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Regents Approve UCI School of Education

The University of California Board of Regents voted to reconstitute the UC Irvine Department of Education as a School of Education during the Board’s July meetings, officially recognizing the former department that had already been ranked among the top schools of education in the nation.

The Regents observed that the department had been performing at the level of a School already, acknowledging in particular the strong faculty and the various programs in education at the doctoral, master’s, post-baccalaureate and undergraduate levels. UCI will join UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Riverside and UC Santa Barbara as a member of the UC system with a school of education.

The reviewers also acknowledged that the infrastructure of the department was already sufficient enough to support a school. The new School already has the proper administrative and student services, requiring minimal change. The establishing of the School of Education is therefore “cost neutral” and does not require any additional physical or financial resources.

Dr. Deborah Lowe Vandell, Professor and Chair of the Department of Education since 2006, said that becoming a School had been a “dream” for the department since it was established in 1991. For Dr. Vandell, it was her main goal to prepare the department to become a school.

“An external review in 2007-08 recommended that we become a school,” Vandell said.

“Everything was going in that direction, but the recession in 2008 really put a halt on us continuing with that goal.”

At its June meeting in 2012, the Coordinating Committee on Graduate Affairs (CCGA) voted to approve a proposal to reconstitute the Department as a School. The CCGA advises the UC Senate and administration as well as reviews and approves all campus proposals for new graduate programs and schools. Once the proposal was approved, it would move forward to be voted on by the Regents.

In the years leading up to the approval, the Department of Education came to resemble a School and solidified its unofficial reputation in being ranked with other top schools of education across the nation. The CCGA reviewers found that the Department’s “complexity of its research agenda and education programs … the faculty … [and] large research programs” met all the criteria of a school of education.

With the thoughts of a school initially on hiatus in 2008, the Department turned its focus to the young Ph.D. program. Now entering its sixth year, the Ph.D. program is one example of the strong set of degree programs at UCI. The program accepted its first class in fall 2007, and graduated that class in June 2012.

The Ph.D. program has become more selective and highly competitive with each class. Reviewers recognized the high quality of Ph.D. students. In particular, every member of the first graduating class in 2012 will have academic positions by this fall including in research, teaching positions and postdoctoral fellowships.

“Every year, the following classes have just become even stronger than the first,” Dr. Vandell said.

“For this year’s incoming class, we had 125 applications for the 11 students who will be joining us this fall. Applicants come from all over the U.S. and the world, and they have very strong profiles.”

The teacher preparation programs at UCI graduates an estimate of 250 prospective teachers annually, placing the programs among the largest ones in the UC system. Dr. Vandell said the graduates of the teacher preparation programs are continually sought after, as 90 percent of recent graduates are placed in teaching positions in California. These programs include the Certificate in After-School Education and the popular UCI Cal Teach program.

The undergraduate minor in Educational Studies has also grown considerably. In 2007, 702 students were enrolled in the minor, compared to over 1,400 students in 2012, and it now is the largest minor at UCI.

One of the important factors, if not the most important aspect that reviewers and Regents recognized was the quality of the faculty. It includes a member of the National Academy of Sciences and several of whom have been members of major professional societies and received awards for their research contributions.

For Dr. Vandell, the diversity of the faculty in terms of their research was also a huge indicator of the faculty’s quality. Despite larger classroom sizes due to budget issues in recent years, Dr. Vandell said members of the faculty remained committed to making the classes more engaging and to keep connecting with the students, especially because the faculty was teaching subjects they themselves were interested in.

“When I first arrived, we wanted the minor to reflect the strengths of the faculty,” she said.

“We have been focused on having senate faculty teaching undergraduates in areas that really reflect their research interests and what they’re passionate about.”

Dr. Vandell also said the department encouraged faculty to engage with students in a research capacity and work with undergraduates in their labs. Students who are successful in different Educational Studies classes are also able to participate in the Peer-Assistant Program with their professor to teach their peers.

Dr. Vandell cited her own undergraduate experience in working with professors as a huge part of her learning.

“I think it’s great when undergraduate students are able to link with faculty and programs in a real substantive way,” she said. “It makes the learning real and builds relationships and skills.

“Since I became a faculty member, I always worked with undergraduate students. When I came here, I wanted to set it up so that it was encouraged with our faculty, because it’s good for our students and our faculty.”

While the Department of Education had already ranked highly among other schools of education, Dr. Vandell said the school stature could only improve with the establishment of the school. Rather than a department, a School is able to function as a separate administrative unit, allowing for parity with peer institutions and more fund-raising opportunities for the school from foundations and private philanthropy. Dr. Vandell said she hopes for a point where the School of Education would receive a naming gift through a philanthropic donation.

With its official designation, the UCI School of Education looks to only improve on its stature.

“We always looked like a school, we acted like a school, but we didn’t have the name. This is now bringing the title to correspond the reality,” Dr. Vandell said. “The norm is a ‘School of Education.’ Now, the question of why we aren’t a school isn’t one that we have to answer.”