Preparing Students for Life

Richard Arum sees his new role as dean of UCI’s School of Education as “an incredibly powerful opportunity” during a time when teachers – from preschool through university-level – are serving increasingly diverse populations who need a college degree like never before.

“Folks here are creating a 21st-century school of education that has extraordinary expertise and capacity,” he says. “It isn’t on the periphery of the modern university. It’s at the center … because the university is itself grappling with the question of how best to meet students’ needs.”

Arum grew up in 1960s and ’70s New York exposed to the civil rights community. His father, a Harvard-educated lawyer who worked for U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, went on to represent Muhammad Ali when he refused to fight in Vietnam, then to promote him and other boxing greats. Arum knew from an early age what he wanted to do. He began his career as a teacher at Castlemont High School in poverty-challenged East Oakland, earned a doctorate at UC Berkeley, and taught at the University of Arizona and New York University. All five of his children attended New York City public schools.

“My whole adult life I’ve been an educator because I want to make a difference in the world,” Arum says. “My research is also on education, so I’m doubly blessed, able not only to teach students, but also to inform policy and practice at a system level.”

He believes that science-based research is the bedrock of the best educational strategies. Considered one of the nation’s leading sociologists, Arum has conducted in-depth studies on which curricula excel at helping college students succeed. A former senior fellow with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he most recently chaired New York University’s sociology department and is senior academic adviser on education at the Social Science Research Council. Here, Arum shares some views on strengthening education.

Q: How do you define student success?

Arum: First there’s the issue of timely completion. Many institutions have high attrition rates and a very long time to degree. We need to make sure students are progressing through in timely ways.

The second important element is student learning – focusing on individuals not just moving through, but also getting something meaningful out of it. An incredible amount of resources are being invested in students’ education, and they are investing years of their lives. We owe it to them that they get something out of that in terms of their future. Our society is also dependent on college graduates being able to make contributions to the economy and engage in responsible citizenship.

For example, an initiative headed by Michael Dennin, vice provost for teaching and learning, seeks to improve undergraduate instruction to better foster 21st-century skills. Eighty faculty have been hired to both teach and conduct research on teaching in their fields. If you’re a physicist, you teach physics and you research the best ways to teach it.

Q: What are some obstacles to student success?

Arum: Many students come in not sufficiently prepared, some from challenging family backgrounds, and institutions are failing them. Colleges and universities have often not been adequately intentional about designing programs and curricula. Students are left to figure out for themselves pathways through higher education. It can be bewildering to many of them.

Q: Half of UCI’s student body is now made up of first-generation students. What’s the significance of this demographic?

Arum: It’s one of the things I was most attracted to. The population we’re serving is extraordinary in terms of the proportion that are first-generation students and Pell grant [federal financial aid] recipients. UCI alone has more Pell grant recipients than the entire Ivy League combined. If you’re an educator who’s interested in helping students realize their individual ambitions and contribute to society, there’s no better population to engage.

Q: Do professors need to teach today’s students differently because of shorter attention spans? What’s the right curriculum?

Arum: I just finished a project where we brought together expert panels of faculty to define 21st-century learning outcomes – what students should master in biology, business, economics, sociology, communications and history.

Today we can all find facts on our smartphones. What we need are skills that give us ways of theoretically understanding the world and phenomena: critical thinking, quantitative analysis, interpretation of data and so on. These are the types of competencies we need to develop in our students. Instead of preparing them narrowly for occupations that may not exist a decade from now, we need to prepare them in deeper ways that will help them through life.

Q: What do you think of techniques such as online learning and “flipped” classrooms?

Arum: UCI has established itself as a leader in digital learning, both in providing it and in conducting research on hybrid programs, online courseware and other tools. Online curricula can connect students to peer and mentor communities that have a shared interest in a particular topic. It’s extraordinarily promising.

Q: What are your immediate goals for this first year?

Arum: One is to better integrate our research into teacher education, community engagement and UCI students’ education. Another is to focus on building out our capacity to conduct cutting-edge research on educational technology and digital learning.