From West Cork to Northwestern: Spillane Joins American Academy of Arts and Sciences

From West Cork to Northwestern: Spillane Joins American Academy of Arts and Sciences

James SpillaneProfessor James Spillane, the oldest of six children, grew up on a 21-acre dairy farm in Ireland.

School of Education and Social Policy Professor James Spillane, a first-generation high school and college student from rural Ireland, has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary societies.

Spillane is one of eight Northwestern University faculty members among this year’s class of more than 270 artists, scholars, scientists, and leaders in the public, non-profit and private sectors. He joins previous SESP winners Larry Hedges, Board of Trustees Professor of Statistics; Carol Lee, professor emeritus of learning sciences and education; and Doug Medin professor emeritus of education and psychology.

The Academy has honored excellence and leadership across disciplines and divides since 1780. The Class of 2020 includes everyone from writer Ann Patchett and singer/activist Joan Baez to lawyer and former attorney general Eric Holder.

“I was completely taken by surprise,” said Spillane, who nearly deleted the email notification, assuming it was junk mail. “It’s a huge honor to be part of this diverse group of scholars and artists. I’m still trying to accept it.”

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 explores how leaders build education systems and make instructional decisions.

In 2016, Spillane received a $1 million Lyle Spencer Research Award to study how six different types of school systems could improve English language arts instruction. With funding from the National Science Foundation his latest project, an extension of his Spencer work, looks at how school systems build educational infrastructures to support the teaching of the Next Generation Science Standards in classrooms.

“It goes back to grappling with how we build education systems to support teaching,” says Spillane, professor of human development and social policy and learning sciences, and faculty associate at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. “If we don’t do that, we won’t address the instructional quality and equity concerns.”

Cited by multiple groups as one of the most influential scholars in the nation, Spillane lectures internationally and has written several books, including Navigating the Principalship: Key Insights for New and Aspiring School Leadership (ASCD) and Standards Deviation (Harvard University Press).

In 2013 he was awarded the Ver Steeg Research Fellowship at Northwestern University. That same year, he was elected to the National Academy of Education.

“Northwestern University has been blessed with some of the finest social scientists this country has produced in the last half century and Jim clearly belongs on that list,” said SESP Professor Dan Lewis, a member of the committee who hired Spillane in 1996. “His work in education has opened our eyes to how schools operate and how solid empirical work can lead to theories that guide both science and practice.”  

On top of that, “he is a kind and generous human being and has made my more than forty years here at Northwestern a joy,” Lewis added.

From West Cork to Evanston

Spillane, the oldest of six children, grew up on a 21-acre dairy farm near Bantry, in West Cork, Ireland. His parents began working on the farm after elementary school, the norm for their generation. Yet they valued formal education and encouraged their children to attend school.

“Though I failed to appreciate it as a child, they sacrificed so much for us and for that I am now deeply thankful,” said Spillane, who earned his degree from St. Patrick’s College of Education in Dublin, now The Institute of Education at Dublin City University. “I try to pay back by paying forward and reaching out and supporting others who are first generation high school or college.”

Spillane first arrived in the U.S. as an exchange student at California State University – Chico, where he worked on a master’s degree. He returned to Ireland to teach at St. Mary’s on the Hill National School Knocknaheeny in Cork City a neighborhood elementary school serving a working class community. He returned to the U.S. for graduate school in 1988.

Michigan State University proved to be a rich intellectual home for Spillane, who studied curriculum teaching and education policy with a host of colleagues who went on to become leaders in the field, including former School of Education and Social Policy Dean Penelope Peterson.

In 1996, Spillane’s first year as a faculty member at Northwestern, Corey Drake (PhD01) was starting her doctoral work. A former middle school special education teacher, Drake took Spillane’s class that year and became an advisee, two experiences that she said changed the trajectory of her career.

Drake, now director of Michigan State’s Teacher Preparation Program, still draws on Spillane’s work looking at the relationships between policy and practice, individuals and systems, and teachers and leaders.

But perhaps even more important, her career has been influenced by “the broader lessons he taught me - about holding yourself to high expectations, about learning with and from colleagues, and about using research to tell important stories,” Drake said.  “He has re-shaped both the field of education and the work of teachers and leaders in schools and school systems.” 

Spillane’s current and former advisees describe him as a generous and talented mentor. A gifted conversationalist, he brings a passion and urgency to his work that inspires junior colleagues, said Rebecca Lowenhaupt, associate professor of educational leadership at Boston College's Lynch School of Education and Human Development and coauthor of Navigating the Principalship.

“He has a way of looking at the day-to-day working of organizations and distilling the meaningful patterns in ways that contribute not just to the research world, but also to help people do their work better,” said Lowenhaupt, a former post-doctoral student at SESP and associate professor at Boston College. “And at this particular moment, as we reimagine schooling in the context of the COVID-19 disruption, this skill is particularly relevant. We will need to keep track of the essential work of schools as we remake them for our current circumstances.”

Lowenhaupt also praised his commitment to collaboration, both with other scholars but also with practitioners. “It has created pioneering research methods and ways of working that are increasingly important as we take on bigger, more complex problems,” she said. “He has innovated in this way, and I think the Academy has much to learn from him about how to do this kind of research.”

Spillane has organized and participated in talks, workshops, consultancy, mentoring, outreach to academics, policymakers, and practitioners in the US and around the world. He is an advisor to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) of Ireland, where he will help efforts to fundamentally revise the elementary school curriculum and its implementation over the next five years.

But he is probably best known for the relationships he has formed, and the informal mentorships of faculty, post-docs, graduate students, and undergrads at both SESP and others around the country and the world.

“Jim was an incredible postdoc mentor who challenged my thinking in ways that continue to shape my scholarship,” said Megan Hopkins, associate professor at the University of California, San Diego. “I am a better writer, thinker, and overall scholar because of him -- and also really enjoy his company.  He is generous with his time and resources in ways that are not common in academia, and I'm grateful to call him a colleague and friend. I can't imagine a more worthy scholar for this honor.”

Spillane, who lives in Chicago Andersonville neighborhood with his husband Richard Czuba, shrugs off the compliments.  “It’s who I am,” he says. “And it’s essential to the well-being of colleagues and students as well as the overall well-functioning of SESP, Northwestern, and our academic community.”

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 5/7/20