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The Education Equation

From how students learn to why they may fail, the new Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at SMU seeks answers for education and human development.

AS a teenager Hector Rivera escaped the civil war in El Salvador and traveled alone to Los Angeles, where he lived a double life as a 10th-grader by day, full-time dishwasher by night. Often he would get off work at 3 a.m., return to his grandmother’s apartment and do his homework, then attend class at a public high school with students from 85 countries, including Cambodia, Laos and some in Africa. He admits to struggling sometimes to stay awake in class.

“My teachers were aware of the things I was going through, and they were supportive,” says Rivera, now an SMU assistant professor of education, working to help educators ease the transition for a new generation of students.


Francesca Jones, research assistant professor in the Department of Literacy, Language and Learning, works with children at a Fort Worth elementary school.

Another assistant professor, Paige Daniel Ware, left her sheltered life on a farm in Kentucky for a high school cultural exchange trip to Japan, an experience that sparked her interest in languages and education. After college, she taught high school English in Burgstaedt, Germany, as a Fulbright scholar and taught English in Spain.

The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded five-year grants totaling $3.9 million to Rivera and Ware to provide training for English as a Second Language (ESL) certification to teachers in the Dallas, Grand Prairie and Irving school districts.
In their work, Rivera and Ware demonstrate a key strength of the new Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at SMU: a commitment to provide practical solutions with an emphasis on language and literacy for the men and women who report daily to the front lines of education.

The School covers the full spectrum of education – from programs that help teachers develop young learners to those that offer lifelong learning to students of all ages. It offers graduate degrees and certificates to educators and strong research programs on how teachers can best help students learn and develop language skills. Specialized programs include literacy training, bilingual education, English as a Second Language, gifted student education and learning therapy.

Under human development, the School also offers Master’s degrees in counseling, dispute resolution and liberal studies, along with wellness courses, professional and continuing studies, and non-credit enrichment classes that serve the Dallas-Fort Worth community.

David Chard, the Leon Simmons dean of the School, says it will continue the University’s tradition of preparing leaders and innovators as it strengthens its commitment to research. In that way, SMU education alumni can provide “a voice of reason” when confronted with the shifting fads that plague the profession, he adds.


Michael Colatrella teaches a dispute resolution class at SMU-in-Legacy in Plano.

“We work in a desperate industry that’s looking for simple answers to complicated questions such as: What factors help children learn to read? Why is it that some children have all those factors in place and some don’t? Why do some children growing up in economically disadvantaged communities succeed when the
odds are against them? Or scholars in SMU’s Center for Dispute Resolution & Conflict Management might ask questions such as: What are the best approaches to resolving international disputes that have a history of failed attempts.”

In fall 2007, Chard had been on the job only two weeks when he learned about the possibility of the $20 million gift from Harold and Annette C. Simmons (’57) that endowed and renamed the School. Their endowment includes $10 million toward
the construction of a new education building, the Annette Caldwell Simmons Building, which Chard says should aid in recruitment of faculty and students. Other goals include opening a Family Counseling Center at SMU-in-Legacy in Plano to provide more opportunities for students to work with the community.

National searches are under way to recruit additional faculty who demonstrate leadership in the classroom, research expertise and the courage to seek answers to difficult questions. “Any good question in education and human development is a controversial one. Otherwise, no one would be asking it,” Chard says.

Interdisciplinary faculty members already on board are in the process of getting to know each other – a crucial step toward becoming the productive team Chard envisions.

“A linguist’s worldview differs from an anthropologist’s, which differs from a cognitive psychologist’s, but all can contribute to research projects that cross discipline boundaries,” he says. “Education is not a discipline, it’s an interdisciplinary field.”


Although Chard will give the faculty leeway, there are basic tenets on which he is unbending. “We believe that you can measure growth in human beings quantitatively,” he says, adding that sound research is vital for educators and policymakers if they are to make evidence-based decisions rather than follow fads.

The School’s commitment to research is exemplified by a rigorous new doctor of philosophy degree program in education, better described as a doctorate in educational research. Three years of full-time coursework and research will prepare graduates to work in educational research settings.

Chard also plans to ensure that the School continues to provide solutions to special problems faced by educators statewide. For instance, under her new grant, Ware recently completed the first semester of training teachers for Project Connect, which will certify in ESL up to 25 teachers a year from the Irving and Grand Prairie school districts. “Rapidly changing demographics have dramatically increased the need for ESL teachers in those communities,” she says.

Unlike elementary schools, secondary schools have no bilingual classrooms. English-only is the rule and all secondary teachers encounter students of varying English proficiency in every class. Project Connect prepares educators to teach both ESL and native English speakers simultaneously. One strategy is to modify lessons by reducing the use of idioms so that everyone understands.

“A linguist’s worldview differs from an anthropologist’s, which differs from a cognitive psychologist’s, but all can contribute to research projects that cross discipline boundaries. Education is not a discipline, it’s an interdisciplinary field.”
– Dean David Chard

“For example, a writing prompt for a test that mentions a boy picking up a Louisville Slugger could be rewritten to say he picked up a baseball bat – a small change that greatly increases the level of understanding,” she says.

Rivera, who has a developmental psychology background, is using his grant to train 25 Dallas ISD secondary teachers each year to serve students new to this country. At least half the educators in the program will receive scholarships to attend math and science enrichment classes conducted in Spanish in Cuernavaca, Mexico. His program also fosters community development by partnering with organizations working with the African-American, Asian and Hispanic communities, he says.

The Vocabulary Of Numbers

Chard’s own background includes teaching both mathematics and reading, as well as time teaching in the Peace Corps in the Kingdom of Lesotho in southern Africa. He served as assistant director of the Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts at The University of Texas at Austin and most recently as associate dean in the College of Education at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Although it might seem unusual to have a background in both reading and mathematics, he says, the disciplines are intertwined because humans learn everything through language. “Mathematics is a more precise convention, but reading is where it starts.”

The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded Chard and his colleagues a grant to study language-based strategies for teaching math concepts to kindergartners. The work is based on cognitive psychology research on human infants and primates that finds both have a rudimentary understanding of math, such as the ability to notice when the number of objects displayed on a video screen changes. “If primates and human infants share this skill, when do human beings launch into more complex mathematics” he asks and then answers: “Research indicates it happens when human infants understand language.”

Chard’s research attempts to build fluency early by giving young learners a precise mathematical vocabulary rather than the proxy words that some teachers use because they assume 5- and 6-year-olds cannot understand the actual terms. For instance, children in the study group learn to use the words “addition” and “subtraction” rather than “plus” and “minus.”

The first phase of Chard’s project – a three-year feasibility study on 150 students in Oregon demonstrated the method’s effectiveness. The study found that students in the treatment group outperformed those in the control group by roughly 15 percent. The second phase of the study, to determine whether those gains persist long term, will be conducted in a larger, more diverse group including 600 students in the Dallas community.

By The Numbers

  • 4 Departments – Literacy, Language and Learning; Center for Dispute Resolution & Conflict Management; Lifelong Learning; and Wellness
  • 35 faculty members
  • More than 900 full- and part-time credit students and 6,000 non-credit students
  • 1 Ph.D. and 8 graduate degrees and 10 graduate certification programs offered
  • Working with numerous school districts, agencies, city, state
  • and federal governments on human service issues

    Support For Struggling Learners

    An estimated 50 million Americans have dyslexia, a neurological condition characterized by difficulty decoding words. Because many with the disorder have average or above-average intelligence, until recently they often could not qualify for special services, which required performance below grade level, although dyslexics consistently failed to meet their potential without academic support, says Karen S. Vickery, director of the Learning Therapy Program.

    Based at SMU-in-Legacy, Learning Therapy includes a diagnostic clinic for dyslexia and related learning differences. Diagnosis is the first step in getting a student the specialized learning plan now required under state law. Learning Therapy also provides advanced degrees and certificates to prepare educators to help dyslexic students using methods developed at Columbia University in New York and Scottish Rite Hospital in Dallas, she says.


    Classes are held on weekends and in short summer sessions in Dallas, San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley and Shreveport to accommodate the needs of SMU students with full-time jobs and to help those in rural school districts across the state, Vickery adds.

    In one of the Learning Therapy Program’s first lectures, Jana Jones, coordinator of the learning therapist certificate program, shows photos from brain imagery studies comparing dyslexic readers to non-dyslexic readers. Those images show that dyslexics use less efficient brain pathways when they try to discriminate and analyze the sounds within words and then tie those sounds to the symbols (letters) used in written language.

    The Dallas Branch of the International Dyslexia Association honored Jones with its 2008 Excellence in Education award at its annual conference. At the same meeting, educators packed a large seminar room to see a multimedia presentation by one of Jones’ former students, Rene King (’05) of Texarkana’s Pleasant Grove ISD. Originally a first-grade teacher, King came to the SMU program for training after her son, Curt, was diagnosed with dyslexia in third grade. At the time, Texarkana’s Pleasant Grove ISD had no dyslexia therapists, she says, explaining how she herself ended up leading the district’s dyslexia program for middle and high school students. At the conference, King presented a technology-based program she developed using computers and iPods that helps dyslexic high school students keep up with the heavy reading and writing load of advanced placement courses.

    State Board of Education member Geraldine “Tincy” Miller (’56) is a veteran of battles fought to gain funding for learning disabilities programs in Texas public schools. Her son, Vance C. Miller Jr., was born in 1958 and had problems with reading long before most educators acknowledged the existence of dyslexia. Like many dyslexics, Vance was bright and verbal in class discussions, so teachers assumed that mere laziness was keeping him from achieving success in reading and writing, she recalls.


    Student teacher Peter Asher helps students at St. Thomas Aquinas School with their lessons.

    As a result, Vance never received the help he needed and dropped out of high school. Despite having only a general equivalency degree, he was admitted to SMU’s Cox School of Business, where he excelled and graduated in 1982 with a B.B.A. degree. He went on to work for the family’s real estate business until his death in a car accident at age 37.

    Because of her son, Miller dedicated her life to education, obtaining dyslexia certification from Scottish Rite and East Texas State University (now Texas A&M-Commerce) and serving more than 20 years on the State Board of Education, including time as its chair. During her first term, in 1985, Miller helped push through legislation that made Texas one of the first two states to categorize dyslexia as a learning problem separate from special education. That meant students could qualify for help with their disability even if they had not fallen behind in school.

    Miller says she admires the dyslexia screening and teaching done by staff therapists at SMU, and is always impressed by the intellectual quality of the students she meets when she comes to campus to explain the history of the Texas law. “I look at SMU as a school that always has been open to innovation and not a status quo kind of place where people say, ‘It’s always been done this way.’ ”

    Miller says she can imagine a day when the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development will have a reading laboratory, similar to Scottish Rite’s, where education students can practice working with dyslexic students. And the gift from Harold and Annette Simmons holds particular significance for Miller. She and Annette were sorority sisters and have remained close friends. “When she made that gift with Harold, it just touched my heart,” she says.

    “I look at SMU as a school that always has been open to innovation and not a status quo kind of place where people say, ‘It’s always been done this way.’ ”
    – State Board of Education member Geraldine “Tincy” Miller (’56)

    Among the School’s priorities is strengthening SMU’s ties with local school districts and community agencies. Toward that end, Chard has appointed Yolette Garcia (’83) as assistant dean for external affairs and outreach. She previously held positions for 25 years at KERA, the North Texas public broadcasting station.

    “It’s a privilege to work at SMU, where significant intellectual and cultural activities happen daily,” Garcia says. “Our School and University already have made solid community connections, but what’s exciting is to help figure out ways to deepen our impact.”

    Ultimately, Chard and his colleagues believe their local efforts will help inform the national debate about the needs in education.

    “Further development of our programs will strengthen our important partnerships,” he says, “and will make us increasingly competitive for external research funding with national implications for education and human development.”

    Where We Are Growing

  • Planning a new building on main campus
  • Opening a Family Counseling Center at SMU-in-Legacy
    in Plano
  • Renovating three office areas in Expressway Towers
  • Developing undergraduate program in Sports and Fitness Management and Promotion
  • Establishing graduate program in Educational Leadership, Policy and Management
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