmatism propelled Susan Fuhrman (MA66, BA65) into a career in education 40 years ago, and today she is nationally known for that same trait.

In education policy circles, Fuhrman is considered a distinguished scholar committed to research that answers vital real-world questions. As dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education for 11 years, Fuhrman led the school's rise in U.S. News & World Report rankings and its engagement with improving Philadelphia's public schools.

Susan Fuhrman, Education Policy Expert and President of Teachers College
Susan Fuhrman, (BA65, MA66) is President of Teachers College, Columbia University.
This past summer, Fuhrman took office as the 10th president of Teachers College, Columbia University. True to her reputation, she says her agenda for the College will include "engaging directly with policymakers and practitioners as they do their work, to ensure that we not only build the knowledge base but put it to use."

A self-described "politics junkie," Fuhrman was an undergraduate at Northwestern planning to pursue a major in political science when she met her future husband, who was headed for medical school. "I knew I would have to work and support him instead of going to law school, which was my original intent," she says. Fuhrman switched her major to history, attained a master's degree and acquired her teaching certificate through the School of Education and Social Policy.

Fuhrman launched her career teaching social studies in public and private schools. She was contemplating another master's in administration when she was advised to pursue a PhD in education policy. Given her initial passion for politics, Fuhrman says the idea "just seemed to click."

After receiving her doctorate from Teachers College, Fuhrman held several teaching appointments leading up to her role as dean at Penn. Since 1985, she also has served as founding director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE).

Reflecting on CPRE's 20-year anniversary last fall, Fuhrman says she is proud of the effort the organization makes in reaching policymakers. "We think about how they learn and all the different channels through which they get information. We really focus on dissemination, and I think that works. We've made it a priority to get our research out to practitioners and policy makers, and it seems to have had an effect," she says.

Increasingly, CPRE associates have been focusing on instructional improvement and the policy conditions that support it best. "We've been getting closer and closer to the classroom because that's where the changes are going to have to occur if student outcomes are to improve," Fuhrman says.

Fuhrman warns, however, against looking for a silver bullet to solve the problems in American education. "We try to find a panacea in education, but there's no one thing," she says. "There are lots of levers you have to pull. If you want to focus on one big area, though, teacher quality is obviously the one where we have to find the most leverage."

Fuhrman looks forward to impacting teacher quality through her new position at Teachers College. "I've always believed that one very strong comparative advantage that we in research-based education schools have is that we not only bring our research to bear in preparing practitioners, but we can prepare them to be excellent consumers of research," she says. "Working on that will be a major goal of mine."

Fuhrman will be leading by example, as she is an eager research consumer herself. "Right now there are several really good studies going on of teacher preparation where we are poised to learn a lot about experiences for teacher candidates that actually make a difference for their students," Fuhrman says. "I can't wait until that research comes out."

When it does, she will be certain to put it to good use.
By Audra Nelson