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Photo of Frances Contreras, dean of UCI's School of Education
“Learning has become incredibly dynamic. And when you have a dynamic and innovative space for learning, you’re really fostering a lifelong learning atmosphere. That’s the beauty of what's happening in this moment through the use of technology – the innovation that continues to happen,” says Frances Contreras, dean of UCI’s School of Education. Steve Zylius/UCI

A first-generation college student, Frances Contreras earned her bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and realized very early how she could connect research and practice by making a career in the field of education. While completing a master’s degree at Harvard, then a Ph.D. in administration and education policy from Stanford, Contreras focused her research on issues of equity and access for underrepresented students and the role of public policy in ensuring student equity from prekindergarten through higher education. Now the dean of UCI’s School of Education, she leads a team of scholars who she says “care deeply about education transformation.”

What are the major conversations happening around education right now, and why is research significant in these conversations? How will technology continue to shape the future of education? What is it going to take for teachers to feel supported in their craft? How do today’s students differ from those of past generations? These are some of the many questions we pose to Contreras in the latest episode of the UCI Podcast.

Music for this episode of the UCI Podcast, titled “When We Found the Horizon,” provided by Late Night Feeler via the Audio Library in YouTube Studio.

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UCI Podcast/Cara Capuano: From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to the UCI Podcast. The future of education is always a hot button topic, especially among those who work in higher education. Questions about the future of education have amplified since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. To help us examine inquiries about what’s next in education, let’s welcome in Frances Contreras, dean of UCI’s School of Education. Thank you for joining us today, Dean Contreras.

Dean Frances Contreras: Thank you so much, Cara. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Capuano: First, let’s begin with a few questions about you. Your tenure as the dean of the School of Education began in January of 2022. What made this opportunity at UCI the right fit for this next chapter of your career?

Contreras: Thank you so much for your question. I’m really excited to be at UC Irvine in this next chapter of its history. I think what excites me about UC Irvine is the opportunity really to help shape a School of Education into its next adventure, right? Its next chapter as a School of Education.

It just felt that it was the right time to step up and answer the call to lead in what I consider to be a very challenging time in education at all levels, but also a tremendous opportunity to lead differently in a space that – and school that – is incredibly prestigious, faculty that are incredibly hardworking, and a community of faculty, staff, students  and alumni all committed to the same goal of giving back to the broader region and being a model for the entire state and nation.

Capuano: With your appointment to this role, you became the first Chicana/Latina dean to head a School of Education within the University of California system. What did that mean to you?

Contreras: Personally, it’s very humbling to be a first of many chapters. And it really means that I have the opportunity to give back to a system that’s given so much to me. Having gone to another UC campus for my undergraduate career, I know firsthand the value of a UC education, and I want to be in a space – and I am, fortunately, at UC Irvine – to really do that for the next generation, to give back in a way, to help contribute to an incredible school that is producing this next generation of educators that will give back for years to come.

Capuano: Let’s dial back to that time when you were a student. What motivated you to make a commitment to a career in education?

Contreras: That’s a great question. Well, you know, to be honest, it all begins with education, right? Those are the pivotal moments that we all have as students. That’s where students are inspired to learn, where curiosity takes flight. And I just knew early on in my career that this was the right fit in terms of where I’d like to spend my time. I’d like to make sure that I’m giving back to younger students, that I’m able to pursue different theoretical approaches and also really contribute to a field that was growing and expanding in such a way that can shape practice. And so, this connection between research and practice was always near and dear to me, and I found that education was the right fit to be able to do that.

Capuano: You spoke earlier about the challenges facing education. Let’s move into talking about that global picture in education today. Over the last few years, especially, we’ve seen substantial shifts in education, really at all levels from prekindergarten to higher ed. What are the major conversations happening in the sphere of education right now?

Contreras: Well, I want to start with the universal prekindergarten because I think that that’s a new player to the education scene. Typically, prekindergarten – pre-K – has been privatized. And what we’re seeing with the scaling up of universal prekindergarten in a state like California, that this state has the opportunity to be a leader in ensuring that pre-K education is prioritized, that early learning investments are also prioritized.

And so, it’s really a unique opportunity and we have such a strong core group of faculty that are committed to the prekindergarten policy and space and research that I really believe that this is going to be an area – for years to come – where we’re going to see the professionalization of the teacher workforce in this arena as well as curriculum being such an important factor on this issue.

And then when I think about K-12, obviously any parent can relate to this: that the pandemic has had a tremendous impact on how we approach education, on students learning and engagement that did or did not happen during the pandemic. And so, it’s really a tremendous opportunity to readjust and take stock of this life-changing event that happened to all of us and meet families and students where they are.

And so, what we’re seeing is the K-12 system – which hasn’t historically been nimble – being forced to be more nimble, creative, innovative, and incorporate new technologies in a way they probably never have before. And so, I think that the conversations around K-12 is beyond, “How do we accelerate learning?” It’s, “How do we engage students to love learning? How do we ensure that independent learning is fostered and created, and that innovation is honored?” And so, it’s been a really dynamic time for K-12 education.

It’s also been a challenging time for our teachers. And so, being there to support our teachers, to create an academic home for teachers and future teachers, and to inspire the next generation of teachers has really been a core role that Schools of Education will continue to play, I think, for years to come.

And then, of course, higher education. I think in this space of higher education, we are going to continue, unfortunately, to see some enrollment decline – at least as the economy attempts to recover. We’ve seen students choose with their feet where to go. And so, it’s going to be incredibly important for not only UCs, but all institutions of higher education, to remain relevant, to remain responsive. It means that it’s important that we’re meeting students where they are in terms of hybrid spaces, offering hybrid services, but also offering that in-person first- class interaction and services, and high-quality teaching that higher education is known for.

And so, the conversations around enrollment, ensuring that students want to come to college, and, of course, communicating to the next generation that future fields such as medicine, engineering, technology, teaching has become highly complex just as economies have become highly complex. And so, it’s going to be really important to communicate that out to communities that advancement in industries – across fields – rely on higher education. And so, I think that, you know, there are concerns happening with respect to relevancy but I don’t see that happening. It think it’s a… I’m tremendously optimistic about higher education’s role to contribute to a thriving economy throughout our country.

Capuano: Earlier you talked about that intersection of the practice of education and the research around education. Why is research so impactful in all of the conversations we just had about education?

Contreras: The field of research and the practice of research – the work that our faculty are doing every day is so critically important because we’re evaluating. We’re asking critical questions. We’re testing out innovations. We’re testing out technologies. I have faculty, for example, that have partnerships with PBS KIDS – Mark Warschauer – who’s testing artificial intelligence at the Pre-K level.

This work is inspiring, but research informs how we deliver curriculum, how we adjust and modify so that our students are witnessing and experiencing the very best resources as they learn – as they become those lifelong learners. And so, there’s a tight connection between inspiring the next generation and ensuring that our research is informing our practice.

And then, of course, research is also informing policy. I think about the work of Greg Duncan and his work that informed the stimulus package and investments that happened. The greater investments that happened for children under six years old – that came out of research. That investment in families and parents and his recommendations – along with scholars that he works with throughout the country and throughout the world – the arguments that they have made were listened to, and it’s made a difference in families prioritizing early learning, families diverting resources to pre-K investment.

And then, of course, we have faculty that are in the teacher education space, like Hosun Kang. Dr. Kang’s work – that’s informing science standards and science policy. Again, research is informing not only the practice, but also the practices that are occurring throughout states like California, that are occurring throughout the country.

Capuano: When you think about the needs of education systems – and we’re talking pre-K through higher education – how has UCI’s School of Education worked to meet the needs of our community?

Contreras: Well, as we’ve seen in the past year, we have had a tremendous impact – not only in the past year, but really the past decade – on the region of Orange County through OCEAN – the Orange County Educational Advancement Network – in working with and partnering with over 15 school districts in the broader region to develop, implement, co-design, research practice partnerships. This effort’s run by June Ahn and it has seen tremendous success in engaging school district leaders, teachers, principals, educators, to not only impact student learning, but also impact delivery and innovation that’s happening, conversations that are happening. And so, I think that it’s really a dynamic approach the School of Education has implemented along with the Center for Educational Partnerships.

Led by Stephanie Reyes-Tuccio, the Center for Educational Partnerships has made a lasting imprint on its work with school districts through our efforts with Upward Bound, with the TRIO programs, with our work with local community colleges. And so, what we have tried to do as a School of Education is ensure that we’re stepping up and serving the region, that we are highly relevant and part of these critical conversations, and that we are working side by side as a true partner and collaborator.

We’re seeing the results of all of that hard work, especially over this past decade, in our rise in the rankings to a top 10 School of Education, in the recent global recognition as the top eighth School of Education in the world and the number four public School of Education. It’s a tremendous testament to the work of the faculty, our team of staff and students that are all committed to the same goal of not only impacting, you know, regions like Orange County, but that are authentically engaging in partnership in such a way that honors the voices of everyone at the table.

Capuano: And the work that they’re doing within this region can then lay a foundation for work that can carry over into others.

Contreras: Absolutely. We’re getting requests for modeling OCEAN Los Angeles, OCEAN Long Beach, and I believe that it’s really this framework that has resonated with many practitioners and leaders of systems in the region – and the broader Southern California region and other parts of the state of California – that works.

I also want to highlight recently our work with the Anaheim Collaborative. Mike Matsuda recommended us to engage with the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation. And that partnership was led by a school district superintendent. This project is a testament to that broader Anaheim collaborative that has many players at the table, including community colleges, school districts, higher ed institutions – all at the table – committed to ensuring that we’re doing our best by our Anaheim students. And so, you can see that in Santa Ana, the work that we’re doing with many of our other private entities in private schools as well. It’s just this critically important approach to engaging research that’s done in partnership, and it’s done in an authentic way so that we have a long-lasting level of engagement with our partners.

Capuano: During the pandemic technology became crucial to learning and to education. What other emerging roles will technology have in the future of education?

Contreras: That is a fantastic question.

Capuano: It’s a “million-dollar question,” I believe.

Contreras: Absolutely. What we are seeing is, one, technology’s not going away, and we are seeing levels of innovation that we probably never imagined through the use of technology.

One of the tremendously beautiful aspects of what happened during the pandemic was that teachers became students as well. Professors became students, and it kind of leveled the playing field on some levels, in that, we quickly acknowledged that students learn differently, but also were forced to adapt. And this is one example of meeting students where they are. And we quickly realized that the next generation is more adept at technology than previous generations.

What we are seeing is the incorporation of coding, much earlier gaming, utilizing different modes of technology. We’re seeing AI introduced very early and also the promise of artificial intelligence in many different fields. And so, what we are seeing is a dynamic classroom evolving at all levels from pre-K to K-12, higher education and beyond. That learning has become incredibly dynamic. And when you have a dynamic and innovative space for learning, you’re really fostering a lifelong learning atmosphere. That’s really the beauty of what’s happening in this moment through the use of technology is the innovation that continues to happen.

Capuano: You mentioned that teachers certainly had a lot to adapt to as well. As we think about the future of education, what’s it going to take for teachers to feel supported and successful in their craft, this ever-changing craft?

Contreras: Well, this is definitely a priority of mine during this window where I’m leading the School of Education. We have seen our teachers step up and really go above and beyond serving our students. They have stepped up and served our families. They have been the connection to normalcy for many of our students in the region. And it’s time for us all to collectively give back. It’s time for us to support our teachers in a way that perhaps we didn’t even know they needed. For us as a School of Education, what we’re trying to do through the Teacher Academy and through our investments is really ensure that our teachers, not only in the region, and our partnerships really feel that they are part of our community, that they are part of a lifelong network with our School of Education, and that they can always come home to UC Irvine.

And so, it means developing resources, whether it be resources in the summer, special conferences. We just had our conference with the Writing Project, which is highly successful with local teachers, and engaged them for two days with the Writing Project on writing pedagogy. And that was highly successful. And so, it means, you know, getting together with local teachers and asking them, “How can we be of support? How can we be of service?”

And it also means that we need to pay attention to wellness. It means that we also need to think about not only how to invest in teachers so that they feel supported, but we’re also honoring their time. And so, creating spaces where they can talk to one another about how they’re also addressing high stress levels, addressing some of the trauma that they’re witnessing on a daily basis that they may have not experienced. And so, also providing wellness and mental wellness resources for our teachers. A lot of our partnerships are trying to provide relevant content, relevant materials for our teachers and really step up and be a resource. But I think it’s really going to take a collective effort throughout the region to ensure that we’re supporting the next generation of teachers so that they stay in the profession and love what they do.

Capuano: We hear a lot about burnout and not staying in the profession and the importance of the well-being of both the teachers and the students. How can the teachers take care of the students if they’re not taking care of themselves first? I mean, this is a topic that I think has always been there, Dean Contreras, but right now, perhaps because of the pandemic, has it surged to the forefront more of everyone’s minds?

Contreras: I think it’s definitely searched to the forefront. I think that it’s become a priority for our teacher education program, in our conversations and in the classroom. You know, how do you ensure that yes, we, we all know we have content to deliver. We all know there are, you know, there are lessons that we want to deliver. But we also know that we’re people, that we are collectively a community. And so, our teachers are part of a critical part of our community, and it’s just time that we honor their investment that they’ve made in everyone else, and that we need to provide that space and time for them to feel honored, to feel supported and to feel valued.

Capuano: That’s certainly something we would all like to see, especially the teachers. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about today that you wanted to make sure we discussed in this conversation?

Contreras: You know, when we talked about the technology and the issue of technology being such a critically important topic for the future of education, I just wanted to mention that the School of Education is also working to be part of conversations around data science and educational data science. That we see a tremendous opportunity as a leading School of Education to be of service to the state as a data hub and develop a data hub where we’re connecting systems of educational science data. This is a tremendous opportunity that we have as a school to really be a leader in developing a data hub that’s relevant for pre-K service delivery, for K-12, as well as for higher education. So, I just wanted to highlight one of our priorities that our faculty have pretty much uniformly said is an important service we could provide. Knowing what we know, knowing how successful OCEAN has been in our partnerships, that we really could provide data expertise to the region.

Capuano: Well, we will watch for that development. Thanks for the hint on that.

Contreras: Thank you.

Capuano: And we appreciate you joining us today, Dean Contreras.

Contreras: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation on the future of education.

Capuano: I’m Cara Capuano, thanking you for listening to our conversation. The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California, Irvine. Please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.