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Annenberg staff, programs depart after University review

New mission to focus on education research, teaching, new director begins work July 1

The Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s website used to feature a tab on the front page called “What We Do.” That page, along with many of the institute’s staff members, is no longer a part of the University.

Following a review of the institute conducted from fall 2016 to fall 2017, the University moved all of the institute’s programs to other universities in order to shift the institute’s mission away from community-based work on school reform and toward the study of education inequality. Many of the more than 20 former institute employees have expressed their concerns that the shift damages the institute’s legacy of community-focused work and diminishes its power to effect change.

Some of the institute’s former staff members worry that the new mission may tarnish the institute’s progressive reputation and make its work less unique. Under Warren Simmons, the institute’s executive director from 1998 to 2015, the institute’s strength was that it “married research and practice in a way that very few institutes had been doing,” said Angela Romans, former co-director of district and systems transformation at the institute. “Brown is changing all of that to have the Annenberg Institute become one of thousands of education research think tanks that are housed in universities. … It’s incredibly short-sighted, and it’s also counter to the way that the field is moving,” she added.

A legacy of progressive change

The institute was established in 1993 and first directed by Theodore Sizer, who was known as “one of the country’s most prominent education-reform advocates,” according to his obituary in the New York Times.

Simmons expanded the institute’s mission to address reform of the entire educational system, keeping “racial equality and social justice in the forefront of the mission in a central way,” Romans said. Simmons stepped down in December 2015, and Michael Grady was named interim executive director in his absence. Almost two years after Simmons’ departure, the University selected Susanna Loeb to replace him, The Herald previously reported. She will begin as director July 1.

A shift away from community-based work

In fall 2016, President Christina Paxson P’19 appointed Provost Richard Locke P’18 to review “the institute’s mission, strengths and opportunities for the future” in an effort to align its work more closely with Building on Distinction, the University’s strategic plan, according to the executive summary of the review.

The review committee included faculty members from different disciplines, senior University administrators and Annenberg Institute staff. Chair of the education department Kenneth Wong, a faculty member who served on the review committee, declined to comment. Tricia Rose, professor of Africana studies, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and a member of the review committee; David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metropolitan Center; and Zakiyah Ensari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education in New York, did not respond to a request for comment.

Paxson asked this committee to determine how to make the institute “more integrated with the rest of the University,” Locke said.

The committee watched presentations about the institute’s various research projects and evaluated and compared them to education policy programs at peer institutions. At the end of the process, the committee proposed pivoting the focus of the institute toward studying educational inequality and away from work on school reform.

For example, the committee recommended that all of the institute’s programs move to other universities. Those programs worked to help community groups advocate for themselves to reform their schools. “We think that’s really important work, but (at) a university like Brown, that’s not one of our core competencies to do capacity building for communities. What we do is research and teaching, and it’s through our research and teaching that we have an impact (on) the world,” Locke said.

The New England-Based Community Organizing and Engagement and the District and Systems Transformation programs — now combined into one initiative called the Center for Youth and Community Leadership in Education — have moved to Roger Williams University under the leadership of Keith Catone, former associate director of community organizing and engagement at the Annenberg Institute.

Additionally, the Research and Policy program and the New York-based Community Organizing and Engagement program have moved to the NYU Metro Center. This program aims to support the improvement of education in urban areas through policy research and training, among other efforts, according to its website. For example, its Pittsburgh Parent Power project trains school staff and leaders to effect change in their communities. Another project, the New York City Education Organizing Capacity Building, educates parents and student groups to advocate for school reform.

There was a “mismatch between the work that (was) being done and what the University is all about,” which “is why there were very few ties between Annenberg and the rest of the University, and that just seemed like a lost opportunity,” Locke said.

The committee recommended this shift in order to address a disconnect between the institute’s work and the University’s focus on research and teaching, Locke said.

The new focus on studying education inequality will allow the institute to increase integration with some of the University’s academic departments, such as economics, sociology, political science and Africana studies, Locke said.

The pivot will allow the institute to ask: “What are the causes, what are the consequences, and what are the possible solutions to mitigate educational inequality?” Locke said. “We know that having access to high quality education is one of those things that will determine one’s life chances and choices in this country. And in this country, access to high quality education is very unequal,” he added.

A rocky transition

Paxson and Locke said that the 2016-17 review process began following Simmons’ retirement in December 2015, according to both Locke and a faculty-wide email written by Paxson and reviewed by The Herald. However, Simmons stepped down as executive director because Paxson and Locke were interested in changing the institute’s mission, Simmons said.

“The review started last year, and that was because of a transition that happened at Annenberg. The previous director retired, and there was a search for a new director,” Locke said.

“It was clear to me” that the president and provost were focused on moving toward research and teaching, and “that wasn’t a good fit or match for me,” Simmons said. He stepped down to “pursue other opportunities” and is now working as the senior policy advisor at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The review committee aimed for “a fair, transparent process of transition,” Locke said. In December 2016, the committee announced its plans to shift the mission of the institute by December 2017, giving staff members a year to prepare for the shift. The University also paid the salaries of staff members for six months after their departure, he added.

While Locke views the institute’s long transition process as an advantage that provided Annenberg staff members time to plan their next move, Rosann Tung, former director of research and policy, argued that the extended length of time was one of the transition’s biggest problems. “We knew two and a half to three years before that the University was redirecting or shifting the mission without knowing whether any current employee would be welcomed to stay on, which resulted in a period of great uncertainty and reduced morale,” she said.

Tung was one of two Annenberg staff members who served on the review committee. “While the transition committee members listened to (Annenberg Institute) perspectives on community engagement and its strengths in terms of research, policy and practice that supports districts and communities, the resulting roadmap left those assets out,” Tung said.

Grady, the other Annenberg staff member who served on the committee, felt the institute’s “voices were heard,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. But he added that “it was difficult for the staff to accept that our work, about which they cared deeply, would move away from Brown.”

Within the review process, “it never felt like there was any authentic or genuine opportunity for staff to have any meaningful role in the decision-making,” Catone said.

“The most confounding thing for us was this notion that the kind of work we were doing just didn’t belong at Brown. … There was no opportunity to actually have a conversation about how the vision set forth in this roadmap might actually be able to coexist with the work that existed,” Catone added. “For those two and a half years, they certainly had the time to explore it, but there was never any interest on the part of the president’s and the provost’s offices.”

“It would have been nice to get a thank you, to get some acknowledgement of the work we’ve done,” said Richard Gray, former director of community organizing and engagement. Gray is currently continuing his work at the NYU Metro Center.

But “I would contest the claim that there wasn’t an opportunity to present (staff members’) views or even that we didn’t value their work,” Locke said.

Concerns for the future, but moving on to a new Annenberg

Several former staff members expressed uncertainty and concern about recent changes at the institute.

For example, the institute’s leadership used to be made up of primarily people of color, making it distinct from most academic departments, Catone said.

In shifting the institute’s mission, the University “lost a highly productive group of leaders and researchers of color committed to support and action in communities most historically marginalized,” Tung said.

“The kind of institute that the Annenberg Institute will become is … fairly typical,” Simmons said. “Obviously, I think it’s a great loss for the field. … The value of the institute’s previous two to three decades of work can be seen in the fact that most of my colleagues have found homes in other universities that have welcomed them with open arms,” he added.

Romans finds it reassuring that the work continues at other institutions. She is currently the senior vice president of programming for Say Yes to Education, a nonprofit organization that works to help ensure children have the opportunity to attend college.

On July 1, Loeb will begin her role as the new director of the institute. “I believe that in Susanna Loeb, the search committee found an outstanding scholar who will strengthen Annenberg’s relationship with other academic units at Brown,” Grady wrote in an email to The Herald.

“I don’t see field-based and research-based as opposites of each other,” Loeb said. Loeb and the former directors of the institute have similar goals, she said. “We’re just taking the perspective that we can actually reach those goals better if we bring in the whole Brown community and focus a little bit more on improving our knowledge and making sure it impacts broadly.”

Loeb hopes to get faculty and students more involved with the institute so that it becomes a “part of the Brown world,” she said.

“I have the opportunity to help create a culture. Starting new is actually sometimes easier than coming in when the goals … and routines have already been set. I’m really excited about the opportunity.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that President Christina Paxson P'19 appointed Provost Richard Locke P'18 to review the Annenberg Institute's "mission, strengths and opportunities for the future" in December 2015. In fact, President Christina Paxson P'19 appointed Provost Richard Locke P'18 to review the Annenberg Institute's "mission, strengths and opportunities for the future" in fall 2016. The Herald regrets the error.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that Paxson and Locke said that the review process began following Simmons’ retirement in December 2015. The statement has been clarified to reflect that the review process took place from 2016 to 2017. 

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