Education is defined by its interdisciplinary nature, says David Chard, dean of SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development. He outlined the School’s future challenges, opportunities and programs in a talk with the SMU Faculty Club Feb. 13. Read more.

Can you identify some of major issues you face as professionals in education and human development?

I’ll start with some recent information – factoids, if you will. Two out of five women and one out of five men would trade three to five years of their life to achieve their weight goals. Most teachers in Texas, as their careers progress, tend to move from high-poverty schools and school districts to low-poverty schools and school districts – as they grow stronger in their teaching craft and experience and knowledge, they move to schools where the children need them less. Most couples and families would benefit from receiving some form of counseling. And a troubling statistic reported recently in Houston by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings: Hispanic secondary-graduation rates in the United States are in the single digits.

This gives you a sense of the challenges that we face on a regular basis. As we figure out how to answer them, it defines who we are.

How does the School plan to meet those challenges?

We’re interested in practice, but the key to our success has to do with evidence: whether we’re not only delivering content and knowledge, but measuring its effectiveness. It’s important, I think, that beyond the mission and basic facts of the School we think about the focal areas that faculty and staff are working toward. Three areas probably will be our focus for several years to come.

We have a Research 1 faculty in our school; our job is to sustain that. We have several faculty members who are well-known researchers in their fields, who have brought in lots of federal, state and foundation funding. In fact, if you look at our per-faculty funding rate, we probably outpace any school of education in the country of our size, and certainly of our age. We’re looking to build an infrastructure around research and have it cross departments campuswide.

The second area is the quality of our curriculum. As a new school, we’re working toward a way to ensure the quality and rigor of our programs as they develop and evolve. That involves tremendous effort on the part of our Academic Affairs Council, led by Associate Dean Kathy Hargrove. And these are difficult conversations, because you really are crossing disciplines to discuss what rigor looks like, what scholarship looks like. It’s taking a lot of time and attention.

The third area is about community-building. When I came into the School, most of our people hadn’t met each other. We had our first faculty meeting in November, and most people didn’t know the others existed. So we’re trying to develop an esprit de corps, a community within our school. We’re also trying to develop a community within SMU. We have a number of new initiatives and partnerships with every school on campus, with the possible exception of the Law School, to offer our students and their students joint program opportunities as well as external initiatives. I see us as a liaison for SMU to the Dallas-Fort Worth community, as well as to Texas and the nation and perhaps even beyond.

What do you see as the School’s place in SMU as a whole?

Education often is considered a second-tier department or college on any university campus. In part, that’s because we often have a hard time defining who we are. We’re not a discipline. There are no clear, anchored theories that drive the work we do in the way you’d find in, say, a sociology department. Rather, we must define ourselves in an interdisciplinary way. And it’s exciting to look at our faculty and see that we have educational psychologists, attorneys, exercise physiologists, sociolinguists and so many others. That kind of interdisciplinary reach is how you answer human services and education questions.

But it’s also important that we define who we are. So one of the challenges I’ve given our departments is to articulate the conceptual models they work from, so we can attract the kind of faculty members and students to promote, study and evaluate that model rather than being subject to whatever fad or fashion happens to be the latest thing in the interdisciplinary world we work in.

How will that sort of study and evaluation take place?

As I mentioned before, we believe that part of our job is to be as focused on data and effectiveness as we are on the theories we propose. So it’s really important that we have evidence-based practices. I’ve mentioned some of our national researchers. Their interests are varied and diverse. They’re receiving external funding from a number of different federal and state agencies, focusing on important topics like bilingual education, transition of newcomers to the United States, and teacher coaching.

And our scholarship stretches even further. As many of you know, SMU faculty who are at lecturer status are not expected to spend their time doing research and scholarship. We take a very different view. We believe our lecturers should be actively engaged in research and scholarship.

What do you see as next steps for the School?

I think it’s important for us to disseminate information and give people a strong sense of what we’re building. We’re searching for tenured faculty in Literacy, Language and Learning and for a tenured exercise physiologist in Wellness. We’re hiring several new lecturers because of the growth in some departments, including Dispute Resolution and Counseling, Teacher Education and Wellness.

My job right now is building infrastructure – conceptual as well as physical. We are building a family counseling center at the SMU-in-Legacy campus, the first of its kind in Collin County. We are working on renovations for the Literacy, Language and Learning Department at Expressway Tower, where many of our faculty will move sometime this summer. We’re also working on early planning for an Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development building, which will be located somewhere near the corner of Airline and University.

We also are building two new programs. One will have a name like Sports and Fitness Management and Promotion. This is a multibillion-dollar industry, and we believe this is of interest to SMU students. We live in a community where sports and fitness are major priorities, and we want to create leaders who understand how to work in that field.

We believe there’s a need in Dallas-Fort Worth for an education leadership program that focuses on policy and management of educational enterprises. We’re very fortunate on this one, because we have a secret weapon at SMU that very few people know about. In our Office of Student Affairs, Lori White and at least three of her colleagues have Ph.D.s in higher education leadership and want to help us create a program that actually builds education leaders for North Texas. We’re working on a proposal for the Faculty Senate that would create joint positions for her staff.

We also believe there’s a need for a different kind of K-12 educational leadership program, one that focuses on evidence and brings principals and superintendents back to the primary focus of schools, which should be on instruction and the development of children’s educational careers.

What’s your vision for the future?

This School is at the center of a lot of connecting roads, and we’re trying to play a role that is different than is typically seen in academia. My dream is that our faculty will help provide access to a great institution like SMU to K-12 students from around the Dallas community, who will begin to see the University as a very viable place to be. As education and particularly postsecondary education becomes an important civil right in the United States, our ability to help students access this institution is really one of our primary issues.