SESP MAGAZINE WINTER 2021

THE MAGAZINE OF LEARNING, LEADERSHIP, AND POLICY

eths students

News

Work on Equity and Excellence Expands

 The Northwestern-Evanston Education Research Alliance (NEERA) received a $650,000 Institutional Challenge Grant to support new research projects related to racial and economic equality and expand collaborative partnerships between the University and Evanston schools.

Along with helping researchers launch additional projects, the grant funds new NEERA research fellows and brings informal, out-of-school learning partners into the alliance.

The William T. Grant Foundation, Spencer Foundation, and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation have pooled resources to fund the grant in an effort to address critical social issues.

The grant was awarded to SESP dean David Figlio, a principal investigator with NEERA and the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy; Eric Witherspoon, superintendent of Evanston Township High School District 202; and Devon Horton, superintendent of Evanston/Skokie School District 65. The grant will support new endeavors by SESP faculty members Megan Bang, Mesmin Destin, and Simone Ispa-Landa, among others.

While Evanston school districts are among the highest-achieving in the nation, they also have some of the largest racial disparities in academic achievement. The initial grant-enabled projects will help teachers support developing their students’ identities and smooth transitions from middle to high school.

In addition, the projects’ research findings will be used to help design and assess the professional development materials that teachers use to improve how they support students.

SESP and its alumni have received half of all the Institutional Challenge Grants awarded to date. Previous recipients include Rachel Dunifon (PhD99), the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, and Mimi Engel (PhD08), associate professor in the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education’s Research and Evaluation Methodology program.


SESP and the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Master’s Program to Debut in 2021

Leaders and leaders-to-be from both sides of the Pacific will learn how to forge deep and mutualistic partnerships through an innovative applied economics and social policy dual master’s program offered by SESP and The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Economics.

The rigorous 17-month program is the first to address important policy questions through a transpacific lens, says SESP dean David Figlio. Students will learn technical and practical skills to evaluate policies and programs in Chinese and US contexts.

“We’re building a new generation of decision-makers who will feel confident and comfortable in multiple contexts, which will lead to better organizations, better policies, and better lives,” Figlio says.

The program bridges two cultures and education systems while tapping each institution’s salient strengths. Northwestern and CUHK are top-tier universities with strong global reputations, multicultural student bodies, and inter-national alumni networks. CUHK is known for theoretical and empirical work in economics, while SESP’s emphasis on strong policy design and evaluation skills lends the program a practical component.

The program begins in August 2021 with classes taught by both CUHK and SESP faculty on CUHK’s campus in Hong Kong’s Sha Tin District. After 10 months in Hong Kong, students will come to Northwestern to complete seven months of additional coursework to earn their degrees.


remote education

Pandemic doesn’ t Hinder the Nurturing of Young Talent, Inventive Teaching

A leader in distance learning for more than 30 years, SESP’s Center for Talent Development expanded its online curriculum in response to the pandemic, helping both teachers and academically talented pre-K through high school students discover surprising benefits inside a virtual classroom.

For CTD instructor Nishat Ali, a fourth-grade teacher at Chicago’s Ogden International School, the experience helped make her a stronger, more reflective educator.

“What’s brilliant and different about CTD’s specialized programs is that they’re so focused,” says Ali, who taught CTD’s Math, Puzzles, and Games class and led its new Global Leadership Intensive, a weeklong course for grades four through six focusing on recycling, climate change, and other global issues.

During the regular academic year, students spend only limited time each day on a range of subjects; in contrast, Ali says, “CTD teachers and students spend hours exploring a single topic from many angles.”

CTD’s online classes during the pandemic provide self-directed learning opportunities and help students build communication skills, she says. Students make live presentations at the end of the class, and prerecorded presentations filmed at home often involve the whole family.

“The need to go online actually ended up being incredible. I felt I became much more intentional as a teacher,” she says, “and the kids were having fun.”

The Global Leadership Intensive was especially well received because it gives students the chance to use their voices and develop confidence. As Ali says, “It builds their self-esteem and tells them that one person can make a difference.” —Ross Middleton


Jan Schmidt

Thank You, Jan Schmidt!

When Jan Schmidt recently retired from the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, the thank-you cards poured in. As one of SESP’s longest-serving and most beloved practicum supervisors, Schmidt was a mentor, leader, teacher, and friend to dozens of Northwestern students.

A clinical educator for more than three decades, Schmidt welcomed interns to work in the hospital’s psychiatric department, which cares for children with emotional and behavioral disorders, learning differences, and other challenges. Well known for her positivity and compassion, Schmidt taught students how to confidently navigate an often stressful clinical setting.

“They’re all trying to figure out what they want to do. I took enough time to say, ‘Hey, what do you really want to do?’” Schmidt says. “I tried to foster an environment that would allow them to explore, practice, question, and learn not only about the work but about themselves.”

A native Californian who made her career in Chicago after attending Mundelein College and Northeastern Illinois University, Schmidt began working with Northwestern students in the mid-1990s. Over the years, Lurie Children’s has hired more than 20 students from the internship program, including Hannah Davison (BS19), a professional soccer player for the Chicago Red Stars who works at the hospital in the off-season.

Davison, now a part-time milieu therapist on the unit, hadn’t planned on pursuing a career in child psychiatry. But experiencing Schmidt’s philosophy in action opened her eyes to a “new side of medicine and the importance of kindness,” she says.

The 63-year-old Schmidt, an avid water-skier, basketball player, and musician, lived on a couple acres with her dogs near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and would commute to the city. Just before the pandemic hit, she left the Midwest to rejoin her family in California and help care for her 89-year-old mother.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of someone or miss something from my work at Lurie Children’s,” Schmidt says. “We had good camaraderie, great professional rapport, and a friendly, caring environment. But it was time to return home.”


Student Film

Student Films Explore Race, Power, Technology

Three documentary films by high school students examining the ethical and social impact of police surveillance technologies premiered last spring in an online event organized by SESP and the Block Museum of Art.

The student filmmakers participated in the Young People’s Race, Power, and Technology project, an after-school STEM program directed and codesigned by assistant professor of learning sciences Sepehr Vakil and supported by Vakil’s National Science Foundation Early CAREER Award.

The program was developed in partnership with Evanston Township High School, Family Matters, Endangered Peace, and the Lucy Parsons Lab and involved Northwestern undergraduates as well as the high schoolers and community members. Raphael Nash, an independent producer and director and adjunct faculty member at DePaul University, and SESP learning sciences doctoral student Jessica Marshall were among the program’s other key contributors.

The student films examined aspects of surveillance technology: facial-recognition systems, gang databases in Chicago and Evanston, and the use of social media by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The students’ efforts demonstrated a key point of Vakil’s work designing STEM education programs—that young people have strong political identities or, as Vakil says, “the part of themselves that deals with issues of right and wrong and equality and social justice.”



World drawing

MSLOC Students Partner with Peking University

The Master’s in Learning and Organizational Change (MSLOC) program received a $3,000 international classroom partnering grant to deepen the global experience for Northwestern students.

The award, from the Office of the Vice President for International Relations and the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, allowed MSLOC faculty to collaborate with faculty at Peking University, a partner institution of Northwestern, to enhance the course Leading Global Change.

“The call for leaders with the perspectives and capabilities to address global challenges has never been stronger,” says MSLOC associate director Diane Knoepke, who assisted with the cross-school partnership.

Leading Global Change explores how to design and deploy organizational change plans in contexts that involve people and teams of diverse backgrounds and that straddle international boundaries. Through discovery interviews and other data-gathering components of the course, MSLOC students connected with executive MBA students at Peking University’s Guanghua Management School.

“Our students conducted country-level cultural analyses, participated in cross-cultural virtual collaborations, and delved into global case studies,” says Lina Deng, co-instructor for the course. “These learning activities draw out the teamwork challenges and tensions typically experienced among people from Western and Eastern cultures.”

Toward the end of the course, students created hypothetical but viable plans for change in a multinational organization. After watching the Netflix documentary American Factory, they used case materials to develop a global change plan for the Ohio-based, Chinese-owned manufacturer featured in the film, Fuyao Glass America.

Jeff Liu, the automotive glass company’s president and CEO, attended the final class presentations, offering feedback on and high praise for the students’ work. “All the teams did a fantastic job,” he said during the class. “We need young, talented people like this.”



Jim Spillane

From Rural Ireland to the Pinnacle of Academe

Professor James Spillane was one of eight Northwestern faculty members elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2020. He joins SESP’s other AAAS members: Larry Hedges, the Board of Trustees Professor of Statistics; Carol Lee, professor emerita of learning sciences and education; and Doug Medin, professor emeritus of education and psychology.

Spillane, the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change, is one of the world’s top thinkers on school leadership issues, change within organizations, and policy implementation at the state, school, and classroom levels. Known for his collaborative work and ability to bridge disciplines, he studies how leaders build education systems and make decisions.

The oldest of six children, Spillane grew up on a 21-acre dairy farm near Bantry in West Cork, Ireland. He first arrived in the US as an exchange student at California State University, Chico, where he earned a master’s degree.

In 2013 he was awarded Northwestern’s Dorothy Ann and Clarence L. Ver Steeg Distinguished Research Fellowship. That same year, he was elected to the National Academy of Education.

A gifted conversationalist, Spillane brings a passion and urgency to his work that inspires junior colleagues, says Rebecca Lowenhaupt, associate professor of educational leadership at Boston College, who coauthored Navigating the Principalship: Key Insights for New and Aspiring School Leaders (2019) with Spillane and was a postdoctoral fellow at SESP.

“As we reimagine schooling in the context of the COVID-19 disruption, the skills of principals are particularly relevant,” she says.


In Brief

Emma Adam

Lindsay Chase-Lansdale

Cynthia Coburn

Mesmin Destin


Kirabo Jackson



Jen Munson

Yang Qu