Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FALL 2013

professors Fay Cook, David Figlio, James Rosenbaum, Bart Hirsch and Jon Guryan
Photo by Patricia Reese

As faculty fellows of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, professors Fay Cook, David Figlio, James Rosenbaum, Bart Hirsch and Jon Guryan engage in collaborations with Sciences Po, the influential social sciences university in Paris.

Professor Jim Spillane advises on educational organizations and systems in countries including the Netherlands and Singapore.

Professor Jim Spillane advises on educational organizations and systems in countries including the Netherlands and Singapore.

Leading The Global Education Agenda


By Julianne Beck
Leading The Global Education Agenda

Growing up in Ireland, he was the first in his family to attend high school. Now a professor for Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, Jim Spillane is committed to increasing opportunity for students everywhere through improved education policy and practice. This mission that he shares with many of his colleagues at SESP is having an impact worldwide.

Spillane’s classroom is a forum for the exchange of ideas on education policy, practice and research. This is where he helps grow the next generation of scholars and educators. He often brings stories into class from places abroad where he has advised on the structure of educational organizations and systems.

He believes one route to school improvement is through the framework of distributed leadership. It recognizes the essential role of school leaders in addition to the principal or head teacher. Also, his approach emphasizes the importance of organizational structure in defining the daily work in schools and districts.

Answering the World Need for School Leadership

“There is a growing interest in school leadership and management around the world,” he says. “And a key part of my work has been around theorizing a distributed notion of leadership, and then using that framework to empirically study leadership.”

In countries where Spillane has given talks and led workshops, including Malaysia and Vietnam, government blueprints and education policy documents now incorporate distributed leadership. This fall, he will discuss the topic in Barcelona, and previously he has presented in China, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Many years ago, Spilla ne witnessed the importance of education policy firsthand when he began his career as an elementary teacher in an urban area of Ireland. He was troubled with the lack of influence he was able to have on his students’ future — many of whom were destined to drop out of school. “That motivated me to try and understand how we can improve schools through education policy so as to improve the life chances of students who have traditionally been disenfranchised by the education system,” he says.

The opportunity to improve education systems is priceless to Spillane, as is the opportunity to further develop his theories in an international context. “That process is enabled even more when you go overseas and you present your work to people who have thought about these ideas in a different cultural context and from within a different education and policy system,” he notes. In addition, he believes the exchange of such ideas in diverse contexts generates ideas that lead to new designs, innovations and technologies.

Insights from Overseas Research

Kirabo Jacks on, an assistant professor of human development and social policy, agrees. He is actively researching the benefits and limitations of single-sex schools in Trinidad and Tobago. In the United States there is an increasing trend toward single-sex schools, and his international research may provide time-tested insight that would not otherwise be available here. “Oftentimes using data from a separate country does allow one to answer questions that we care about and that we could not answer in the United States,” he says.

As an economist, he is especially interested in school funding, and finds variations between countries to be an opportunity for discussion. “I think education policy research is very important because most governments spend a large fraction of their budgets on education, and if that is true, then it is important that those tax dollars are spent as efficiently as possible to prevent waste and lead to the best outcomes possible.”

In the classroom in Evanston, he teaches his research framework as a model. According to Jackson, research and teaching “go hand in hand.” As the world becomes more highly connected, he also sees tremendous value in providing global connections for students. “We live in a world that is increasingly international,” he says. “We see more international students coming in [to SESP], or students studying abroad. So, I think having a broader view is moving with the times.”

Going Abroad with Accountability Expertise

The same holds true at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, led by David Figlio, the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy. His expertise on school accountability policy is sought after locally, regionally and internationally.

“When we think about school accountability, what we mean is the process of evaluating, rewarding and sanctioning schools largely on the basis of student performance on standardized tests but also on other things,” he says.

Presently, Figlio is contributing to the planning and evaluation of accountability structures in Chile and Australia, respectively. In Chile, he is working to improve the availability of meaningful school information to help parents make informed school selections for their children. His role is “to figure out some of the best ways of measuring difficult-to-measure aspects of schools,” he says.

In Australia, where public reporting of school performance began in 2009, Figlio provided input to the government on how to report the findings. Now he is collaborating with Australian researchers to examine how school policies have changed as a result. Ideally, he explains, policy change and modifications in schools should be circular. “High-quality scholarship should motivate the types of policies we might want to attempt, but then those policies should motivate additional evaluation,” he says.

When he is not conducting research, the economist often shares his expertise in workshops around the world. “This is a little bit of a public mission … and my feeling is that I want to help wherever I can,” he says. For Figlio, that means advising in places from Sweden to Tanzania to Chicago and Evanston’s own public school systems.

He credits his international exchange with allowing him to help others, and with keeping him informed on key academic programs or news. “We have the same types of things that motivate us … and because of that we can make the U.S. a better place and make these other countries a better place,” he notes.

Figlio is a globally minded professor, which is especially important in SESP, where he believes students want to change the world. His classroom discussions lead to new thinking around critical issues. He also encourages international study as a way for students to understand which issues are context-specific and which are universal truths.

Undergraduate and graduate students need to learn from the best examples of education programs, whether they occur in the U.S. or abroad, and learn skills they can apply to almost any situation, he says. “That’s what they have to know how to do if they really want to change the world.”

A Bridge to the World Building Global Connections

In late 2013, the School of Education and Social Policy will step boldly into the international arena with the opening of its Office of Global Initiatives.

“We have to think globally,” says professor Jim Spillane, who was appointed to the role of office director. “It contributes to improved scholarship, because by engaging people in other countries we encounter new ideas … and we are forced to grapple with new problems that are especially relevant in professional schools such as SESP.”

The new initiative stems from the School’s strategic plan for 2013-17, which prioritizes the development of a global perspective. Spillane, the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change, expects the new office to facilitate global connections. “This is not just for faculty,” he emphasizes. “It is also to encourage students to do international work, to engage in education and social policy-related concerns in other countries, or even conduct cross-national research.” He anticipates that the office will amplify opportunities for students, especially undergraduate students, who increasingly seek international experiences.

Innovation, according to Spillane, can result from global connections. “The creative process, as far as I’m concerned, is enabled when you bring together diverse people. I’m talking about, in part, disciplinary diversity. SESP is amazing in that respect. We bring together people from education, development, psychology, sociology and economics. When you put them all together, you generate new insights. Building global ties will add to this diversity, enabling our students and faculty to engage with new perspectives on familiar topics.”

The office will encourage international communication and collaboration — by sharing Northwestern news with international audiences and education news from other countries locally. Spillane anticipates the office will also maintain a listing of the international projects and talks of faculty members.

Like many of his colleagues, Spillane also holds an appointment in Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. Those connections will bridge the offices and advance goals for each, as an increasingly interconnected world inspires ever more global plans.