When she was selected to be part of the first cohort of University Distinguished Fellows in 1994, Devon Brenner was an elementary and middle school teacher committed to creating a new model for language arts education. But she quickly realized that literacy education was more than a one-on-one transaction in the classroom: cultural and social factors and state and federal policy decisions created both opportunities and constraints over which she had little individual control. Pursuing her doctorate was a chance to analyze those broader contexts and hopefully to make an impact on a larger scale. Twenty years later, Devon has become a leading researcher in literacy education and chair of an academic department that focuses on teacher preparation as well as research. And this year she has taken her expertise to Capitol Hill, providing her perspective on some of the major pieces of legislation that will impact the future of K-12 and higher education.
“I’ve always been interested in research that makes a contribution,” Devon explained in a recent interview. “I’ve always worked in my state on teacher preparation and policy; I’m very committed to not just being in the ivory tower but being involved in how policies play out in practice.” Devon is learning about that process as an education policy fellow for U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. She is bringing her knowledge of education research to bear on discussions surrounding the Higher Education Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including thinking about how that research might help to shape the new Every Student Succeeds Act.
Devon’s special expertise is in the area of rural education, which is often lost in the focus on failing large urban school districts. One in five children is educated in a rural school district, and half of all U.S. school districts are rural. Devon’s research focuses both on methods of literacy instruction for these students and on teacher preparation and training to meet rural needs. As a professor at Mississippi State University, Devon has been co-principal investigator for a U.S. Department of Education grant, which focuses on establishing alternate routes for training teachers in rural areas. Unlike programs such as Teach for America, which bring outside educators into schools for a short-term commitment, the grant-funded Teacher Education for Rural Middle Schools (TERMS) program taps people with roots in the community who are currently in other careers. “Growing your own teachers,” according to Devon, makes it possible to better connect students’ education with their local experiences, and the research backs her up: the students of TERMS teachers have the same outcomes as students in classrooms headed by teachers who were prepared through a more traditional undergraduate teacher preparation program.
Devon said her experience in Washington will shape the way that she thinks about her research when she returns. Lobbying groups and large organizations are often the ones making claims for what works in education, but faculty also need to make sure they are actively involved in national conversations. “Faculty need to create the relationships that get them to the table,” she urged, whether through internships or through regular communication with legislators in their home states.
Devon stressed that her education in the Michigan State University Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy doctoral program prepared her to hit the ground running when she arrived at Mississippi State. “That land-grant mission colors everything that happens at both institutions; it’s so focused on practice and policy and students,” Devon commented. “There is a common dedication to improving the lives of the students in the states where we are.”
And the University Distinguished Fellowship made it possible for her to finish her degree quickly, and debt free, and to focus her energy on the practical applications of her research when she took her faculty position. “Graduate education,” at a place like MSU, Devon emphasized “is where lives are really transformed: you learn to think and to reason, and to make a difference.” When you provide support for future scholars and educators, “the impact is exponential. You have the opportunity to change the lives of many down the line.”