WCER’s 50th Anniversary: A Celebration for Staff, Researchers, Colleagues, Students and Family

November 24, 2014

UW-Madison carpenter Bruce Steinhofer installs the WCER 50th anniversary banner

UW-Madison carpenter Bruce Steinhofer installs the WCER 50th anniversary banner

The Wisconsin Center for Education Research recognized its 50th anniversary on October 20, 2014, with a celebration that connected five decades of researchers, staff, colleagues, students and family. During sessions that ran from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., nearly 40 distinguished speakers shared findings on a wide span of current topics, including educational afterschool activities, mathematics education, assessment and alignment, English language instruction, and narrowing the achievement gap.

Many researchers and retirees returned to Madison just for this special occasion. Throughout the day, former colleagues, staff and students greeted each other warmly, reconnecting and also making new acquaintances among the hundreds of current faculty and staff members, and students, who attended. Commemorative pins and a 50th anniversary booklet helped create a celebratory mood, boosted by a staff appreciation luncheon and a dinner for researchers that allowed for in-depth conversation and the retelling of stories that often sparked good humor and memories.

The daughter of WCER’s founder shared childhood memories of time spent on campus with her dad, who passed away earlier this year, including sitting in on his lectures in the Educational Sciences Building, which houses WCER and was built in 1972 largely due to his efforts. In that same lecture hall she delivered an inspiring history lesson about the center’s beginnings.

UW–Madison Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf and School of Education Dean Julie Underwood welcomed the hundreds of attendees and previewed the day’s events.

“From its humble beginnings in the basement of the Education Building to its status today as one of the world’s largest and most productive university research centers, currently with over $60 million in research funding and nearly 500 employees, I would say the Wisconsin Center for Education Research has had a great 50 years,” Mangelsdorf said.

In his introductory remarks, WCER Director Bob Mathieu praised the late Professor Herbert Klausmeier, who served as founding director of the center, for his vision and leadership. Connie Klausmeier Hutchinson then spoke at length about her father’s love for the center and his tireless efforts to ensure its success.

“The impetus for all his work was energized by dad’s core belief that each child, especially one born into poverty, deserves an excellent education,” Hutchinson said. “He truly devoted himself to giving back to others the good fortune that he received through his education.”

The morning session featured Thomas Romberg, Thomas Carpenter and Elizabeth Fennema, who together worked on advancing math education for a combined total of almost 100 years, offering their perspectives on the progress they made in their work. Moderator Deborah Loewenberg Ball, Dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, praised their work as “incredibly influential.”

“The footprint of WCER on U.S. math education research and around the globe is enormous…Not only did (WCER) researchers build a strong program of research and development, but created in some sense a movement that has been created and extended by other researchers,” Ball said.

“The work on standards, the current work being done here on proof and mathematical reasoning, the work on social justice, the work that has been done on alignment and assessment, all of this is known because researchers here were deliberate enough and patient enough to not just go after the latest fad, but to gradually build on work that had been done over time, extending and learning from where they had been wrong or from what they had been surprised by, to make constant headway.”

Later in the morning, Ronald F. Ferguson, a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and WCER researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings offered their thoughts on WCER’s contributions to ensuring equitable outcomes in American education. They were followed by WCER researchers Geoffrey Borman, Aydin Bal and David Rangel. Following their talks, Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham provided her perspective on the local impact of their work.

Simultaneously, a separate panel was reviewing WCER’s efforts on assessment and alignment, with Andrew Porter, Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, leading off the discussion. Following him were WCER researchers William Clune, Norman Webb, Robert H. Meyer, Timothy Boals, Mariana Castro and Michael Thompson, the Deputy State Superintendent of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

“We couldn’t be more excited about having this world-renowned research center about a mile down the road from us,” Thompson said. “Quite frankly, WCER has a lot of credibility: a lot of credibility nationally, a lot of credibility in the state, a lot of credibility up the hill with our legislature, so it makes it important we get together with your researchers and partner around your work.”

A celebration luncheon honored the service and dedication of WCER’s staff before the symposium resumed with two parallel presentations. John T. Bruer, the president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation and board member of the National Science and National Educational Research and Priorities, initiated a discussion on WCER’s work on the learning sciences. WCER researchers Martha Alibali, David Williamson Shaffer, Edward Hubbard, Percival Matthews, Martina Rau and Mitchell Nathan followed up with reviews of their research, and Elizabeth Albro, the Associate Commissioner for Teaching and Learning at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, provided commentary on the topic.

In the parallel presentation on higher education, James Fairweather, the director of the Center for Higher and Adult Education at Michigan State University, introduced the topic and the speakers. WCER researchers Mark Connolly, Jerlando F L. Jackson, Sara Goldrick-Rab, and Bob Mathieu spoke about their work, and Susan R. Singer, the director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, provided a review and appraisal of the center’s impact in higher education research.

“We need to build a much more integrated community and WCER seems like a place that’s doing it better and historically has done that better than any other place I can think of,” Singer said. “I’m really excited to see the leadership role (WCER) will take in moving us forward.”

The final presentation of the afternoon, the WCER Directors Panel, featured Richard Rossmiller, Andrew Porter, Adam Gamoran, Bob Mathieu, and remarks read by Charles Read from Carl Kaessle and by Dean Underwood from Mike Smith. Their combined 50 years’ of perspective from the director’s office illuminated some of the decisions that shaped the center into what it is today.

Deborah Vandell’s public keynote presentation at Monona Terrace was the featured event of the evening. While at WCER, Vandell, who now serves as dean of the University of California–Irvine School of Education, led a national research project disproving the myth that daycare negatively affects child development. Her presentation branched off from that work into her current studies of the effectiveness of afterschool programs in increasing academic performance.

“This was a great day for the center,” Vandell said of the day’s events. “I have tried to use the lessons I learned at this wonderful center to help guide our work in California – the focus on interdisciplinary research, connections with community and trying to address some of the pressing issues of the time – ... (those) in the DNA of the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.”