Deborah Lowe Vandell
“I think it’s our responsibility as education researchers to identify what works (and what doesn’t) so that we can make good use of public resources and so that our children receive the educational opportunities they deserve,” says Deborah Lowe Vandell, founding dean of UCI’s School of Education. Nicole Del Castillo / University Communications

California voters demonstrated their support for K-12 and higher education at the polls Nov. 6 with the passage of Proposition 30. Deborah Lowe Vandell, dean of UC Irvine’s newly established School of Education, sees the vote as an important opportunity for California to regain its academic edge.

“Our state and nation have long benefited from a strong system of public education,” she says. “It’s been the bedrock of our success – our commitment to giving children the chance to attend good schools that help them build the skills they need to achieve the American dream. Succeeding generations need this same chance, especially as we’re being pressed internationally by other countries’ increased investment in education.”

Vandell chaired UCI’s Department of Education for six years and oversaw its development into a school, ratified in July by the University of California Board of Regents. She’s widely credited with leading the unit’s transformation by attracting top-flight faculty and students and creating rigorous programs. It became the highest-ranked department of education – surpassing many renowned schools – on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the top 50 graduate schools.

Recently, Vandell shared her views on how UCI’s School of Education contributes to the improvement of educational opportunities at all levels.

Q. What’s the largest challenge facing education in California?

A. That’s a big question. Decreased funding from the state, of course, has had an enormous impact across the board. Fortunately, the passage of Proposition 30 enables us to avoid devastating cuts that would have begun in January. This is a huge relief, but we still face important fiscal challenges. Both K-12 and higher education need to find ways to stabilize funding so that we can support our core mission of providing a high-quality education to our citizens.

In terms of that educational mission, we have to improve literacy, science and math skills beginning in early childhood, throughout K-12 and then continuing into postsecondary and higher education programs. The last 20 years have seen erosion in U.S. scholastic performance relative to other countries, and California has experienced a particularly sharp decline. Strengthening literacy, science and math skills is needed for all students, but especially for English-language learners and low-income children – where we see the largest achievement gaps. Our faculty members are doing a lot of research in these areas.

Other research in the School of Education focuses on early childhood education and out-of-school programs or extracurricular activities. We have to make sure that our youngest children come to elementary school ready to learn. In one of my projects, for example, 1,300 children were followed from birth to determine whether the quality of early child care could predict academic and/or behavioral problems at age 15. We showed that teens who had received higher-quality child care scored better on measures of academic and cognitive achievement and reported fewer acting-out behaviors than did their peers.

In other studies, our faculty found the after-school hours to be important. Children who regularly participated in high-quality after-school activities at their campuses or at community-based programs demonstrated improved academic achievement and fewer problem behaviors. When young people work hard at something that’s important to them – whether it’s music, sports, faith-based groups, Scouts or community service – it helps them develop discipline and a sense of identity. Children in low-income households tend to have less access to these kinds of programs because they can’t afford to pay the fees. We need to make sure those opportunities remain open to them.

In the School of Education, we also strive to prepare teachers to be active learners in their subject areas and to use technology to their advantage. The school offers a program called “Learning to Learn from Teaching,” which helps prospective teachers evaluate their effectiveness by watching videotapes of themselves and others in the classroom and analyzing how children react to them.

We also have a writing program – the UCI Writing Project – through which both students and teachers of writing can improve their skills. And our very popular Cal Teach program, which lets UCI students concurrently earn a bachelor’s degree and a single-subject teaching credential in math or science, saw its first eight graduates last June. We’re on track to have 20 graduates next spring.

All of this is meant to enhance public education at the early childhood, elementary school, middle school, high school and university levels so that we have a workforce prepared for the jobs of the future and educated citizens to support our democracy.

Q. But how do you get that message about the importance of investing in education out to the voting public? Do you see part of your job as being an advocate?

A. I think it’s our responsibility as education researchers to identify what works (and what doesn’t) so that we can make good use of public resources and so that our children receive the educational opportunities they deserve. I also think we have to present our findings in ways that are accessible to the public and policymakers, especially after the weight of the evidence is clear across a number of studies.

I don’t see this as advocacy or lobbying but as providing useful data to inform the public and improve education in the state, nation and world. Of course, as the dean of the School of Education, advocacy is a big part of my job. The school’s faculty, students and staff are doing important work, and it’s my job to help get that message out.