(Ed. note: Virginia Roach, EdD, taught elementary education before education policy became her primary passion. Her research has focused on students with disabilities in education reform and on female leadership in education among differing nations, including Ethiopia and New Zealand. As the new dean of the Graduate School of Education, she merges class experience and research with practical policy knowledge.)
Why did you want to lead Fordham’s Graduate School of Education?
In my field we care for the whole child, not just the test score number. I wanted to be at a place that thinks about children in the context of their family, their community, and how we build a citizenry based on those factors. I also wanted to be somewhere with a research orientation alongside a strong value base.
Why, nowadays, is education policy so contentious?
Everybody went through an education, so everybody feels that they’re expert in the field. People have lived experiences that form their strong opinions. But my experience as a white person is not the same experience as someone who is African American. And my experience of coming from a working-class background is not the same as those who went to private school their whole lives. It’s incumbent on educators to look at everyone’s experience, and to make sure that policy makers don’t unwittingly create policy that favors one group over another but seeks to create equity across the system.
Why is it important that teachers understand education policy?
Educators need to learn policy language so they can educate policy makers in their own language. We can’t expect [policy makers]to understand the teachers’ lived experience in the classrooms. Education policy centers on standards, assessment, accountability, licensure, and school funding. So when there’s an issue, educators need to think about the policy levers they have at their disposal and then formulate a way to talk about the issues. Throughout my career I have spent a lot of time in schools, districts, and classrooms, teaching teachers the language of policy so they could have an impact.
How do you feel about technology in the children’s classroom?
Children are already plugged in to technology by the time they get to school [because]they are playing games. There’s a debate over to what extent you bring that technology into the classroom. Will too much technology discourage children to wonder and to explore? How will they … learn the social milieu of school rather than being focused on a particular device? There are still questions as to what extent does interaction with a smartphone or computer foster a shorter attention span. I’ve read studies on both sides of the coin. It’s an area where there’s not enough research and there’s an overabundance of personal opinion.
Do you see value in online education at the graduate level?
I’m a huge proponent of online education because I see it as an equity issue. There are some people who are not able to come to the university for one reason or another, and it provides a way to get an education for those who might not otherwise have it. I’m interested in the second generation of online learning that is more focused on self-advocacy, peer-to-peer work, and integrating constructive group work. Also, there have been a number of tools that have been developed that really help us bring the clinical experience into the online medium. There are 360-degree cameras that can take shots of classrooms while someone is teaching so you can get six different frames at the same time. You can see the teacher and the kids. It’s changing the paradigm as to how we’ll be able to coach new teachers. When I was in college and student teaching, I had supervisors from the university who came into my class. Then, afterwards, we’d have a conference where they’d tell me what went well and what didn’t go well. But [having]faculty in the classroom changes the classroom dynamic. The fact that I’m getting a correction after-the-fact compromises the support: all I can do is say, “OK, I’ll try to remember that the next time.” With new technology, however, you can have a one-way feed directly into the student teacher’s ear, and you can have the supervisor off site with the 360-degree cameras, so the supervisor can correct in real time and the student teacher can see the difference in real time.
Doesn’t that strike you as a bit big brother-ish?
We talk about teachable moments all the time, but we don’t have those moments with teachers unless we interrupt their classrooms. This technology turns the prevailing practice on its head. We should not ignore the potential, and that’s the importance of a research institution–we should always be exploring the edges of potential.