How colleges of education can adapt and thrive.
We are in a time, alright.
University-based colleges of education have been dealing with a number of long-simmering challenges for decades. Most obviously, there has been the challenge of enrollment, which has been declining for over a decade.
And, even before COVID, teachers were leaving their jobs at rates faster than new teachers were entering. In Arizona, waiting for the late Fall attrition report from the Association of Arizona School Personnel Administrators has become something of a grim annual ritual.
And the news about how teachers, generally, feel about their profession has gotten worse.
Additionally, colleges of education are champions of public education at a time when public education is under attack.
We are champions of diversity, equity and inclusion at a time when some bad-faith actors present themselves as champions of open-mindedness by attacking critical race theory when the last thing they really want is a real conversation about equity, pluralism or education.
We are experts in education at a time when expertise of all kinds is being met with skepticism.
Sure, sometimes that skepticism takes the form of brutal, politically inflected anti-intellectualism.
But we are fooling ourselves if we think none of the challenges to our relevance or institutional habits are legitimate or grounded in realities we need to address.
It is a fact that schools cannot attract or retain enough qualified, effective teachers.
Not surprisingly, other institutions are stepping in to address the problems that many people feel have been unsolved — or ignored — by colleges of education.
Among the most consequential developments associated with the drive to prepare more teachers in Arizona is the fact that longtime partners of our college of education are likely also to be competitors.
Arizona school districts can now apply to be education preparation providers, meaning that districts can operate their own teacher-preparation programs with or without university partners.
Some Arizona community colleges — long a source of transfer students for teacher-prep programs at four-year colleges — are seriously considering offering their own four-year bachelor’s degrees designed to lead to teacher certification.
This much is clear: If university-based teacher-prep programs want to remain in existence, let alone thrive, we cannot coast.
At MLFTC, we have redesigned our approach to teacher preparation in an effort to provide a professional learning experience to students that is accessible, personalized and transformative.
Our approach to accessibility is rooted in three things: multiple paths of entry, format flexibility and affordability.
Colleges of education should develop more pathways for people to become teachers — as long as we remain committed to quality preparation.
We have worked to create pathways for paraeducators currently working in schools to earn bachelor’s degrees and teacher certification. We have worked to make our graduate certification programs available to people who are working full-time as teachers on emergency certification. Key to these efforts has been our willingness to work with these people and their employers to make it possible for them to attend school while continuing to perform their jobs in their p-12 schools. We have accomplished this because of our willingness to partner with schools so that some or all of the work their employees are doing in their jobs can count as professional experiences in our programs.
Additionally, given that Arizona allows school districts to operate educator-preparation programs, we are partnering with districts (including the state’s largest) to develop customized grow-your-own programs in which district employees attend our online master's and certification programs. These partnerships with school districts are vital. It is expensive for them (and for community colleges) to create quality teacher-preparation and leader-preparation programs. University-based programs should find ways to share content and infrastructure (e.g., student services, quality online learning-management systems and more) so that, together, we create new on-ramps to the profession through preparation programs that are defined both by their high quality and their responsiveness to local contexts.
We could not do this without offering a range of formats. We offer classes on three campuses and in two remote formats.
Through ASU Sync, students attend regularly scheduled classes remotely through Zoom. Classes are designed to foster active collaboration and discussion in real-time with faculty and peers. We offer both undergraduate and graduate teacher-prep programs via ASU Sync to students in Arizona.
Through ASU Online, students complete coursework on their own schedules through asynchronous instruction. We offer our master’s programs that lead to teacher certification and our certification-only programs via ASU Online to students in Arizona and, beginning this past year, in 15 other states.
The first and last word on accessibility is, of course, affordability. Since the 2017-18 academic year, we have been the beneficiaries of state funding for Arizona Teachers Academy tuition awards. ATA award recipients have all tuition and fees covered. In return, they sign a contract to teach in an Arizona School for the same number of years for which they received an ATA award. This commitment to affordability is one reason that we have increased the number of Pell-eligible students enrolled in our college and increased the number of Black, Latina/o and American Indian students. Over 40% of our students identify as non-white, which matters in a state where non-white students are growing as percentage of the school-age population. Between Fall 2017, when ATA launched, and Fall 2021, total enrollment in our teacher-prep programs grew by 14.3%. As I write this at the beginning of our Fall 2022 academic year, we might increase our new Fall teacher-prep enrollment 12% over last year if we can fund all those who wish to enroll.
Everything about our approach to teacher-prep is driven by a determination to break out of the widget-making model of teacher-preparation and education. Learners are not identical. It follows, then, that educators shouldn’t be, either. The three pillars of personalization that characterize our approach to teacher-prep are curricula, professional experiences and the support we offer our students.
Our approach to personalization follows from the aspirations of our Next Education Workforce initiative to:
1) provide all students with deeper and personalized learning by building teams of educators with distributed expertise, and
2) empower educators by developing better ways to enter the profession, specialize and advance.
Simply put, learner-centered education requires specialization. If different learners need different kinds of expertise from their educators, we better start producing graduates who are inclined to develop different kinds of expertise. So we redesigned our teacher-prep curriculum accordingly. In addition to taking classes in what we call the educator foundation, the pedagogical core and the professional core, students have access to specializations and electives.
Personalization of professional (clinical) experiences is a difficult but necessary part of teacher-preparation. Schools experiencing severe staffing challenges often put teacher candidates in situations that reflect a school’s most urgent staffing need but might not necessarily be the best place for that individual student. Navigating this tension and striking the right balance between a school’s immediate needs and a teacher candidate’s educational needs is intrinsic to what we do. That’s why we offer personalized coaching and support to all our students, even students who are taking remote classes and are conducting internships and residencies far from any of our campuses.
That level of support and personalization extends to our student services team, and how we have organized it. In addition to traditional academic advising, our college provides all students with access to success coaching that addresses four areas of student growth: academic skills and strategies; career coaching; wellness management; and financial literacy and management. These services are available to all students, whether they take classes on campus or remotely.
In one sense, the Idea that teacher-prep should be transformative is obvious. After all, educators believe that education is — or should be — transformative. It should change individual lives. It should change society. In another sense, however, teacher-preparation has long been the opposite of transformative.
Our field has defaulted to a status quo that moves groups of students in lockstep toward a credential. It prepares educators to work in classrooms, alone, thus perpetuating the one-teacher, one-classroom model that produces neither the learning outcomes nor the professional satisfaction we would like to see. In short, university-based teacher-prep programs prepare graduates to obtain a job and endure a workplace that demands compliance.
Instead of moving students in lockstep, a transformative approach to teacher prep seeks to provide individuals with core knowledge and a choice of paths toward specialization and expertise. Instead of only preparing students to work in isolation, it prepares them to work in learner-centered teams. Instead of teaching students merely to fit a mold, it prepares graduates to shape careers and build learning environments that reward creativity and efficacy.
The challenges that university-based teacher-prep programs face are not all bad. They are not just a reflection of animosity. They are a reflection of the fact that many people, from many quarters of society, want a system that provides better learning outcomes and experiences. Teacher-prep programs are part of that system.
We can and should make it easier for people to enter the profession. We can and should increase the support teachers at all levels of experience receive in order to be effective. We can and should change school models so that they deliver better learning outcomes for students and offer meaningful advancement pathways for teachers.
In short, teacher-prep programs should aspire to transform the lives of their graduates so they can positively transform the lives of individuals they teach, the communities they inhabit and, ultimately, the education systems in which they work.