Education Studies Major To Be Available in 2021, Per Faculty Vote

Education Professions Fellows visit the Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Mass. in 2014. Photo courtesy of Amherst College Loeb Center.

After years of advocacy, students will be able to declare a major in education studies as early as the fall 2021 semester. The college faculty overwhelmingly voted to approve the major in the faculty meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 20, after a proposal was created by an education studies working group of several faculty and staff members. 

The most recent push for the major came in 2014, when interested students and faculty met with President Biddy Martin to pitch the idea. Students previously complained that there were no education studies classes at the college and that they were unable to receive credit for similar programs in the Five College Consortium. 

Many peer institutions, including those in the NESCAC, already have some programming in education studies, making Amherst an outlier. Of the top 25 National Liberal Arts Colleges published by U.S. News and World Report, only Amherst and the Claremont Colleges have neither a program in teaching or education. Amherst is the only college in the Five College Consortium to lack the major or program. Careers in education are the second most popular position held by students, following careers in business and finance, immediately after graduation, according to the Loeb Center annual report. 

According to the proposal submitted by the Education Studies Working Group, which comprises of professors across multiple departments, students will “explore the competing goals and priorities Americans have held for primary, secondary and post-secondary education and ask how and why these visions have influenced — or failed to influence — classrooms, schools and educational policy.” Students should have a firm understanding of qualitative and quantitative research approaches, global breadth and the opportunity to conduct independent research, upon completion of the major, the proposal stated.

The education studies major will require the completion of eight courses, and its comprehensive assessment will involve participating in a capstone roundtable with faculty members. Of the eight requisites, students must take: the foundational course “Purpose and Politics of Education;” one course on cognition, teaching and learning; one course on school, society and policy; one course on education and culture; and one research methods course in any department. The remaining three courses may be chosen in consultation with a student’s academic advisor. 

The three additional courses chosen in consultation with an academic advisor will form the basis for a student’s concentration. Possible concentrations include, but are not limited to: education policy; cognitive development and curriculum studies; higher education; urban education; race and education; comparative international education; arts education; math education; or the anthropology, sociology, philosophy, economics or the history of education, according to the proposal. 

“Education studies provides a context in which students can critically examine the history, purpose, politics and consequences of education from a range of interdisciplinary perspectives, and in a manner that is consistent with the liberal arts tradition,” Professor of Black Studies and History Hilary Moss and advocate of the major said.

“Classes for the proposed major draw on diverse methods of inquiry and innovative pedagogical approaches to help students critically examine educational thought, the expressive and creative dimensions of educational research and practice, and the organization and function of educational institutions in the U.S. and other nations. A key feature of the program we are proposing is that it asks students to reach across disciplinary divides — most notably between the humanities, social sciences and STEM,” she added. 

In its current iteration, the major will be a program rather than a department, meaning that it cannot hire new faculty, putting the onus on existing faculty and staff to teach education studies classes. “Eventually, we hope to hire a professor trained in education studies, but who also has disciplinary roots in one of our established departments.  Most of the courses, however, will be taught by current faculty who have developed interests in education studies, in addition to their home disciplines (history, economics, psychology, American studies, English, etc.),” Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein wrote in an email to The Student. “It may eventually become its own department, but that would likely take some time.”

Though the major had only come into fruition in recent years, the creation of the major has been a long process, beginning with data from the archives that suggests students were interested in education professions in the 1950s, according to a student proposal for the creation of the major in 2016. Loeb Center statistics show that, between 1972 and 2015, 22 percent of students were interested in careers in education. More recent data between 2016 and 2019 support the same claim. Other moments in the college’s history, like the “Reading, Writing and Teaching” course, which involved tutoring in adult literacy programs and high schools in Holyoke, taught by L. Stanton Williams 1941 Professor of American Studies and English; Chair of American Studies Karen Sanchez-Eppler and James E. Ostendarp Emeritus Professor of English Barry O’Connell in 1991 indicate the sustained interest in the subject.

In 2013, students involved with the Ed Pro Fellowship based out of the Loeb Center, in consultation with Careers in Education Professions Program Director Robert Siudzinski, Moss and Chuck Lewis ’64, requested an audience with Martin to propose the creation of the major. Lewis and his spouse Penny Sebring have previously kick-started education programs at the University of Chicago and Grinnell College. 

The meeting took place in the spring of 2014. During the discussion with Martin, students voiced their frustrations about the difficulty of obtaining academic credit for education studies courses taken at other colleges in the consortium. Other complaints included Amherst was the only top ranked liberal arts college to offer neither an education studies major nor a minor, there was support from faculty and major might invite students to interrogate the logics, structures and processes that shaped their own educations, Moss, who attended the meeting, recalled.

As a result of the meeting in 2014, Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein requested that Moss develop a template for the program. In the Spring of 2016, Siudzinski and Moss co-taught the special colloquium “Imagining Education Studies” which aimed to create an unofficial proposal for the major to be presented to the administration. The proposal was presented to the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) at the end of the semester. 

“As a foundational institution, education influences almost every aspect of society. Education and education reform play important roles in current political, economic and social justice work. Education directly relates to issues of racial inequality, economic disparity, privatization, and globalization. Offering education studies courses as part of a program would ensure that students develop the necessary skills to critically engage and evaluate these sociopolitical issues throughout their lives,” the ten students enrolled in the class wrote in the major proposal.

As a result of the proposal the college created a long-term visiting position in education studies, Moss said. In 2017, Lewis-Sebring Visiting Associate Professor of History and American Studies Leah Gordon arrived from Stanford University; Gordon now teaches at Brandeis University. Kristen Luschen, in the American studies department, is the current Lewis-Sebring Visiting Associate Professor in Education Studies. 

In 2017, Gordon and Moss convened the Education Studies Initiative Working Group, which was tasked with creating and staffing a formal education studies program. The group worked with the Staff from the Center for Community Engagement, the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Career Center and Research and Instructional Services at the Library, to create the proposal for the faculty meeting on Oct. 20. 

The student proposal made in 2016 was passionate and delivered a strong message to the administration, Siudzinski said, but lacked the nuance needed to be accepted by the rest of the faculty. The main criticism of the proposal was that pre-professional programs and majors at the college are not well-accepted by many members of the faculty. “Amherst College graduates poets, writers, scientists and critical thinkers. Several faculty were concerned with teaching students about a career, be it in journalism, medicine or law,” he said.

Siudzinski noted that the education studies major and program is not pre-professional, like the pre-medicine and pre-law tracks at the college. Instead, the major will teach students to think critically and prepare them for a wide variety of positions.

Many faculty, staff and students were excited to learn about the new major. “I was elated, delighted because I had been working with the students on this from the start,” Siudzinski said. “ I thought of all the students I had been working with since 2013 when I heard the news.”

Faculty like Assistant Professor of Spanish Jeannette Sánchez-Narano, who is on the Education Studies Working Group, are already planning to create courses for the major. “I plan to redesign the SPAN 320 ‘Bilingualism in the U.S.’ course that I taught some semesters ago to offer a more educational perspective, that is, a critical examination of the range of bilingual and bicultural education options available in schools and communities across the U.S,” she said. “It certainly could be offered as a cross-listed course. I’m currently working on a research project that focuses on language, identity and heritage language education in the U.S. that may result in a new course supporting the new major.”

Sam Rosenblum ’16, now a graduate student at Cornell University, is an alumnus who helped create the student proposal in 2016. “Many of us alums who advocated for the creation of an education studies major thought it would provide a way for students to think critically about what K-12 schooling and university education are meant for,” he said. “In a time when the traditional arguments for mass, public K-12 education and liberal arts curricula have come under attack, it’s wonderful to hear that students at Amherst will have the opportunity to explore and interrogate the practices, philosophies, institutions and histories which have defined education. It might provide nothing less than the occasion for students to think critically about why they are attending and what they are doing at Amherst.”