What Happens When More Four-Year-Olds Attend Preschool?

Professors Diane Schanzenbach and Terri Sabol are studying how the recent expansion of universal pre-K in Chicago affects students from lower-income backgrounds. The effort is a partnership with Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago mayor’s office, and the Chicago department of family and support services.

State and city pre-K programs that offer free access to early learning for four-year-olds are on the rise nationally. But the programs typically struggle to reach children from the poorest backgrounds. The Chicago model addresses this by streamlining the enrollment process and offering enough slots to serve 95 percent of eligible children.

Schanzenbach, director of the Institute for Policy Research, and Sabol, a developmental psychologist who studies child development and social policy, will study the program’s effect on the wider childcare market and whether such programs can reduce educational inequities.

Children typically enter classrooms with a range of skills, which is often tied to their early childhood experiences,” Sabol says. “Kindergarten teachers often respond to the range in skills by remediating the students who did not attend pre-K, typically then becoming less effective at engaging and developing those students who did. By the end of the year, the groups are performing similarly and we’ve lost the gains made by pre-K.

The research is supported by the Crown Family Foundation, Steans Family Foundation, CME Group Foundation, Peterson Foundation, Chicago Public Schools, and an anonymous funder.

tunepad and equalizer illustration

Making Beats with Code 

Professor Michael Horn's new book Introduction to Digital Music with Python Programming: Learning Music with Code offers a powerful way to create music that can be linked with digital production tools.

The book serves as a beginner's guide to two platforms, including Horn's TunePad, which lets users create short musical loops that can be layered together using a simple digital interface. Horn, director of Northwestern's Tangible Interaction Design and Learning Lab, coauthored the book with Cameron Roberts, a Chicago software developer and saxophonist and TIDAL lab research staff member, and Melanie West, a learning sciences doctoral student.

West, an award-winning former recording engineer, studies the role of music in the learning sciences. “TunePad, being free and accessible, can open doors to new ways of learning through music,” she says. “There’s nothing like witnessing the expression on a child’s face when they can program a Python loop that expresses their musical thoughts.”

Sunset in Milan photo

Benvenuti in Italia

Undergraduates have a new location option for their junior year practicum: Milan. A collaboration among SESP, Northwestern’s Global Learning Office, and nonprofit IES Abroad means that students can now complete their experiential learning and global engagement requirements simultaneously.

SESP’s much-loved practicum—a quarter-long off-campus internship paired with an academic seminar—has jump-started the careers of countless alumni. One student’s practicum at the US Government Accountability Office led to a rotational job there; another student works as an analyst at Deloitte after completing a practicum at the Civic Consulting Alliance. But some students found it difficult to complete the practicum while also having a study-abroad experience.

In 2020, SESP introduced a remote option for the junior year practicum due to the pandemic. Adding the Italian internship means SESP students can now fulfill their practicum requirement by working for an organization anywhere in the US or in Milan.

teacher leads class

Elementary Education Concentration Debuts 

A new pathway for aspiring teachers allows undergraduates to pursue a concentration in elementary teaching. Previously, undergrads could only earn their secondary education license, which allowed them to teach middle and high school. Those who wanted to teach first through sixth grades could enter the master’s program via an accelerated pathway.

The new concentration, launched in fall 2022, follows an interdisciplinary curriculum and expands the undergraduate teacher preparation TEACH ED program.

“In addition to potentially increasing the diversity of teacher candidates, this new pathway gives faculty the chance to collaborate and create new education courses that could be of interest to students in other SESP concentrations,” says Kavita Kapadia Matsko, associate professor and associate dean for teacher education.

Ernest Willingham speaks at podium

“Northwestern Academy Changed My Life”

Ernest Willingham was a gregarious high school freshman when he first learned about the Northwestern Academy college access and enrichment program for Chicago Public Schools students. He immediately knew he wanted in.

The youngest of 11, Willingham grew up on Chicago’s West Side, where his brother, father, cousin, and best friend were victims of gun violence. But a persistent goal—ever since watching the movie College Road Trip—was to be the first man in his family to graduate from high school and continue to college.

“I can honestly say that Northwestern Academy changed my life,” says Willingham, now a premed junior at Boston’s Northeastern University. “The countless advising sessions, mentorship, and incredible college tours completely changed the trajectory of my academic career.”

Willingham was one of several featured speakers at the August dedication of the academy’s new name: the Morton Schapiro Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools. He was joined by Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, Northwestern president emeritus Schapiro, interim SESP dean Dan McAdams, academy director Cassandra Salgado, and Chicago industrialist John Potocsnak.

The academy, which serves academically motivated high school students from diverse backgrounds, was recently endowed and renamed in honor of former president Schapiro with a multimillion-dollar gift from the Potocsnak family.

Established in 2013 as part of Northwest--ern’s Good Neighbor, Great University initiative, the program is offered at no cost to students and is fully funded through donations.

“This gift will have an impact for years to come,” Salgado said. “We’re broadening the margin of excellence for students as they continue to represent not only the academy, as they go on to colleges, but also their communities, their high schools, and the city of Chicago.”

Last spring, Willingham testified before a US Senate committee about the pervasive gun violence in Chicago. Just days after his testimony, his niece and another friend were shot.

Lightfoot said that Willingham’s story and dedication to making the world a better place were “proof positive of why this program is so important. We need to encourage our young people to dream big—because it does make a profound difference in the quality of their lives, the quality of their families’ lives, and, ultimately, the quality of our city.” 

Both Lightfoot and Schapiro emphasized the success of the program, which has already matriculated more than 300 students from nearly 40 high schools across the city. About 88 percent will be first--generation college students, and 96 percent identify as members of underrepresented groups. The students’ average GPA is 3.8.

For participants, the program can have a transformative impact. Many are high achievers, but they often have limited resources or need support to prepare for college.

“Coming from the West Side, there aren’t many people encouraging young Black men to go into college and pursue their dreams,” -Willingham says. “That changed when I entered Northwestern Academy.”

He instantly connected with Northwestern’s Ian Williams, the adviser and recruiter who first came to his high school. “Even before I finished my presentation, he was clearly excited about it,” Williams recalls of Willingham. “He really understood what we were doing and why we were doing it.”

Willingham recently came one step closer to his goal of becoming a “life-changing physician” when he was accepted via an early -admission program to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. And while he has a wide network of supporters, the academy and the people in it have a special place in his heart.

“I hold dear every value taught, modeled, and emphasized at Northwestern Academy,” he says. “The experience had one of the most profound impacts on my journey.”

illustration with money and chart

Does $500 a Month Make a Difference?

Human development and social policy doctoral students Phoebe Lin, Claire Mackevicius, and Sheridan Fuller are examining the impact of a new guaranteed-income program, a joint initiative between North-western and Evanston designed to address economic insecurity.

The Guaranteed Income Pilot Program gives 150 people a $500 monthly stipend for one year to use as they wish. Northwestern provided $400,000 in funding for the program; additional funds come from the American Rescue Plan, the city of Evanston, and the Evanston Community Foundation.

Professor Jonathan Guryan, an economist and Lawyer Taylor Professor of Education and Social Policy, is overseeing the project.


Scholars Sofia Bahena and Camila Morales joined the Center for Education Efficacy, Excellence, and Equity for the 2022–23 academic year as its inaugural early-career visiting fellows.

Faculty members Michael Horn, Nichole Pinkard, Terri Sabol, Hannes Schwandt, and Lilah Shapiro received promotions. Two professors received named professorships: Pinkard is the Alice Hamilton Professor of Education and Social Policy, and Brian Reiser is the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy.

Jacob Kelter

Jacob Kelter, who studies how the power of computer modeling and simulations can help solve some of society’s most complex problems, received the prestigious Presidential Fellowship at Northwestern University.

Doctoral student Jessica Marshall, Caitlin Ahearn (BS13), and Judith Landeros (BS11) received 2022 National Academy of Education (NAEd)/Spencer Dissertation Fellowships. Jennifer Higgs (MS08) of the University of California, Davis, received an NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, and Dionne Champion (PhD18) of the University of Florida was awarded a 2022 NAEd/Spencer Research Development Award.

Matias Martinez.jpg

Matías Martinez, a doctoral student in the Human Development and Social Policy program, received a 2022–23 DevSci graduate student fellowship from Northwestern’s Institute for Innovations in Developmental Science. Martinez is designing school policies to prevent bullying and looking for strategies to help children cope with harassment.

The Master’s in Learning and Organizational Change program has been designated a new STEM training opportunity for international students by the US Department of Homeland Security.

Interim dean Dan P. McAdams wrote The Person: A New Introduction to Personality Psychology. The lively book, organized around 29 case studies, is designed to teach personality psychology to all readers, not just college students. “It puts the person back into personality,” he writes.

Brian Reiser

Professor Brian Reiser and his Next Generation Storylines team, including curriculum development specialist Gail Houseman, received a $7.5 million multi-institution grant to help bring a robust and research-based science curriculum and teacher supports into elementary school classrooms.

Hannes Schwandt

A new study led by Hannes Schwandt, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is the first to show in detail the stark differences in life expectancy during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic between high- and low-income people in the US, as well as the disproportionate reduction in life expectancy—even within wealthy areas—for Hispanic, Black, and Asian Californians.

Kimberly Scott.jpg

Kimberly Scott was named associate dean for innovation and program development to facilitate new ventures and advance SESP’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice initiatives. An assistant professor, she will continue to serve as executive director of the master’s and executive programs in learning and organizational change.

Rosalie Shyu

Rosalie Shyu (MSED22), a math teacher at Chicago’s Kenwood Academy High School, became the ninth Knowles Teacher Fellow from SESP in the past 10 years.

James Spillane

Professor James Spillane received the 2022 Spencer Foundation Mentor Award for his generous, wise, and decades-long support of new scholars.

David Uttal received the 2022 International Mind, Brain, and Education Society’s translation award for his work strengthening the links between research and practice in both schools and informal contexts, such as museums and community centers.