Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Sunday, June 9, 2013

Wolf pursues policy degree to enhance education system

Leni Wolf


After graduating in 2013 with a Master of Public Affairs degree, Leni Wolf joined with the Education Trust-West in Oakland, California, as a data and policy analyst.

Leni Wolf is combining her teaching experience with policy analysis tools so she can improve the educational system and students’ everyday experiences.

“I want to take what I have learned so far about urban education while teaching in the classroom and combine that practical experience with important tools I am learning through the policy program to effect change on a greater scale,” Wolf says. “I want to explore fair ways to hold school systems accountable for their students making academic progress.”

“Literacy programs are also important,” Wolf adds, “as are methods for preventing summer learning loss among students who don’t have enriching activities during the summer.”

Wolf chose La Follette for its flexible program and the wider resources of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “I like the freedom La Follette offers to take courses in other departments,” says Wolf, who won a fellowship for her first year of study in the Master of Public Affairs program. “When I was looking at different policy schools, I found that opportunity to be pretty rare.”

Many education schools have been criticized in recent years, but Wisconsin’s School of Education is respected, Wolf says. “I value the access I have to the education school while I am at La Follette.”

Wolf graduated in 2007 from Connecticut College, a small liberal arts school that, she says, prepared her well to succeed in graduate school. Coming to a large research university has not been intimidating, she says, partly because the La Follette School is small. “I’m part of a close-knit community, and I have access to the resources of a bigger university,” Wolf adds.

She appreciates the challenge of improving her quantitative skills and the rigorous requirements of the first-year curriculum, including the fall classes Introduction to Quantitative Methods for Public Policy Analysis and Microeconomic Policy Analysis. She also took the required Public Management and opted to add a fourth class, Issues in Public Education Policy, because its instructor, John Witte, plans to retire after the spring 2012 semester.

“I knew it would be good for me to work on my quantitative skills,” Wolf says. “I have specific ideas about education and public policy, and I need the skills and tools to justify decisions and recommendations and to analyze research.”

This spring Wolf is taking Policy Analysis, Advanced Quantitative Methods for Public Policy, Public Budgeting, the Policymaking Process and a two-credit internship with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. “I’m working on a project that is creating a database of assessment results for charter schools in Wisconsin and potentially analyzing those results to discover, among other things, which charter models have demonstrated the greatest success,” Wolf says.

She found the opportunity through La Follette School 1999 alum Bob Soldner, who spoke in the one-credit Professional Development Workshop first-year students take in the fall.

The DPI internship builds on Wolf’s teaching experience. After graduating, she joined Teach for America and spent two years in Phoenix, Arizona, as a dual-language first- and third-grade teacher. “I wanted to teach at a school that was ‘beating the odds’ in urban education, so I moved to Minneapolis and taught for two years at a charter school with a college‐bound mission for underserved students,” Wolf says. “Although those four years were extremely challenging and gratifying, I want to pursue my passion for educational equity at a different level. I plan to combine my teaching experience with a degree in public affairs and work on education policy issues at the state level or for a nonprofit or advocacy organization.”

Teaching did not leave Wolf much time for volunteer work, so she was pleased to be able to organize a volunteer event for La Follette students as the spring semester got underway. She and about 10 others spent a few hours at Second Harvest food bank sorting and repackaging food. “In college, I volunteered as a tutor and did community service work,” Wolf says. “Leaving teaching and starting graduate school gives me a chance to give back and stay connected to the community I am in.”

The social justice aspect of public service prompted Wolf to sign up with Teach for America. “Now I want to take it to the next level,” Wolf says. “I have seen the direct impact of public policy on people and how much of a difference it can make.”

“Educational policy is so important – for every policy I see enacted or proposed, I can put a face to that policy,” Wolf says. “It becomes very personal when you can see how these policies affect people, especially children, who have no power to speak for themselves.”

— updated June 9, 2013