College of Education > News and Publications > 2015: 04-06 news > College of Education celebrates new graduates

College of Education celebrates new graduates

More than 350 students graduated from the Penn State College of Education Saturday, May 10, part of the overall graduating class of 10,916 earning baccalaureate degrees this spring at Penn State campuses across the Commonwealth.
College of Education celebrates new graduates

Stephanie Marie Diener celebrates her graduation in secondary education during the College of Education spring commencement ceremonies. For more photos, visit https://flic.kr/s/aHsk7G5JnN online.

More than 350 students graduated from the Penn State College of Education Saturday, May 10, part of the overall graduating class of 10,916 earning baccalaureate degrees this spring at Penn State campuses across the Commonwealth. For photos, visit https://flic.kr/s/aHsk7G5JnN online.

Spring 2015 commencement
Stephanie Marie Diener celebrates her graduation in secondary education during the College of Education spring commencement ceremonies. For more photos, visit https://flic.kr/s/aHsk7G5JnN online.
“On behalf of the faculty and staff of the College, I want to commend each of you for reaching this important milestone,” Dean David H. Monk told the graduates at a pre-commencement reception held outside Chambers Building on the University Park campus. “Achieving alumni status is something to be celebrated, and we’re happy to be gathered here in recognition of your hard work. In my view, this event is not a day to say good-bye, or good luck, but rather our way of saying thank you. Lifelong learning is truly important and you may not realize how much our faculty and staff learn from you, and the impact you’ve made on each of us. You inspire us with your passion for education; you humble us with your talent; and you challenge us with your innovative ideas.”

Leading the graduates was College Student Marshal Katharine Hallinger, who completed the childhood and early adolescent education major with a minor in special education, earning a cumulative grade-point average of 4.0. Program marshals were: Gillian Cedrone, childhood and early adolescent education; Parker Werns, education and public policy; Jennifer Slivka, rehabilitation and human services; Brianna Rauenzahn, secondary education; Jillian Simmons, special education; Nina Eckert, workforce education and development; and Ashley Clauer, world languages education.

V. Darlene Opfer, director of RAND Education and distinguished chair in education policy, was the commencement speaker. Opfer has conducted policy research studies for a number of local, state and national governments on issues that affect teachers and schools, including recruitment and retention, professional development, and the impact of policies on teacher practice. Her address follows:

Commencement Address
V. Darlene Opfer
Director of RAND Education;
Distinguished Chair in Education Policy
May 10, 2015

V. Darleen Opfer
V. Darleen Opfer
Dean Monk, members of the faculty, members of the class of 2015, family and friends. I am honored by this invitation to speak to you on such a memorable occasion. My work at RAND has nothing to do with maps, defense, or libertarian politics – the things most people think of when they hear the word RAND. My focus, and of those in my research Unit, is on using research to improve policies and programs for children and families in ways that lead to better outcomes for all. I am keenly aware that I stand between you and your degree so I’ll limit my remarks to a few lessons I’ve learned researching teaching and learning. I’ll mostly focus my remarks on teaching but many of these lessons apply to any position in the field of education.

The first lesson is that research on teaching and learning tends to follow the goldilocks principle. This principle is that too little of something leads to poor results. Too much of something leads to poor results. But just the right amount produces good results. We’ve seen this in many areas of research –with teachers’ confidence in their own ability and its influence on their willingness to change, with structuring learning for students, and with accountability for schools.

It is especially important to remember the goldilocks principle as more and more policies that impact schools get painted in absolutist terms.  Externally mandated testing, for example, is often painted as harmful because of teaching to the test, the time it takes away from instruction, and misuses of scores. Similar kinds of absolutist pronouncements have been made about the common core standards – the standards are too difficult, they decrease local control and parents can no longer help their children with homework.

But like most things in education, the reality is not at the extremes. For testing, multiple studies have estimated that the amount of required state testing is in the neighborhood of 1-2% of the school year. District or school-assigned tests far outstrip mandated tests in terms of the time spent on them. A common criticism of testing is that schools prioritize test prep over instruction. 

This is a real shame since research has shown that schools that teach to the test in inappropriate ways tend, on average, to improve student learning less than those who do not engage in extensive test preparation. And some research shows that thoughtful use of data from tests can improve student learning.

It is rare in education that something is all bad or all good. Usually it is somewhere in between. As educators we should resist the urge to reduce complex issues to sound bites.

The second lesson is that great teachers are not born, they are made. Yes, some people are better teachers than others, but everyone can get better by working at it. In a national study of teacher professional development in England, we asked teachers a series of questions to establish their orientation to teaching – some believed that teaching ability is something you can’t change very much; others believed no matter how well you teach you can always improve.

Not surprisingly, we found that these orientations matter. They matter for whether or not teachers take part in professional learning.  They matter for whether teachers try out new techniques. They matter whether teachers report positive improvements from their students.  The limits on our abilities to improve our teaching are those we place on ourselves. If you believe you can improve and you work on improving, you will improve.

The third lesson is that, while it is possible to improve, it is challenging. Your practices are influenced by your own histories as students, as candidates in preparation programs, and your beliefs about yourselves and your students or clients. Your practices are also heavily influenced by your environment; the opinions and norms of your colleagues; the structures and supports available; the types of leadership you experience. We often do not pay enough attention to the contexts, both personal and organizational, in which teaching and learning occur.

Educators who collaborate with others believe more in their own abilities and in those of their colleagues. They have high job satisfaction and stay in the profession longer. Most importantly, educators who collaborate on issues of curriculum, instruction and professional development achieve better outcomes.

One of the most important aspects of the profession that we need to change is to decrease the isolation of educators. The importance of increasing collaboration among educators is a key contextual element that we can and should improve. Educators who collaborate with others believe more in their own abilities and in those of their colleagues. They have high job satisfaction and stay in the profession longer. Most importantly, educators who collaborate on issues of curriculum, instruction and professional development achieve better outcomes.

So work with others in your grade level, your school, in other schools, in other districts on issues of learning, reflect on those conversations, and then work some more. The image of a successful teacher is no longer of the person in their classroom with the door shut.

The fourth lesson is that having an impact is slow and incremental, but it does indeed happen. As a researcher, I know that big, field changing studies are very rare indeed. I’m often disappointed with the modest effects of interventions to improve teaching and learning. But thanks to one of my colleagues at RAND, I’ve come to think about this differently.

He told me that intervention after intervention showed little to no effect on whether people stopped smoking.  And yet, smoking has significantly declined over time. It was the collection of many small effects that compounded to change perceptions of smoking and decrease its prevalence.

There are other examples outside of education where small effects lead to important consequences such as chemotherapy’s impact on breast cancer, the tens of thousands of barrels of oil saved each year if everyone inflated their tires properly, even the effect that the design of a swim suit has on the speed of an Olympic swimmer can be the difference between a silver or gold medal. All of these have small effects and yet they can have important impacts.

We see the same thing in education. Our efforts to improve teaching and learning often leave us disappointed with their small influences or even invisible impacts.  And yet, math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have improved over time.  We have to remember that while immediate effects may be small, over time they can accumulate into bigger impacts for students, for schools, and for larger system changes.

My final lesson is something we all know, which is how much teachers matter. When I finished my PhD at the University of Virginia, I invited – my kindergarten teacher, my first grade teacher, and my high school history teacher to my graduation party to honor them. These educators taught me to love reading and to believe that a girl with trailer park roots could succeed at anything if I worked diligently.  I am where I am today because of excellent teachers.

Personal anecdotes aside, the importance of teachers in students’ lives has been documented again and again. Teachers are the most important factor affecting student learning. We have more recent evidence that the impacts of teachers are long lasting. Teachers influence students’ probability of earning a college degree and their lifetime earnings. You as individuals matter and can make a difference in the lives of all your students. You may not see it on a daily, weekly or even yearly basis, but rest assured that good teaching does indeed matter.

As you take on new roles in education, whatever they may be, remember that policies and programs are rarely all bad or all good. Believe that you can always improve and that collaboration with your colleagues is the best way to do that. It may be slow and incremental, but improvement does indeed happen. Continue with the persistence that led you to your degrees because your real work is just beginning and nothing matters more to its success than you.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today and my congratulations on your achievement.

By Annemarie Mountz (May 2015)