Alia Tyner-Mullings: Exploring New Approaches To Learning and Evaluation

Alia Tyner-Mullings, Guttman Community College

When CUNY announced it would be opening an innovative new community college in 2011, Alia Tyner-Mullings knew she wanted to be part of it. The college, now Guttman Community College, was conceived to try new approaches to help students graduate and move on to four-year colleges — “a multimillion dollar experiment in how to fix what ails community colleges,” as The New York Times put it.

A sociologist, Tyner-Mullings had devoted her research and advocacy to just that kind of effort. She herself had attended a high school in New York with alternative methods and the experience was the basis for her doctoral research at the CUNY Graduate Center. She moved on to postdoctoral studies at Columbia Teachers College and then to the faculty of Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore. CUNY’s new idea drew her home to New York.

Alia Tyner Mullings

“So many things that make Guttman unique are things I had researched at the high school level and found to be successful,” says Tyner-Mullings. “Small classes, embedded advisement, education that’s about developing habits of mind and creating tools to help students apply what they’re learning to a lot of other things. And assessment for graduation based on projects and portfolios instead of standardized exams.”

Tyner-Mullings is now playing an important role in a small but growing movement that is trying to advance that last point in public high schools: “It’s a push,” she says, “against the high-stakes tests that have been taking over our educational system.” A leader in that effort is the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 38 high schools across the state that have adopted the portfolio-based method of assessment over state Regents tests. In 2015, the Spencer Foundation, a prominent backer of research that leads to improvements in educational approaches, awarded Tyner-Mullings and two colleagues a grant to conduct a major study for the consortium. (The principal investigator is Maria Hantzopoulos of Vassar College; Tyner-Mullings and Rosa Rivera-McCutchen of Lehman College are the co-PIs.)

“We’re interested in the transition from high-stakes standardized tests to performance-based assessments, which is the official term for portfolios,” she says. “What are the things that are going well in these schools and what are the things they struggle with and worry about? Our larger question is the effect on the school culture and environment and the way that teachers are able to teach in the school. And then, how we can take the lessons learned to other schools and help them advance these ideas and help their students find success?”

Tyner-Mullings grew up around education — CUNY education in particular. Her mother, Leith Mullings, is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center and an internationally prominent anthropologist. She’s one of many in her family who have been CUNY academic stars over the past 60 years, starting with her father, Alia’s grandfather, who earned an accounting degree at City College, an MBA at Baruch (where he also taught) and was one of the state’s first African-American CPAs.

As a child, Tyner-Mullings attended Central Park East Secondary School, an early adopter of teaching approaches that emphasize thinking over memorizing, closer student-teacher relationships and projects over standardized tests. She says the difference hit home only when she went to a school in Paris her senior year, when her mother had a visiting professorship there. “It felt rigid to me, very stifling,” she says. “I remember a student did a presentation and the teacher asked her to elaborate on it and she couldn’t go beyond what she had presented. I remember thinking, ‘What’s going on that I got one version of an education and they got this other version?’ It was seeing something in another culture that gave me a perspective on my own. It eventually made me realize I was a sociologist, even if I didn’t know it at the time.”

That moment planted the seeds for her career. She later taught in a school developed from the Central Park East model. She combined her experiences as a student and a teacher in a book, “Enter the Alternative School,” published in 2014.