In summer 2017, students in American University's Education Policy and Leadership (EPL) program helped education organizations across DC make progress on significant policy issues, such as teacher retention, school enrollment processes, and state accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). These structured field experiences through the EPL Proseminar course are an important part of preparing the next generation of outstanding education leaders.
In this second year of the field projects, the EPL program partnered with six new education organizations: the Center for American Progress (CAP), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Education Forward DC, Education Trust, My School DC, and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). All of these organizations asked the EPL students to examine specific education challenges and recommend creative solutions to those challenges.
The projects were designed with the organizations to meet their real needs. "Our students move the needle on a significant policy need, conducting important research and presenting evidence-based findings that the organizations put into practice," said EPL Director Jason Snyder. "For example, this past summer a group of our students used survey research on teacher retention to make insightful recommendations to the DC Deputy Mayor for Education's office."
One EPL student, Grace Ratner, and her teammates completed a project for Education Trust, a national nonprofit led by former Education Secretary John B. King, Jr. that focuses on education equity. Grace and her teammates investigated how states have addressed alternative schools in their ESSA accountability plans. Grace explained, "It was useful for me to get a sense of the types of projects that education firms complete."
Grace and her classmates also attended many of the presentations to the organizations' senior leaders and had the opportunity to discuss policy issues with those leaders. "By attending other students' presentations," Grace noted, "I got to meet and learn from a range of educational professionals."
Jane Song also remarked on the value of working directly in the field: it's "a real, meaningful project with implications for a nationally influential education organization." Jane and her teammates worked with the CCSSO, a national nonprofit that represents the state superintendents across the country. Her team analyzed, and recommended changes for, the metrics that CCSSO uses to measure success under its strategic plan.
After presenting their findings to CCSSO's Executive Director Chris Minnich and hearing from Minnich about CCSSO's work, Jane stated that, "through this project, it was easy to envision the work streams and daily responsibilities of a career in project management. It gave great hands-on experience in the field."
Because many EPL students are full-time teachers, who have yet to work in an education organization outside the school setting, they find that the structured field experiences add relevant knowledge to their developing skill set.
In helping to prepare emerging leaders and policy makers, the EPL program focuses on expanding student opportunities and encouraging professional growth. The field projects give students the chance to apply the technical knowledge they learned in their classes to a real-world problem. For example, Ratner noted that the field experience "gave me a chance to work on my presentation skills. Before the Proseminar experience, I've rarely had a chance to practice a presentation and get feedback on my presentation from peers and a supervisor."
Students also can use the opportunity to dive deeper into an already decided career path or explore a new one within education. Program graduates work in various education government agencies and nonprofits, including some of the organizations the EPL program partnered with for the field experiences.
In the end, the emphasis on functional skills and real-world experience has been a significant part of students' preparation. "The program's focus on applicable skills, in concert with an understanding of theory, was fantastic." Sean Worley, another EPL student, explained. "The courses and the professors helped me improve my policy writing and analysis skills, both of which are critical for success in this field."