Carol Lee Named Tarry Professor of Education and Social Policy

Carol Lee Named Tarry Professor of Education and Social Policy

Carol Lee
SESP professor of learning sciences Carol Lee, an internationally known education researcher, was named the Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. At the investiture ceremony on December 9, Northwestern president Morton Schapiro awarded Lee a medal before she delivered a talk on “An Ecological and Cultural Framework for Understanding Human Learning and Development: My Border Crossing Journey in SESP."

Dean Penelope Peterson introduced Lee as a leading scholar and teacher who has made important contributions to education focusing on the cultural contexts affecting learning. “She developed a theory of cultural modeling that draws on prior knowledge that children from underserved neighborhoods have,” Peterson explained. Active in the school reform movement in Chicago Public Schools, Lee taught in both public and private schools before assuming a university career, and she co-founded three African-centered charter schools in Chicago. Peterson said, “She’s as well loved by her children there as she is here.”

Lee is the immediate past president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), a member of the National Academy of Education, a fellow of the National Conference of Research on Language and Literacy, and a former fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. She is also the author of two books, Culture, Literacy and Learning and Signifying as a Scaffold for Literary Interpretation.

Several major awards have recognized her contributions to education. These include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the Martin E. and Gertrude G. Walder Award for Research Excellence, the National Council of Teachers of English Distinguished Service Award, and the AERA Scholars of Color Distinguished Scholar Award. She has been a member of the faculty of the School of Education and Social Policy and African American Studies since 1991. 

In her talk, Lee emphasized her “intellectual journey being a member of the faculty” and how her associations at SESP led to learning how to frame questions that matter “if education is going to make a difference in the world.” While she began with a background in curriculum and instruction, her colleagues at SESP led her to think about cognition, especially in a cultural framework and introduced her to issues of life course development, she said.

“A cultural framework is a fundamental issue if you want to understand the science,” she asserted, emphasizing the need for an “ecological focus.”

While the education community has made certain assumptions about the achievement of students with low-income status, Lee displayed data showing that in certain cultures internationally, a large share of low-income students score in the top quartile. Lee achieved success with urban students by drawing on knowledge they already had to open up their reading of literature. However, greater challenges included keeping students in school and helping them to succeed.

A broader framework is needed for thinking about cultural ecological questions, according to Lee. Referring to psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner’s model, she noted, “Out of ecological systems the trajectory of child development occurs.” Another important concept is that “human culture and human biology are intertwined,” she said. She credited biologist E.O. Wilson as she explained that humans have certain predispositions that “have genesis both in biology and the environment,” and these predispositions are expressed in diverse ways, serving a function of adaptation. “Diversity serves a function in the maintenance of the system,” Lee noted.

Another “big idea” that Lee emphasized is the importance of adaptation through multiple pathways. “There is a need for us to focus on adaptation as opposed to just risk,” she said, since adaptation occurs through risk resiliency. Citing the importance of “issues of biology,” Lee identified an opportunity for SESP to further explore “integrations across different disciplines.” She concluded, “We need a broad perspective.”

Lee’s professorship is named for the late Edwina S. Tarry (BS38), a staunch supporter of the School of Education and Social Policy. As an alumna of the School of Education and Social Policy and a former teacher, Tarry had a deep commitment to education, and one of her major gifts allowed the School to build the Tarry Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning, which opened in 1999. An additional major gift supports the Tarry Professorship.

“I know that if she were here today, she’d be so happy to know that a fellow teacher received this professorship,” Peterson said.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 3/22/11