Faculty Interview: Ashley Berner, The Johns Hopkins University

The opinions expressed in this interview are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Johns Hopkins University or The Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

Ashley Berner serves as the Deputy Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and is also an Assistant Professor of Education. Her two previous positions were the Deputy Director of the CUNY Institute for Education Policy (2013-2015) and the Co-Director of the Education Program at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia (2006-2013). Her research focus is on the structure of public education; Palgrave MacMillan released Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School (2017), and she has published articles, book chapters, and op-eds on citizenship formation, academic outcomes, and teacher preparation in different national contexts. Berner’s classroom teaching experience took place in a Jewish pre-school, an Episcopal secondary school, and an open university in Louisiana. She is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University Law School; a Senior Advisor at 50CAN; and a Senior Fellow at Cardus, a Canadian think tank. Her degrees came from Davidson College (Honors A.B.) and from Oxford University (M.Litt. and D.Phil. in Modern History).

You are currently an Assistant Professor and Deputy Director of the Institute for Education Policy at the John Hopkins School of Education, where you specialize in teacher preparation in different national contexts, as well as other subjects. What is the influence that national context has upon teacher preparation and how can school leaders account for this?

The national context can have both positive and negative consequences for teacher preparation. Race to the Top, for instance, incentivized states to implement teacher evaluations that, for all of their merits, demoralized the profession and did not significantly improve teacher quality (with few exceptions). What I find so encouraging at the moment is that the national conversation (if not national policy) has begun to turn towards giving teachers the curricular resources they need, and the support to deliver them well. A few examples: EdReports.org, a non-profit that evaluates math and ELA curricula, is providing significant support in this domain; Louisiana’s Department of Education has placed teachers at the center of its work in promoting high-quality instructional materials – to good effect; major membership organizations (such as Chiefs for Change and the CCSSO) are issuing white papers and hosting working groups around high-quality instructional materials. Our institute, led by executive director David Steiner, is currently working with seven states that want to emulate Louisiana’s work in this field. It all comes down to the classroom teacher. That’s worth remembering – for all of us in education policy.

You also have a special focus on the relationship between religious education and citizenship formation. In a country as diverse as the United States, how should education professionals understand this relationship and how should it influence their practices and institutions?

One interesting fact about many democratic school systems is that they fund a variety of schools (Catholic, Montessori, Islamic, secular, Inuit – to name a few) on equal footing. The underlying premise in such systems is that education cannot be neutral with respect to values. Teachers know this instinctively; every book we choose to teach, the way in which discipline is managed, the conversations we don’t have with students – all of these are educative. What pluralistic countries do is simply make this explicit by funding schools that embody a wide spectrum of philosophies and pedagogical approaches. Families feel their needs are honored, and teachers also are able to choose among diverse educational environments. The good news is that research from around the world suggests that schools with distinctive cultures (whether religious or not) have an outsized, positive, and independent effect upon academic and civic outcomes. The trick is to embrace schools that are very different from one another in the normative claims they make, while ensuring that such schools adhere to state and federal laws and provide a high-quality educational experience.

You currently teach a course called “Strategic Systems Change and Action Planning.” Can you describe the focus of this course and how it plays into the preparation of EdD candidates?

The course examines change in the context of social network theory, i.e., the finding that beliefs and practices are embedded within all institutions – and that disrupting them can be quite arduous. It isn’t, in other words, merely a matter of asking colleagues to read a research report, or attend a conference, or adhere to a policy, that challenges the status quo. Rather, changing the underlying assumptions of a learning organization requires, at the very least, sustained effort and a single focus. The course helps candidates, many of whom are already leaders in their field, to explore the barriers to the use of research and data upon educational change and to be appropriately humble about their own interventions’ chance of changing practice.

You’ve published journal articles on access to and funding of private schools. What are your major takeaways from this work? What should school leaders understand about the role of private schools in the wider education system?

The biggest takeaway is that the United States is an outlier in identifying “public education” exclusively with the district school. Most democratic school systems identify “public education” more broadly, as in government funding and regulating of schools, but not necessarily government delivery (certainly not sole delivery) of schools. Thus, the divide between “public” and “private” becomes nuanced. When done well, such systems can open up opportunities for students. (This is not a given, of course; pluralism can work for or against equity, depending upon the policy structure.) One of the benefits of a plural structure is that entire sectors aren’t typically pitted against one another! I would love for American school leaders to imagine what it would look like, and feel like, if our district, charter, and private schools did not view one another with suspicion but, rather, viewed all students and schools as important – regardless of sector.

Prospective candidates should know, of course, that the Johns Hopkins program is led by faculty who reflect a wide array of research interests, policy concerns, and political positions. There isn’t any one sensibility or position that characterizes the School of Education. That’s one of the elements that makes the community so rich and challenging.

The EdD program at John Hopkins specifically invites applicants from around the world, as well as across the United States. What influence does such diversity have on the program and how is that beneficial for all students?

It’s an exciting program! It’s a privilege to work with students from China, Israel, India (to name a few!) and across the United States, and to see them learning from one another on a daily basis. The EdD program is a cohort model, so across the three years, the candidates become quite close. Several of them go on to partner in educational endeavors or publish papers together. The diversity of the student body is a key “draw;” the program provides a wide window on to education globally.

We’re hoping to use these interviews to give a sense of individuality and character of the online EdD programs featured on Teach.com. What’s something unique about John Hopkins’ EdD program or its School of Education that you can share with us?

The program leadership is deeply committed to the candidates. Despite the online elements within the program, we faculty know our candidates individually, are for their success, and promote their work to the field. For instance, I recently had the opportunity to publish one of my doctoral student’s research on our institute’s website and newsletter – which reaches 4,000 senior policymakers. It’s a real community.

Thank you Ashley!