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Victor Sáenz began his tenure as chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy in June. He discusses how changing the department’s name from Educational Administration better reflects the dynamic field, and what’s happening within the department and in the educational leadership and policy arena.

You have said that changing the name of the department reflects an evolution that aligns with changes in education. What are the most critical changes in the field right now?

The new department name reflects immense changes in the field of education, brought on by innovations in school leadership and management as well as shifting policy priorities. Issues such as school choice, demographic change, the rights of undocumented students, state divestment of public education, the compounding effects of poverty on school systems, and innovations in technology are re-shaping the education landscape. We need to train our school leaders and policy researchers for contemporary K-12 and higher education contexts, and our current faculty are engaged in research and practice that informs these new educational realities.

The department has a history of graduating principals and superintendents who go on to lead schools and districts not just in Texas, but across the country. What sets your graduates apart from other public education leaders?

Our department has built a national reputation for producing award-winning educational leaders and policy researchers. To ensure this legacy continues, we must be proactive and stay ahead of new educational leadership and policy challenges. Our department has a strong core of senior faculty with years of executive experience in training leaders and scholars, mid-career and junior faculty who employ cutting-edge methodological training in their expansive research agendas, and clinical faculty who possess years of professional experience that they bring into their classrooms. This balance is a key asset for our department and our students, and it must be carefully supported as our educational systems are disrupted by technology, curricular innovations, and shifting educational policy priorities.

What is the role of leaders in today’s educational arena?

Our leadership program’s goal is to achieve equity and excellence in academic outcomes for all students. As demographic changes portend more racial and ethnic diversity in the coming decades, especially in urban contexts, it is imperative that our educational leaders have a bold vision to promote the way in creating greater access to meaningful education opportunities for all students. We train educational leaders to have a strong grounding in research and best practices, to focus on improving teaching and learning, and to utilize inquiry-based, data-savvy, and strategic-planning skills. Training strong and effective educational leaders then leads to strong and effective schools, and this is how we aim to achieve our goal of equity and excellence for all.

How do faculty and students in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy work together to address pressing policy issues?

Our department has a rich legacy of students and faculty working collaboratively across sectors to address key policy issues in education. It begins with a group of faculty committed to working with students to provide meaningful experiential and field-based experiences that enrich learning in and out of the classroom. As a result, some of these opportunities have led to real policy impact. Our students emerge from our programs equipped to not only navigate multiple policy arenas but also to effectively influence and impact key policy conversations in education spaces.

What are your recommendations for anyone considering a career in educational leadership and policy?

Prospective students interested in applying to our educational leadership and policy programs should consider our strong legacy of training equity-minded scholars and practitioners. We train policy scholars who address emerging education policy issues and are committed to researching inequities in schools for all students. We prepare school leaders who anchor their practice in social justice and anti-racist leadership. We provide powerful learning experiences that are deeply grounded in fieldwork within schools and communities. These experiences launch our master’s and doctoral students into meaningful careers as scholar-practitioners with an optimal blend of theory and practice.

Victor B. Sáenz is chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy and is an associate professor in the Program in Higher Education Leadership. In 2010 Sáenz founded Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success), focused on advancing success strategies for male students of color across the education pipeline.

Op-ed by Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb

Associate Professor, Curriculum and Instruction

Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb

Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb

In the U.S. and many other developed countries, young females are entering college at higher rates than males and are more likely to graduate and earn a degree. Even so, we certainly can’t say that gender inequality is no longer a problem.

Reality is that women remain less likely than men to enter many science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields in college, a factor that contributes to their relatively lower occupational earnings. The under-representation of women in STEM fields is particularly problematic given the rapid growth of STEM-related job sectors and the national need for more workers with STEM degrees and skills.

So why aren’t more women taking STEM classes and earning college degrees in STEM subjects?

An explanation still commonly heard is that females’ math and science skills and achievement are inferior to males’ and, consequently, they’re not as qualified. Recent research offers strong empirical evidence that refutes this conventional wisdom, though.

According to research, female students consistently earn higher grades in math and science K-12 classes and take advanced courses at the same rates as males. While there remains a small male advantage on some standardized math and science exams, this minor disparity doesn’t begin to explain the large gender gap in who chooses STEM fields in college and beyond.

It can be tempting to take a very narrow view of this issue. One might say that since no one is actively keeping young college women from entering STEM fields, then they have the same opportunity to pursue these fields as men. Or, to put it differently, if young women have the same (or better) chances of going to college as young men and they happen to choose non-STEM fields, then this is simply a matter of choice, right?

While it’s appealing in its simplicity, such a narrow perspective ignores the many ways society continues to limit women’s educational choices by telling them math and science aren’t feminine and that those subjects are really better suited to men and boys.

My own research addresses this topic and finds that young women continue to be subjected to biases and stereotypes about their math ability. Numerous other researchers in education, sociology, and psychology have gathered evidence that girls receive less encouragement from parents and peers to pursue STEM fields, and that they are continuously exposed to social messages (including those from the media) about their presumed inferiority to boys. These messages may be subtle but are nonetheless powerful – indeed, their less overt nature arguably makes them more effective.

Anyone can point to a single instance of bias, such as a teacher always calling on boys in math class before calling on girls, and argue that it’s unintentional and not significant enough to worry about. Yet these kinds of experiences begin early at school and in the home, and they continue to accumulate over many years.

Therefore, if we want to increase the number of women who enter and are successful in STEM fields, we have to think hard about how individuals’ choices are not nearly as free as we might want to believe. Rather, the choices that young women make are severely constrained by social and cultural forces that shape what they think is possible.

The good news is that there are things we can do to change how girls view their future possibilities, such as providing more opportunities for them to interact with positive female role models, and educating current and future math and science teachers about how to create more gender equitable classrooms. Also, we could all do our part to discourage the constant social dialogue about how “boys and girls are just so different.”

If we accomplish these changes, we can give girls and young women an opportunity to see their educational and occupational futures as not fundamentally dictated by their gender, but open to endless possibilities.