A Notre Dame graduate who now works as Michigan’s Superintendent of Public Instruction spoke Tuesday about education reform and the progress he has encouraged during his tenure. Michael Flanagan’s talk “Education Reform-Mongering: A Practitioner’s Perspective” in Carole Sandner Hall was the latest event in the Notre Dame Forum 2011-12: Reimagining School. Flanagan said the most pressing challenge for today’s educators is addressing the needs of the urban and poor. Sharing his experience of growing up in a working class family on Long Island, N.Y., he said education plays a critical role in realizing one’s potential. “I think there’s a certain point that when you see other people believe in you, it changes your whole trajectory,” Flanagan said. Flanagan said his critical point was when he had to adapt to his new environment after his family moved from Brooklyn to Long Island. Flanagan said when a teacher informed him he would be placed in the “89er” program, he assumed it meant he was going to “be put on the short bus” because he was a troublemaker. However, he said it turned out to be the opposite — a program for talented eighth graders who would be given ninth grade work. “It taught me a lesson that so much of this [education] is about expectations that you have for every child, and that almost without exception they can reach great heights if we believe in them,” Flanagan said. While it is important to believe all kids can learn, Flanagan said change cannot be conceptualized until we begin to act on an individual level. “You have to be careful to design reforms that don’t make you feel good about all [the children, and in the process] forget to reach down to every child,” he said. Even after 30 years as a local, regional and state superintendent, Flanagan said he continues to act on the lesson he learned early on in his career when he examined a particular district: the need to improve the quality of education is more important than what people want to hear. “Overall, they were high achieving, but they didn’t look at individual schools,” he said. “I said that I bet we’re just like everyone else, that we’re losing women in science by high school.” When he brought his findings to public attention, the reactions were far from positive, he said. “The headline the next day didn’t help me: ‘New superintendent comes to town, girls test scores go down,’” Flanagan said. “That and the reaction taught me a real lesson that you have to be willing to realize that change is easier said than done, that you have to confront the status quo.” Flanagan said one of his most recent pushes for reform has been to raise the “cut scores,” or the cut-off score that students have to attain on standardized tests to be considered at grade level, which encourages greater achievement in Michigan schools. “All we did was raise the bar, and even though fewer kids could jump over that bar, we saw that they all ended up jumping higher than they did before,” he said. Flanagan said his other goals include providing free ACT testing to all Michigan students, improving reading proficiency levels, establishing tenure procedures that protect teachers and require achievement and developing ways to address the varied needs of Michigan’s children. The Notre Dame graduate said at times, critics have targeted his Catholic faith. “I’m very concerned with determining what’s right for the kids, and I know that some of this process is painful for the adults involved,” Flanagan said. “I know that’s part of the job.” Fr. Tim Scully, director of the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the Center for Social Concerns, said this is due to Catholicism’s clearly defined positions on these contentious issues. “Unlike some religions, we have a social teaching, that for example, takes a position in regards to parent choice. All parents should have the opportunity to choose a decent school for their kids,” Scully said. “Because this tradition has this teaching, it implies a certain stake in the ground in debates.” Surprisingly, Flanagan said the economic downturn in Michigan helped them to enact these reforms. “We wouldn’t get some of these reforms and innovations if we had enough money where we could just keep throwing money [at problems,]” Flanagan said. “[It’s not] that money makes no difference, but … you almost have to use it as an excuse to revamp the whole system.” Scully said Flanagan’s speech continued the Forum’s focus on broad development in education reform. “I think Mike Flanagan is an example of a leader who has entered into a really contended field and has made a difference because of his deep empathy,” Scully said. “We hope that the people here today will leave asking questions, and at a Catholic university these questions are exactly the kind of questions that we ought to be raising.”
The University of Georgia Sustainable Food Systems Initiative has awarded three interdisciplinary teams of faculty with the initiative’s third round of Sustainable Food Systems Fellowships. In 2013, faculty representing several UGA colleges launched the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, which recognizes that many of the problems facing the intersection of agricultural and natural ecology require interdisciplinary solutions. “One of the grand challenges facing humanity over the next 50 years is increasing the security and resiliency of the food systems,” said Liz Kramer, director of the Natural Resources Spatial Analysis Laboratory and of the Sustainable Food System Initiative. “Building sustainable food production, processing and distribution systems will require integrating a wide range of environmental, economic and social issues.” These fellowships, which will be given to graduate students beginning in fall 2017, will be paid for by a grant from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA). This is the second NIFA grant that the initiative has received to fund its fellowships. Six master’s degree students have benefited from this program since 2013. The initiative’s goal is to set up a collaborative framework to enable interdepartmental faculty to collaborate on questions of agricultural production, energy, water, the environment, economics, health, nutrition and social justice. This year, the selection committee has selected three projects for funding:Robert Bringolf, Warnell School of Forestry associate professor, and Nick Fuhrman, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences assistant professor, will develop a resource program for teaching farmers about sustainable aquaponics systems.Chad Paton, College of Family and Consumer Sciences assistant professor, and Dave Hoisington, senior research scientist and director of the UGA-housed U.S. Feed the Future Peanut and Mycotoxin Innovation Lab, will investigate improving agricultural production methods of increasing vitamin A intake in sub-Saharan Africa.Janani Rajbhandari-Thapa and Donglan Zhan, assistant professors in the College of Public Health’s Department of Health Policy and Management, and Melissa Hallow, assistant professor in the College of Engineering and CPH’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, will investigate and model the interaction between consumer behavior and food supply and how that relationship can help support a healthy and sustainable food system in Georgia.“Since we received the initial grant that set up the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, we have seen some very successful research projects and some very talented graduate students,” Kramer said. “I believe these projects are proving that the possibilities that come with collaborative research are worth leaving our silos and finding like-minded scientists across campus.” The current NIFA grant will also help launch a new graduate certificate in Sustainable Food Systems, which is pending approval. The certificate will be housed in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “We hope to use the certificate to expand interdisciplinary training in sustainable food systems beyond the fellowships and our monthly seminar series,” Kramer added. “In addition, we hope these new programs will help us to reach non-traditional and underrepresented students to explore new areas of interdisciplinary research.For more information about UGA’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative and past projects, visit http://sustainablefoodsystems.uga.edu.