A Remarkable Life

Joan Suskin Bissell, EdD passed away on September 11, 2020 at the age of 74.

Dr. Bissell was born Joan Lorraine Suskin on March 22, 1946 to Beatrice and Harold Suskin, the children of Jewish immigrants from Poland and modern-day Ukraine, respectively. She is survived by her husband, Stanley Newhoff, her daughter, Elizabeth Bissell Miller, her son-in-law, J. Isaac Miller, her granddaughter, Nicole Jayde Miller, her step-daughters, Michele Gelow and Angela Kull, and their children.

Dr. Bissell was a pioneering social scientist, educator, scholar, and researcher who dedicated her career to leveling the playing field for underrepresented and underserved students. She was widely known as a brilliant and visionary educator and a major force in education. Her contributions have been exceptional and her death is a great loss to both the education community and her family. 

Dr. Bissell graduated from Yorktown High School, in Arlington, VA, Radcliffe College, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In high school her academic prowess was extraordinary. She earned perfect SAT scores at a time when this was an uncommon feat. 

High School Graduation

Dr. Bissell’s undergraduate work as a cultural anthropology major at Radcliffe College was equally impressive. In her junior year, she applied for and received a summer research fellowship from the Ford Foundation to study the Falasha people of Ethiopia, who believe they are a long-lost tribe of Israel. This work became the foundation of her undergraduate thesis and foreshadowed the immense success she would have with grant writing throughout her career. In Ethiopia, she also met her first husband, Dr. John A. Bissell, a distinguished neurologist who happened to spend that summer with his parents, who were also doing pioneering work in Ethiopia—leading the first public health college.

John and Joan, 1970s

After Radcliffe, Dr. Bissell enrolled in the Ed.D. program in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her strong work ethic and understanding of both computer programming and statistics made her extremely valuable to every research team she joined.

Dr. Bissell’s pioneering research article in 1970, “The Impact of Head Start,” which called previous early childhood research methodologies and findings into question,[1] contributed substantially to the decision of the president’s administration at the time to continue the program.

When she graduated, Dr. Bissell was asked to join the Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty as an Assistant Professor.

The research conducted by Dr. Bissell and her peers on learning in the early years fundamentally reshaped the American perception of the importance of early childhood learning in general and of preschool in particular. Her work revealed that preschool in the early years—for children of every background—provides a significant benefit well into their elementary years. This novel finding shifted the cultural landscape surrounding early childhood education and political discussions regarding preschool funding in American society. Her work and that of her colleagues led directly to the development of Sesame Street.

Dr. Bissell’s groundbreaking research at Harvard in the early years hinged on finding computation errors in the statistical methods used in previous research. This led directly to multiple contemporary literatures in the field of education that have spanned nearly 50 years. These include: the importance of early years learning; high quality preschool programming; educational equity in early and elementary education; high quality after-school programming; minority access to early education; and the importance of technology in learning. Her research paper was a watershed moment in the education community and remains so to this day. 

Joan and daughter Betsy in Sacramento, 1970s

Dr. Bissell left Harvard in 1975 and moved to Sacramento, California with her first husband, Dr. John A. Bissell. In Sacramento, Dr. Bissell moved into a new arena—public policy. She worked for the California Legislature as a Research Analyst and later was a key leader in the California Department of Health and Human Services. Her primary interest at that time was in retraining unemployed auto and steel workers, an issue of great social significance. Leaving government behind, she next worked for the American College Testing program as a Regional Manager. She worked hard to expand access to college testing.

In 1986, Dr. Bissell, now separated from her husband, decided to move back into academia. She joined the faculty as a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at UC Irvine and eventually played a key leadership role in the College as Vice-Chair and Director of the Educational Leadership Doctoral Program.

While at UC Irvine, Dr. Bissell pursued an active teaching agenda primarily focused on her great passion: learning theory. Her love of educational psychology had been nurtured by Dr. Jean Piaget when Dr. Bissell was a graduate student at Harvard. Dr. Bissell enthusiastically and tirelessly shared this passion with her students. She received numerous teaching awards while at UC Irvine, including the Distinguished Teaching Award (1997), Excellence in Teaching Award (1998), and Outstanding Professor Award (1999). Not only did Dr. Bissell have a full teaching load at UC Irvine, but she continued to pursue research projects, grants, and other professional opportunities. She also met Stanley Newhoff, whom she would eventually marry.

Stanley and Joanie get married, 1991

Stanley and Joanie were married In 1991 and in 2003 they moved to Claremont, California, where she became Dean of the College of Education and Integrative Studies at CSU Pomona. 

In 2005, Dr. Bissell was recruited by the CSU Chancellor’s Office in Long Beach. She became the Director of Teacher Education and Public School Programs, working with campuses in the CSU Mathematics and Science Teacher Initiative and other programs. Although she retired from this role in 2019, she continued to actively teach and write grants right up to her passing. 

Over the course of her career, Dr. Bissell received numerous awards . To name just a few, she was elected Fellow of the American Association of Arts & Science (AAAS) in Education and was a recipient of California’s Outstanding STEM Women Leader Award.

Many of her colleagues have noted that Dr. Bissell was a brilliant scholar and visionary educator who made groundbreaking contributions to the quality, accessibility, and equity of American education. She will be missed.

[1] See Smith, Mary and Joan S. Bissell. “Report Analysis: The Impact of Head Start.” Sociology: April, 1970. https://www.hepg.org/her-home/issues/harvard-educational-review-volume-40,-issue-1/herarticle/the-impact-of-head-start_1024