Robert Pianta

Building a Better Teacher

Dean Robert C. Pianta, Curry School of Education

Dean of the Curry School of Education Robert Pianta is also director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). Under his leadership, the work produced at CASTL over the past ten years is now having enormous impact on our nation’s schools.

In 2007, Congress required Head Start, the largest early childhood development program in the United States, to include performance standards in its program monitoring. Head Start chose CASTL’s Classroom Assessment Scoring System tool for its nationwide improvement efforts. The tool measures how teachers provide the emotional, organizational, and instructional supports that students need for academic and social achievement.

For Pianta, one of the most rewarding aspects of CASTL is the feedback he gets from teachers across the country. “I was in New Orleans last spring, giving a talk at Tulane, and a woman from the community who works in the Head Start program came up and told me how valuable the tools were that we developed,” he said. “The energy and emotion and enthusiasm that she had about it really made me feel like we’re doing something worthwhile, and I can tell you that happens every single time I walk out the door to talk about what we do.”

But in order to continue to have impact on a national level, researchers at CASTL rely on private support. “We’ve been very fortunate to have federal grants support our work, but that’s a treadmill,” Pianta said. “Every person on staff works as hard as one can possibly work just to meet the demands of those federal projects and write the next grant proposal. We have very little time to sit back and think about what we’re doing now, and what we need to do, what’s the next big innovation.”

Longtime supporter of the University, William A. Marr, Jr. (College’67), recently made a generous gift to support CASTL research. “They’ve hit upon something very special: improving education by the more efficient use of teacher training dollars,” he said. Gifts such as Mr. Marr’s allow the center to focus on innovation, retain world-class talent at U.Va., and to stay competitive with the very best private institutions.

“I’d love to have the time and support to really get creative again. What’s the next breakthrough?” Pianta said. CASTL researchers would like to work with virtual reality systems, where they could begin to assess biological markers of teachers’ interactions with students. What makes a teacher anxious in a given moment of classroom interaction? What makes a teacher feel confident? “There are many things we could do with additional funding,” Pianta said. “To be able to secure support for innovation is extraordinarily important.”

VIDEO > Dean Pianta on CASTL’s approach to improving teacher effectiveness in the classroom.