Stanford Center for Public Research and Fellowship

What do you get when you mix graduate students from Stanford’s law, business, education, and policy schools? With any luck, you get future leaders with the necessary tools to tackle the broad array of challenges currently facing the K-12 education system. That, at least, is the goal of the Stanford Center for Public Research and Leadership, a collaboration with the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia Law School, which founded the program under Professor James Liebman, JD ’77.

Future education leaders need to be able to work across disciplines,” says William Koski, the Eric and Nancy Wright Professor of Clinical Education and director of the Youth and Education Law Project (YELP), who now adds leadership of CPRL-Stanford to his growing list of responsibilities.

“They need to understand how to collaborate, how organizations work, and how to team-build, in addition to possessing the kinds of analytical and communication skills taught in law schools. Increasingly complex educational issues require a multi-faceted skill set,” Koski explains.

Those issues include, among others, “implementing a school funding plan that focuses resources on disadvantaged children and requires greater community engagement; adopting 21st century academic standards; and providing greater choice and alternatives to traditional public schools,” says Koski.

To train professionals who can successfully meet these types of challenges, CPRL brings together Stanford graduate students with different competencies and immerses them in an interdisciplinary medium that provides a rigorous academic and experiential approach to problem solving. This is accomplished in a three-part course, titled Strategic Educational Research and Organizational Reform, which spans two quarters and includes a seminar, skills training, and consulting projects.

“The seminar is devoted to educational policy and covers some of the ‘sexier’ issues, like racial equality in the twenty-first century—and whether society still supports integration efforts—and how to ensure teacher quality,” says Koski, who teaches this part of the course. Indeed, these subjects are right in Koski’s scholarly wheelhouse. In addition to his legal credentials, Koski holds a PhD ’03 in administration and policy analysis from Stanford’s School of Education and has written extensively on such topics.

The skills training, in turn, addresses the nuts and bolts of the skills and capacities the students will need as professionals, such as conducting qualitative interviewing, providing client counseling and feedback, and making cogent written and oral presentations. “We call these ‘skilled generalist competencies,’ ” says Koski. “This part of the program draws heavily on the clinical model of teaching that we’ve developed at the law school,” he adds.

The final component of the course places the students in teams that are assigned actual consulting projects, allowing them to put their skills to immediate use. In fact, even before the course launched in January 2016 each of the two six-member teams was assigned a thick binder of materials describing its project. One team is now working with a national child and youth advocacy organization to improve educational outcomes for foster youth. The other team is helping a school district in California’s Central Valley to improve its community engagement, which is a legislatively prescribed requirement under California’s school funding law.

The students in CPRL’s inaugural program praise its mission and the exposure to their counterparts in other Stanford graduate schools.

James Leo, a graduate student in the education school with a background in venture capital, appreciates learning from people who are accomplished in a variety of fields. “The law students, for example, tend to approach problems more analytically,” he says. “I really like being part of a team and learning where you can leverage different skill sets.”

Holly Smith (MA ’16) echoes Leo’s sentiments. Also a grad student in the education school, Smith says she wishes there were more opportunities like this to work with people who have varying perspectives. “I was a classroom teacher and tend to think about problems strictly from that viewpoint. Being with law students reminds me of the necessity of considering legal constraints as well.”

While these students and others from outside the law school combine CPRL with their regular course load—CPRL students receive four units of credit each quarter—CPRL’s law students instead are simultaneously enrolled in the YELP clinic. This provides yet another interesting perspective as 2L Stacy Young observes, “CPRL is a crash course in practical problem solving, professional skills, and professional judgment. I greatly appreciate the unique opportunity to work on a project that is related to, but very different from, my work in individual legal services cases in the Youth and Education Law Project clinic.” 

That kind of opportunity was very much in Koski’s mind when he decided to implement CPRL at Stanford. “I had been thinking about something like this for a couple of years. YELP advocates for the equitable treatment of economically disadvantaged students through direct legal services and complex legal reform litigation,” he says. “CPRL adds another tool to the students’ tool kit by giving them the chance to do interesting policy research and consulting for education-sector clients, many of whom are the types of people we normally sue.” Koski adds, “It’s great to be on the same team for a change.”

Lauren Schneider, a 3L who is working with a Central Valley school district, appreciates this added breadth: “Working on a consulting project with an actual client is very dynamic,” she says. “There are constantly new goals, new facts, or facts that are interpreted differently. Rather than a static legal problem, it’s continuously evolving.”

Schneider also appreciates how she is evolving as a result of her participation in CPRL: “The most rewarding aspect of the program is the exposure I’m getting not only to multiple disciplines but also to different ways of thinking about problems. Clients expect more sophistication from their lawyers, especially in places like Silicon Valley, where creativity and innovation are so important. CPRL is helping me to become that kind of lawyer.”