Master's Students Use Real-World Connections to Engage in Education Policy

Jeremy Friedman always had a passion for education and business, but was torn between which direction he would take this. So in 2010, shortly after the University of Rochester economics graduate (‘08) discovered a new pathway within the University that would allow him to pursue an educational career on a more global level, he enrolled in the educational policy master’s program at the Warner School of Education.
Launched in 2009, the master’s degree in educational policy, which can be completed in one year, has demonstrated to Friedman that he does not have to be a certified classroom teacher in order to have a meaningful impact on schools and the lives of children.
“My Mom’s a teacher so education has always been very important to me growing up,” explains Friedman, who also hopes to make a difference for youth. “I always thought that you go into education to become a teacher, and I didn’t think that I wanted to be a teacher.”
The condense, intensive program was created for individuals who want to help improve education—but not necessarily in a classroom or school—and want to become skilled and effective advocates for education policy at the local, state, and federal levels. The program is interdisciplinary in nature, allowing students to examine complex policy issues from multiple lenses, like sociology, politics, economics, business, and law.
Field research projects are a key feature of the master’s program, combining cutting-edge research and theory with hands-on, real-world experience necessary to affect tangible positive change. The four-month project, which typically runs concurrently with spring semester, gives students the opportunity to conduct an applied policy project in a local organization as part of their coursework. Each student, with the help of his/her advisor, secures a placement with a nonprofit, governmental, or policy organization. Students then gain hands-on, real-world experience while examining a specific educational policy issue or problem.
“Our goal is to have students gain additional knowledge and skills by expanding upon the types of things they learn about in our classes through their master’s program,” explains Kara Finnigan, who directs the educational policy program, “and applying these understandings by focusing on a real-life policy problem. Another benefit of these field projects is that they give students a chance to give back to the community.”
This year’s cohort is working on policy issues at the local, state, and federal levels.
  Jeremy Friedman, master's student in educational policy
Friedman, whose policy interests focus on out-of-school time—in particular afterschool and summer school programs, works at a local agency called The Children’s Agenda as part of his field project. He devotes most of his time to working on community development block grants, finding ways to get urban youth more of the resources they need to succeed. In this role, he also works with various lobbyists, funders, and community organizations on ways to re-allocate funds toward youth services for afterschool programs and buildings.
“I’m getting practical, relevant, real-world policy experience that I probably would not have gotten otherwise with a traditional program where this is not built in,” he says. “I definitely think that I’m developing great skills in reaching out to people and asking the right diplomatic questions, while also honing my research skills. I’ve also learned a lot about the roles of perception and the politics of policy in education and funding—that’s definitely been a valuable lesson for me.”

Carolyn Lee-Davis, who oversees Friedman at The Children’s Agenda, says that their goal is to offer graduate students an opportunity to practice their skills in the real world. “We want to give them a chance to analyze local policies that affect outcomes for children and youth and a glimpse into what legislative advocacy looks like,” she explains. “We’ve been glad to have this chance to connect with Warner and are very impressed with the students we have received—they each walked in ready to work and have offered valuable expertise and analysis to our organization’s work.”

Nicholas Rastegar, who teaches French and Spanish at Brockport High School, chose to enroll in the master’s program after seeing the disconnect between policy and the classroom. Going through a traditional teacher preparation program had left him well acquainted with the daily operations of schools, but he knew there was more beneath the surface.
“This field has provided me with a poignant juxtaposition of my professional passion of education and my personal drive to reform and improve education,” says Rastegar, a graduate of LeMoyne College and the Syracuse City School District. “These two worlds have blended nicely in policy, and I definitely found a welcoming home at Warner.”  
Rastegar, who is interested in contemporary urban education, currently conducts his policy research in School Innovation in the Rochester City School District where he seeks to explore and identify best practices from other districts to align with the District’s strategic mission and ultimately improve overall school performance. According to Rastegar, this placement has been an excellent match to his individual interests because it provides him with a real-world avenue to interact with and understand policy at a local and contemporary level.
“What I currently do in the classroom as a teacher has a magnificent impact on children, yet what goes on behind the scenes in policy is really cutting edge of modern education reform,” he says. “By the end of this experience, I hope to have gained a succinct and intimate understanding of the inner workings of reform at work, a core tenet of our American democracy.”
Another master’s student, Kayann Williams, a 2010 University graduate who brings a strong political science background to the program, says that her ultimate goal is to have a profound impact on the lives of different people. “This is one of my motivations for pursuing a degree in educational policy,” she says, “and I felt that this direction offered me the opportunity to significantly change and improve the educational system that serves the needs of students from many diverse backgrounds. Without a sound education, students are left unprepared to venture out into the workforce.”
Her field placement at Empire Justice Center, a statewide public interest law firm focusing on poverty law, has afforded her the opportunity to learn more about education law and how it relates to policies. Through her research, she hopes to better understand the overall effects of race and poverty concentration on urban education. By working on a court case that challenged the de facto segregation in the Rochester City School District, she seeks to determine if things have improved or worsened since the conclusion of the case and uncover how policymakers can better implement policies that appeal to all students regardless of race and/or socioeconomic status.
One very important component of her project is to research what other districts are doing to address race and poverty concentration across the country. “In highlighting this issue, it will outline the ways in which we as a society can bring about change that offers disadvantaged students more equal resources and educational opportunities,” adds Williams, who believes that race and poverty are significant barriers to effective and equitable education in the United States.
Other students in the cohort have been placed at WXXI, Rochester City School District Parent Engagement/Student Placement, and the Warner School’s Department of Educational Leadership.
This year’s cohort is a diverse group of students with different backgrounds in economics, psychology, women’s studies, business, political science, and education. “These students connect with each other around policy issues, but they have diverse backgrounds that they bring to the program,” says Finnigan. “While they go out into different directions for their field placements, they have forged strong relationships and, as a result, are able to support each other along the way.”
Students agree that the cohort experience has been a critical part of their field research projects and the educational policy program as a whole.
“It is a unique and valuable resource that I have drawn on numerous times since beginning my graduate study here at Warner,” explains Rastegar. “The members of my cohort have been my support network, my editors, and, most importantly, my peers. Someday when we are all employed, I know that the bonds we have formed will extend far beyond River Campus, and hopefully contribute to an enhanced dialogue that allows us to arrive at real education reform that works.”

Friedman adds, “Aside from the pay-it-forward mentality of each of us trying to help the other person, it’s just nice that we’re all working together because often times there’s so many disconnected pieces in policy, and it’s nice to have them all connect.”
Kara Finnigan, associate professor and director of the educational policy program
The master’s program in educational policy remains a new and exciting option at the Warner School for those individuals who are interested in system-wide educational change. “We are currently looking for individuals from diverse backgrounds who are interested in learning more about policy design, implementation, and evaluation at the local, state, and federal levels,” Finnigan says. “We will be reviewing applications over the next few months to identify up to 12 students for the 2011-12 cohort.”

For more information about the Warner School’s educational policy program, please visit the Warner website at www.rochester.edu/warner/programs/edl/policy or contact Kara Finnigan at kfinnigan@warner.rochester.edu.  To request an application packet or for more information about admissions procedures and deadlines, please contact admissions at (585) 275-3950 or by e-mail at admissions@warner.rochester.edu.

Media Contact: Theresa Danylak
585.275.0777; 585.278.6273 (cell)

Tags: educational policy, Kara Finnigan