Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FALL 2011

25 Years of Breakthroughs The History of SESP

“The small school THAT thinks big” is what undergraduates began calling SESP a few years ago. That catchphrase captures the bold and innovative spirit of the smallest school at Northwestern — and the smallest school of education in the top 10 nationwide.

25 Years of Breakthroughs The History of SESP


By Marilyn Sherman
25 Years of Breakthroughs The History of SESP

Today’s undergraduates weren’t even born yet in 1986 when the School of Education thought big enough to become the School of Education and Social Policy — the first in the nation. And the School continues to think big by emphasizing innovation on a broad scale. “Because of its small size, SESP must have a razor-sharp focus to gain major impact," says Dean Penelope Peterson. “We’re united by a common mission and a strong sense of community."

What’s in a Name?

SESP’s name change, which was approved by the Board of Trustees 25 years ago, broke new ground because it reflected a far-reaching definition of education. Then-dean David Wiley envisioned schools of education bringing about “improvement in the capacity of individuals for dealing with their life circumstances."

“It was a very important and visionary change," says professor Fay Lomax Cook, who explains that the name recognized that education and learning occur not only in a classroom but also in homes, the community and the workplace. “We all really wanted to make a national statement — even an international statement — of how we should conceptualize education as beyond the narrow confines of the classroom."

SESP’s name change also signaled the importance of social policy in the realm of education and the impact of education on society. Professor Bart Hirsch, a member of the committee that recommended the name change, says the idea was contentious at the time. “The name recognized the wide range of issues and interests that we address in the School," he notes.

Pioneering Graduate Programs

The SESP name is far from the only groundbreaker in the School. Its two doctoral programs are trailblazers too — each the first of its kind in the nation.

The Human Development and Social Policy (HDSP) program, which is celebrating its 30-year anniversary this year, blends human development and social policy in a unique way. In 1981 the late Bernice Neugarten, a nationally renowned researcher in adult development, departed from both existing human development programs and existing policy programs to start a program combining the study of human development throughout the life course with examination of the effects of social policies and programs.

“We were the first, but now it’s accepted as a truism that we need to study how people can affect policies and how policies affect people. … HDSP has trained a whole new generation of students that have carried this vision,” says Cook, noting graduates’ placements at an array of elite universities and major think tanks, agencies and nonprofits.

Like HDSP, the Learning Sciences program was the first of its kind in the nation, inspiring many imitators. Cognitive science was in its infancy in 1991 when Learning Sciences started as an interdisciplinary doctoral program for the scientific understanding of learning and the design of innovations for education. The program, first directed by Roy Pea and then by professor Brian Reiser, weaves together three themes: cognition, social context and design.

The Learning Sciences graduate program grew out of Northwestern’s Institute for the Learning Sciences, directed by Roger Schank, a world-renowned researcher on artificial intelligence. “Initially the program was computer science-driven, but today it covers a much broader spectrum of the entire area of learning sciences,” says Steven McGee (BS88, PhD96), one of the first graduates and now a faculty member. “It has a much stronger social dimension, … and the quality of searches and competitiveness speaks volumes about the program.”

Undergraduate Race to the Top

In the School’s undergraduate program, the tradition of innovation continues. At root, SESP is distinctive because most other top private schools do not have a school of education for undergraduates. In addition, SES P was the first in the nation to have its distinctive majors, all focused on improving human lives: human development and psychological services, learning and organizational change, secondary teaching, and social policy.

Two-thirds of SESP students come to the School as transfers from other schools at Northwestern. They seek SESP’s practical approach to applying disciplines, the School’s top-notch advising and the practicum experience, which places them in custom-tailored internships and teaches them research methods that they apply on the job.

Professor Dan Lewis was director of undergraduate education from 1992 to 2005. Coming off a period of low enrollment, he worked hard to improve undergraduate education with more full-time faculty in the classroom, top-notch course quality, the practicum as the pivotal element and expanded research opportunities. “Now the major has matured as an interdisciplinary applied social science major where you can learn to work in the world and you can learn how the world works,” says Lewis. “No undergraduate at any other private elite university gets the hands-on experience that our students get.”

Pioneering Research

Over the years, high-quality scholarship and research have become trademarks of SESP, which brings together faculty from fields as diverse as computer science, psychology, education, sociology and economics. “To solve complex problems, a broad and interdisciplinary approach is needed,” says Peterson.

Landmark research at SESP has included projects such as the following, which have been widely recognized for advancing knowledge and having impact:

James Rosenbaum’s Gautreaux Study
Professor James Rosenbaum was the first to research the impact of moving families from inner-city housing projects to low-poverty neighborhoods. His study of the court-mandated Gautreaux program that relocated 7,100 families from high-poverty Chicago housing projects to affluent, largely white neighborhoods throughout the Chicago area in the 1980s had a major influence on the way policy makers have thought about the impact of housing on families and children, and led to many new housing mobility initiatives. Rosenbaum found that the Gautreaux parents made striking employment gains, and by a large margin the children were more likely to graduate high school, go to college and get a job.

Carol Lee’s African-Centered Charter Schools
Professor Carol Lee is a founder of several charter schools in Chicago that pioneered an African-centered approach. With three campuses, Betty Shabazz International Charter School serves children from kindergarten through high school. Lee also developed a theory of cultural modeling that has influenced educators and students. Curriculum based on this theory draws on the prior knowledge that traditionally underserved students bring to classrooms. Lee has researched curricula and student learning, and her latest project, part of a $19.2 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, has the goal of improving reading comprehension among middle school and high school students.

Lindsay Chase-Lansdale’s Child and Family Research
Children and families are at the heart of professor Lindsay Chase-Lansdale’s pioneering research. When she won the 2011 Distinguished Contributions to Public Policy for Children award from the Society for Research in Child Development this year, it was because her research has led to policies that have improved the lives of children and families. For example, with a multidisciplinary approach, she has conducted longitudinal studies of children and their families living in low-income neighborhoods in three cities, addressing the welfare reform debate, and examined children’s and mothers’ experiences in three-generational families. Her newest research has encouraged post-secondary education and workforce training among low-income parents as a way to benefit families over the long term.

SESP Today and Tomorrow

Over the past 25 years the School has earned stature with the best in the nation and attracted faculty who are respected worldwide. The vision for SESP that began in the 1980s is flourishing, as the School continues to think big, building scholarship and creating forward-thinking programs.

Under Peterson, a former president of the American Education Research Association who has been dean since 1997, SESP research has grown to new proportions. The faculty now draws in more than $12 million a year in grant funding, compared with $400,000 in the early 1990s.

In addition, new partnerships and initiatives have enhanced the School’s academics and impact. In recent years, groundbreaking collaborations such as the NU-TEACH alternative certification program have fostered improvements in urban education. The School has also established centers devoted to adult development, curriculum design, organizational transformation and learning technology, as well as degree programs including a master’s program in learning and organizational change.

Looking back on the history of SESP is particularly relevant this year as Northwestern unveils a new strategic plan for the next decade.

The School that thinks big is building on its tradition of innovation to expand its vision in years to come.