Keeping Focus

Upper-year students honing their public leadership skills are learning new approaches for addressing complicated, previously intractable situations at school systems, within public interest organizations, and in the global arena

By Anna Louie Sussman

Fall 2013

In the autumn of 2011, Excel Bridgeport, a small, nonprofit education organization in Bridgeport, Conn., hired a team consisting of two Columbia Law School students and three Columbia Business School students to help the city’s parents re-engage with its public school system. The academic performance of city schools was so abysmal that the state board of education had ordered a takeover from the district board in 2011, and parents wanted a greater say in how their children’s schools were being run.

For years, parent engagement had been on a losing streak in Bridgeport. The district’s existing policy on the issue was so irrelevant as to be archeological. Maria Zambrano, the executive director of Excel Bridgeport, had never even heard of it until a board of education member excavated the document from a file cabinet where it had collected dust for eight years.

Everyone agreed that parents should play a larger role in holding schools accountable for providing a quality education, but with so much failure in the rearview mirror, the parents doubted improvement was possible.

You’re trying to break the hold of a lot of adult interests that have controlled aspects of the school system in ways that aren’t good for the kids,” observes Professor James S. Liebman, who supervised the Columbia students during their work with Excel Bridgeport.

Liebman understands all too well how the best of intentions often bump into the worst of bureaucracy. A former school desegregation lawyer who joined the Columbia Law School faculty in 1986, he began working on education reform in 2007 during a three-and-a-half-year stint as chief accountability officer at the New York City Department of Education. In that role, he quickly realized that meaningful institutional change would stall if basic problem-solving skills—data gathering, getting buy-in from stakeholders, and determining how to implement agreed-upon solutions—were in short supply.

After returning to Columbia Law School in 2010, Liebman created the Center for Public Research and Leadership, as well as related courses, to train students in leadership, organizational change, and problem-solving. The students come from Columbia Law School, Columbia Business School, Teachers College, and Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. They are grouped in teams of five and report to an engagement manager at the center who matches them with institutional clients.

Through classroom learning in a yearlong seminar, and consulting projects such as the one with Excel Bridgeport, Liebman is building a cadre of what he calls “skilled generalists”—those who can analyze data, use research to spur change, and lead a team in executing, not just designing, solutions that put those most affected at the center. “School systems,” he says, “are recognizing that you can’t just have people who used to be teachers and principals doing this work.”

Liebman’s center represents just one of several opportunities upper-level Columbia Law School students have to learn public leadership skills they can use to improve and reform school systems, public interest organizations, and international institutions. Professor Susan P. Sturm, the Law School’s George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility and director of the Center for Institutional and Social Change, teaches students to use an “architectural approach” to effect big-picture change—like Liebman, she teaches experiential, non-clinic courses focused on methods for reforming established institutions. And Katharina Pistor, the Michael I. Sovern Professor of Law and director of the Law School’s Center on Global Legal Transformation, trains her students to analyze how law operates to facilitate or hinder economic and social development in countries around the world, as well as how they can best position themselves to implement change in the global legal arena. 

Back in Bridgeport, the parents recruited by Excel began convening each month, filming their meetings, and sending the videos to the center’s student-consultants—who chose to work remotely at first to ensure that parents felt full autonomy. The students, meanwhile, provided parents with the research they needed to make decisions: parent-engagement best practices culled from all over the country; exercises that helped parents trace their disenfranchisement to its root causes; lesson plans challenging parents to think through strategies for achieving desired outcomes.

By May of 2012, the parents had drafted a new engagement policy. By August, they convinced the Bridgeport school district to adopt it.

The new policy brims with the parents’ ideas for helping their children grow through meaningful engagement with the school system and provides detailed instructions on how to make that happen. The policy requires schools to inform parents each year of a student’s learning objectives. It mandates regular communication with parents via a variety of methods—including text messages and social media—and it calls for using Google Translate to interact with each parent in his or her preferred language. Most importantly, it received support from every relevant stakeholder, including teachers and principals.

Amanda Meyer ’13, a student-consultant on the Excel Bridgeport project, saw how “skilled generalists” could help work toward solutions to problems that, as a teacher in the Bronx and Brooklyn prior to attending law school, she had wanted to address. “[The parents said] they felt so much agency—that for the first time their voices mattered,” she says. “And they were articulating ideas in a powerful way.”

Meyer’s Excel Bridgeport teammate and fellow co-chair of the Education Law and Policy Society, Andrew Bruns ’13, says Liebman’s center afforded him an opportunity to dive into a field that he truly enjoys. As a high school athlete in a small rural town in Ohio, Bruns says he was struck by the wide disparities between the underfunded urban and rural schools and the well-resourced suburban schools he visited with his basketball team, an observation that eventually led him to focus on education reform during law school.

“Working on education reform means using my legal education to get involved with something I’m passionate about,” he says. “It’s a nice change [from more traditional legal fields] and can have a big impact.”

Following his work with parents in Bridgeport, Bruns was engaged through the center during his last semester of law school to assist Connecticut’s state education board. He helped create a peer networking program to match schools in the state based on shared strengths, weaknesses, and needs, in an effort to benefit from best practices.

In addition to the Bridgeport project, the Center for Public Research and Leadership has successfully partnered with Newark’s public school system, the Connecticut State Department of Education, and, on more than one occasion, New York City’s Department of Education. Liebman says he receives regular requests from school boards at the federal, state, and district levels looking to recruit Columbia Law School students for projects. “People call me all the time, desperate,” he says. “There’s a huge need for professionals, who are trained and flexible, to do this work.”

Susan Sturm is also training multifaceted professionals to help drive change. Sturm introduces her students to a nuanced theory of multidimensional systems change she has been developing since her undergraduate years, and then challenges them to connect it to their own lives and goals. The idea, spelled out in Sturm’s 2006 article “The Architecture of Inclusion: Advancing Workplace Equity in Higher Education,” is to remove the obstacles precluding what she calls “institutional citizenship,” or the full participation of all members of an institution.

Sturm takes as her starting point lawyers’ roles in structuring networks and institutions, and then highlights the features of successful institutional transformation. These include mapping and diagnosing the dynamics that underlie structural inequality, identifying individuals with the leverage and commitment to work across networks, and focusing on issues that offer the most opportunity for impact.

In Sturm’s yearlong, upper-level Diversity and Innovation course, students apply those theories while working on supervised field research projects with the Ford Foundation–funded Center for Institutional and Social Change. One recent student, with support from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, conducted participant-researcher work with a coalition of community groups advocating for public school reform. She interviewed the lawyers and activists involved to find out how they frame their problems, and to determine what they believe people with legal training bring to the table. Amanda Meyer, meanwhile, applied the knowledge she learned in both Liebman’s and Sturm’s seminars in collaborating with the Center for Institutional and Social Change on a program that helps women with criminal records access higher education and graduate from college.

Another former student received a Skadden Fellowship to further pursue a project he began in Sturm’s course. He is examining how higher education institutions can partner with surrounding communities and use university resources to address issues such as failing public schools.

“We meet individually and I ask [students], ‘What is your burning question?’” Sturm says. “‘What is it you really want to do in the world?’ They’re asked to think that through in a highly theorized but also deeply personal way, to connect their own experience and ambition with some of the most cutting-edge ideas out there, and to use that to identify the right field research project for them.”

For recent graduate Mae Ackerman-Brimberg ’13—who worked on children’s rights issues after college and is pursuing a joint degree at the Law School and Columbia University’s School of Social Work—that meant investigating why public institutions so often fail the young people who rely on them. As an intern with an in-home family therapy program for youth involved with the juvenile justice system who are struggling with substance abuse, she worked to bridge the gap between the legal and social services systems to serve young people.

Sturm sees the inherent value of such interdisciplinary approaches to effecting change and seeks to train students in the fine art of wearing many hats. Lawyers, she says, should think broadly and dream big. Her students are following that lead.
“Aside from learning the skills,” says Ackerman-Brimberg, “she wants us to open our minds about what people with law degrees can do.”

Opening students’ minds to new ways of thinking about how lawyers can operate more effectively, both in the U.S. and abroad, is a specialty of sorts for Professor Katharina Pistor.

The native of Freiburg, Germany, and 2012 Max Planck Research Award winner trains students to situate law within a matrix of other disciplines to understand how legal structures interact with other, more diffuse norms. In her upper-level Law and Development course, students examine how different countries’ legal systems have impacted economic and social development, and how multilateral organizations can, and must, pick up where state sovereignty ends.

“I see this as a training in being able to deal with a more globalized world,” Pistor says. “We teach our students how to ask the right questions, so if they go to negotiate a transaction, or into an arbitration, they can see where the other side is coming from.”

Rodd Izadnia ’12 describes Pistor’s courses as “in the vein of critical legal theory.” But instead of examining law’s role in shaping constructs like race or gender, they interrogate how law interacts with political economy. “She points to transnational institutions and discusses how they’re creating law, and what impact that is having developmentally,” Izadnia says, noting the increasing importance of these entities as globalization limits the autonomy of state actors. 

That analytical framework, he adds, has given him a deeper understanding of his role as a dispute settlement lawyer at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, where member nations raise arguments over matters of international trade. And, as is the case with the students working alongside Professors Liebman and Sturm, Izadnia sees the potential for positive change that goes hand-in-hand with the approaches he has learned. “The belief I gained from her class and that is affirmed here [at the WTO],” he says, “is that this organization and the kind of cooperation and communication that it facilitates is all driving towards development goals, economic prosperity, and human rights.”

Anna Louie Sussman has written for The Atlantic and The New York Times, among other publications.