Straight Up Conversation: Columbia's Liz Chu on Research and Leadership
Liz Chu was recently named executive director of Columbia Law School's Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL), which trains graduate students for careers in education reform. Before joining CPRL five years ago, Liz was an assistant professor of practice at the Relay Graduate School of Education. She started in education as an English teacher in the South Bronx. I recently talked with Liz about CPRL and training the next generation of education leaders.
Rick Hess: So Liz, congrats on the promotion. For starters, for those who don't know, what is the Center for Public Research and Leadership [CPRL]?
Liz Chu: Thanks so much. CPRL is an education research, policy, and consulting center focused on training the next generation of education leaders—ones who are prepared to lead learning organizations that deliver improved and more equitable student outcomes. We draw students from 26-plus different professional schools—schools of education, law, business, and policy—across the U.S. Our students come to Columbia University to spend an immersive semester studying how organizations and systems transform and succeed.
RH: Once they arrive, what happens?
LC: Students spend 40 hours per week with us and earn a full semester's worth of credits while in our program. They take two frontloaded classes on the theory of and skills needed to lead and manage public-sector learning organizations, and they spend the vast majority of their time in teams of four to six staffing our research and consulting projects under the close guidance and mentorship of our director team. We conduct 10 to 12 of these research and consulting projects each term for a range of education organizations across the U.S. and in Brazil. Our clients include state departments of education, school districts, charter management organizations, school support nonprofits, legal and political advocacy organizations, and philanthropies. Interested students can visit our website to see if their schools participate. And if your school doesn't participate, we encourage you to help us forge new partnerships by being a charter student from your school!
RH: What's the big idea here?
LC: Our dual and mutually reinforcing mission is to change the way we train the next generation of leaders and, in doing so, strengthen the public education system so that it better and more equitably serves kids. We see deficiencies in the way most public education systems are governed as a root cause of their failings and shortcomings. We believe we are one of the only—if not the only—program that prepares graduate students with the policy-making, stakeholder engagement, legal, management, operational, and leadership skills needed to transform public education systems from outmoded public bureaucracies to learning organizations.
RH: So how did this come about? And when did it actually get started?
LC: Our center was founded in 2010 as a joint venture between Columbia's Law School, Business School, and Teachers College. Jim Liebman, a Columbia Law School professor and our founder, launched the center after his four years as the New York City Department of Education [NYCDOE] chief accountability officer under Joel Klein. Prior to working as the CAO and joining the Columbia faculty, Jim had a successful career as a civil rights lawyer. As an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he used litigation to improve education systems, including through school desegregation lawsuits. His work at NYCDOE solidified what he had already suspected: that litigation is too blunt an instrument for effecting lasting change in education, which instead requires a combination of legal, operational, managerial, policy, and substantive educational work to build stronger, nimbler, and more responsive public-sector learning institutions that can effectively differentiate their services to client needs. Since CPRL's founding, we've more than quadrupled in size—in terms of our staff, in terms of the students and clients we serve each year, and in terms of our operating budget.
RH: What does this offer that students can't get from their usual graduate school courses or other respected grad programs?
LC: We have yet to come across another university-based program aimed at preparing education sector leaders and managers that is transdisciplinary, merges experiential and theory-based learning, and thoroughly integrates theory and practice. Additionally, the individualized coaching and mentorship provided to students by their project directors is as or more intensive than any we are aware of in academic and professional settings. This mentorship extends well beyond the guidance students require to complete their projects successfully and includes working with them to find impactful education sector jobs.
RH: How do you gauge the impact of a program like this?
LC: We try to be very clear about strategy and goals and our specific expectations as to process and results. As part of this process, we collect a rich variety of feedback from our students and clients about the efficacy of the program while they are associated with it and after our engagements have concluded. One of our favorite success indicators is when our work comes full circle: our clients hire the students who have worked on their project, and then those alumni end up hiring CPRL for a consulting engagement to support a new initiative. And of course, we collect stories about our work in the field. In the past few months, for example, we've had updates from one of our alumni who is working in Japan's Ministry of Education about how he is transforming his department according to the governance principles and practices he learned and applied while at CPRL.
RH: You mentioned students can consult for outside partners, like charter schools or state and local departments of ed. How do you find those partners?
LC: When we first started, we relied on Jim's reputation and our professional networks to find projects. Over the past few years, demand for our services has grown so much that we have had to do very little outreach on our own. Most of our clients come to us because they've heard about our services from other past clients or, often, from education-sector philanthropies we have served directly as clients or whose grantees have used their funding to engage CPRL's services. And we typically have a number of repeat clients—often making up half or more of each semester's project portfolio—who come back for support on new initiatives.
RH: How does the funding for this work?
LC: I'm so glad you asked. Our innovative operating model is one of the things that makes us most proud! Central to our drive to transform professional education is that 94 percent of our operating costs are covered by the relatively modest fees we charge for our research and consulting projects. A substantial level of self-sufficiency from funders and from the university is important to demonstrate to the professional education field that greatly expanded high-quality experiential learning is financially feasible. It also means our staff can be fully dedicated to running and supporting our program.
RH: Just to give readers the flavor of what you do, what are one or two of the more striking projects that your students have worked on in the past year or two?
LC: There are so many, it's hard to choose! Since our founding we've directly served over 100 non-profit and public PreK-12 organizations. One of our ongoing projects is with a state department of education committed to developing and implementing a statewide school integration strategy. The project is the most comprehensive state-led effort to date to promote racial, socio-economic, and other forms of integration within districts, schools, and classrooms. CPRL has supported the state in defining its integration priorities and has designed and is helping to implement a three-year process for helping two-dozen school districts in the state generate, test, adjust, and scale integration plans. Also, I'll mention our ongoing work with the Gates Foundation. We currently serve as the formative evaluator for the Foundation's Networks for School Improvement strategy. That strategy envisions the use of networks of schools supported by social- and public-sector intermediaries skilled in continuous improvement as a key contributor to improved academic, social-emotional, and other key K-12 outcomes.
RH: What's the biggest lesson you all have learned along the way?
LC: When the Center launched, we knew the whole endeavor was an experiment. It wasn't clear to us whether or how we would could keep the whole effort going. We didn't know whether we could attract paying clients; get multiple professional schools to adopt shared curriculum and send their students to another campus for a semester of work; interest top-flight staff; and deliver meaningful instruction to our students who rightly demand so much but are rightly so skeptical about the quality of their professional programs. Had we not solicited and listened to our stakeholders' honest feedback and engaged them as partners in our ongoing experimentation on the model, we wouldn't be where we are today.
RH: To your mind, what are the implications of this work—for graduate schools or for those who work in educational improvement? What would you like to see others taking away from your efforts?
LC: I'll mention two takeaways. First, the model and quality of professional education needs to be dramatically upgraded if we are truly to prepare our graduates to lead and manage in the 21st century. In the education sector, there is so much attention on PreK-12 or PreK-16 reform. And rightfully so! But unless we change the way we train graduate school students to learn how to lead, manage, and change those systems, we are missing a crucial piece of the education reform puzzle.
That leads to the second major implication: Governance and leadership structure can be used to reorient education organizations and systems so they more effectively meet the diverse needs of their students and stakeholders. The goal is to replace old-style bureaucratic and professional mechanisms with ones that assume the need for constant learning and draw, in particular, on the deep contextual understanding of the problems faced day to day by school leaders, teachers, other school staff, parents, students, and communities. Only by fundamentally reorienting education organizations and systems around their own learning—bottom-up and site-to-site as well as top-down—can we meet the diverse needs of, and achieve more equitable outcomes for, all of our students and communities.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.