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Principled provocations in education

What’s a college of education for?

What’s a college of education for?

By Carole Basile - Monday, September 30, 2019

What’s my job?

As dean of a college of education committed to producing top-tier scholarship and to operating a large teacher-preparation program, what, when all is said in done, is my job? What makes a good dean of a college of education? What would success look like?

Traditionally, it might look something like this: raise some money as part of a university’s comprehensive campaign; invest in grant-writing operations so faculty win more sponsored-research dollars; increase enrollment in both immersion and online programs, growing both earned revenue and the number of degrees conferred; hire and support a cohort of tenure-track faculty who publish substantive contributions to their fields; maintain high-quality graduate programs; invest in student success services and increase undergraduate retention; increase student and faculty diversity in some credible measure; and, in a state long afflicted with a shortage of qualified teachers, increase the number of certified teachers who graduate and go to work in P–12 schools.  

By currently accepted measures, if a college accomplishes all of the above, it will be deemed a success. All of the above are necessary, honorable and meaningful. All of these things are right and good.

Nevertheless, if a college of education achieves only these things, it will have fallen short of fulfilling its fundamental responsibility to society.

It’s not enough to credential people and generate ideas. We need to bring people and ideas together to increase the capabilities of individual educators and the performance of education systems.


Beyond ‘teacher shortage’

According to data maintained by the U.S. Department of Education, the number of people enrolled in teacher-preparation programs in the United States declined by 35% between academic years 2010–11 and 2016–17.

Much thought and action has been directed at attracting people to teacher preparation programs. Scholarships have been offered. Program formats have been changed. Alternative certification programs have been launched.

And for some institutions in some places at some times, these levers have yielded results. After five consecutive years of decline in new undergraduate enrollment at MLFTC, we’ve seen increases in each of the last two years. Our first-year retention rate is closing in on 90%. We’re getting better at attracting people to our school and helping them succeed here.           

But here’s the rub: To think about the dearth of qualified teachers as a supply problem is to profoundly miss the point. Put another way, if a college of education succeeds at attracting students, retaining them and graduating them as certified teachers, it’s highly probable that we can succeed at operating our teacher-preparation programs while doing little or nothing to strengthen the P–12 education workforce.

Because teachers are leaving the profession.

In my state, the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association releases a report every December that tracks attrition rates and other data about the education workforce. The December 2018 survey reported that a whopping 75.2% of teacher positions remained “vacant or were filled by individuals not meeting standard teaching requirements,” and that 913 teachers either “abandoned or resigned” within the first half of the school year.

This is a common story in states suffering teacher shortages. The lesson is clear: Simply attracting more people to teacher-preparation programs and certifying them to perform jobs they are likely to leave in search of more money, status or professional stimulation is not a durable solution. The best pipeline in the world is beside the point if it leads to a leaky bucket.

We’re not facing a teacher supply problem. We’re facing a workforce design problem. And colleges of education should make it our business to address it.


Valuing the profession

Tellingly, the 2019 PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools is titled “Frustration in the Schools: Teachers speak out on pay, funding and feeling valued.” It reports that 55% of teachers would not want their children following in their profession and that 50% “say they’ve seriously considered leaving the profession in recent years.”

Champions of educators have long spoken of “elevating the profession.” While there is variation in what people mean by this and substantive distinctions in emphasis in how they address it, it boils down to some combination of increasing teacher pay, investing more in schools and raising the social esteem in which educators are held.

I recently looked up the term "knowledge worker" on Wikipedia and found the following definition: “Knowledge workers are workers whose main capital is knowledge. Examples include programmers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, engineers, scientists, design thinkers, public accountants, lawyers, and academics, and any other white-collar workers whose line of work requires one to ‘think for a living.’” The word teacher appears nowhere in the entry.

This exclusion of educators from the ranks of professionals and knowledge workers is territory that has been extensively explored. That territory includes the long history of the roles sex and gender have played in education, as well as political economy and the jagged evolution of normal schools into colleges of education in U.S. universities.

Stipulated and agreed: The status of educators in the U.S. is a complex, historically rooted phenomenon.

Colleges of education can’t elevate the profession unaided. But we shouldn’t wring our hands and point helplessly to “environmental factors” and “political climate” or even “underinvestment.” There’s a lot we can do, even while leaning into the headwinds, to create the preconditions for elevating the profession by doing more to professionalize it.

Let’s start with the job of teacher.

Too often, in too many schools, the job of being a teacher looks pretty much the same on day 5,000 as it does on day one.

That’s troubling on two fronts. First, the job is too complicated for most novice teachers to perform well. Second, a profession that looks the same on day 5,000 as it does on day one isn’t offering pathways for professional growth and advancement. That’s a recipe for burnout and attrition.

And then there’s the fact that we ask all teachers to be all things to all students at all times: to be content experts and pedagogues; to assess children with learning disabilities and manage classrooms of teenagers; to teach reading and math to dual language learners and provide differentiated experiences to advanced students; to be role models and social workers who, by the way, have mastered, say, calculus, and know how to serve the needs of a culturally diverse array of children in a country where 25% of public school children speak a language other than English at home.

In no other profession is it deemed reasonable to ask all things of all people all the time.

Young professionals in many fields are accustomed to agile teams — small groups of people with complementary but different skill sets who work cross-functionally. This term has expanded from the tech industry to many other sectors (although the notion of effective teams, agile or otherwise, likely predates the taming of fire). Agile teams are the very opposite of a top-down, assembly-line human capital strategy. It would surely be folly for schools to adopt a staffing model from anywhere, including tech, as a silver bullet. Like any other managerial or educational approach, agile teaming can be executed poorly.

Yet the notion of collaborative work is important. It resonates with a talent pool that includes Millennials and members of Generation Z. It resonates with people who do view themselves as “knowledge workers,” who want to think for a living and who want work that provides flexibility and the freedom to think and act creatively as individuals and in teams.

We need to think (again) about teaming in education, because it can be part of a specific, achievable set of actions that lead to the elevation — or professionalization — of the profession.


A better experience for learners and educators

At MLFTC, we think we can nudge the system toward providing better outcomes and experiences for learners and better professional environments for educators. We think we can do this by aligning our work around the confluence of three themes:

  • Personalization for learners;
  • Teams of educators with distributed expertise; and
  • Professional development and advancement pathways for educators.

None of these elements is new. Additionally, each term is attached to usage in our field that carries specific connotations. In future entries of this blog, I and others will explore some of these ideas further.

For now, let’s consider these terms in light of decidedly nontechnical usage.

By personalization I don’t mean technology-based learning platforms with which the term is currently closely associated — although those may be part of a comprehensive approach. I mean no more and no less than understanding that individual humans learn in different ways. Words like individualization, differentiation, customization and learner-centered also begin to get at my meaning.

By teams, I mean teams of professionals with different skill sets that address different learner needs. I don’t mean simple load sharing among teachers with identical job descriptions, and I mean much more than co-creation of curricula, lesson plans and other resources. The core of what we mean is that the organizing principle of a team’s work is not merely a learning space (classroom) or organization (school) but rather the needs of each individual learner for which the team is responsible.    

By professional development and advancement, I mean something a world away from laddered, tick-the-box requirements that educators must meet to move up a micro-notch on a salary scale. I mean a robust set of pathways along which educators can earn and assume more responsibilities for leading teams and organizations. I mean an array of new roles for educators and new structures in schools that empower them.  

By themselves, each of these three practical ideas is probably useful but surely not transformative. But transformative innovation rarely involves the conjuring of something entirely new into the world. It is almost always a recombinant thing.

At MLFTC, we are invested in the idea that bringing these three strands together can be transformational for education systems. We are invested in working toward an education workforce that utilizes teams of educators with distributed expertise, prioritizes personalization for learners, and offers rewarding advancement pathways for educators.


Leveraging our position

It turns out that, as a college of education, we have a nontrivial amount of leverage with which to bring people and ideas together to increase the capabilities of individual educators and the performance of education systems.

We can leverage our market position. There is great demand for our students as interns and residents and for our graduates as certified teachers. At MLFTC, we are collaborating with schools and districts in a teacher-prep model we call MLFTC Professional Pathways. In fall 2019, 300 of our students are working as residents in team-based arrangements in 11 districts. Each team of residents is led by a Lead Teacher in their school. It’s important to emphasize that this isn’t just about teacher preparation. It’s an opportunity for us and our school partners to prototype different configurations of educators. As part of our Next Education Workforce initiative, we are working with partner schools and districts to field teams of educators designed to address the contextual needs of those specific schools and their learners.

We can leverage our intellectual capacity. As a top-tier college of education that ranks high in research expenditures and the quality of scholarly production, we should bring our research capabilities to bear on this work. We need to clarify, test and improve how we measure learning outcomes and professional development outcomes, as well as how we more holistically assess learning and professional environments. Admittedly, some of this is difficult and provocative work. Measuring learning outcomes is often asking for argument (test scores, anyone?). By all means, bring it on. We should argue about how to define and measure learning success — with high-quality, data-informed and use-inspired research that sharpens everybody’s thinking and practice.

We can leverage our convening power. We have no choice, really. Colleges of education, alone, can solve nothing worth solving. But colleges that, like mine, both operate large teacher-prep programs and produce a large quantity of high-quality research, can and should press their influence. We are in a good position to bring practitioners, researchers, policymakers, nonprofits, community organizations, business organizations and others together.

A good college of education occupies a position in the supply chains of both labor and knowledge to take a leadership role in shifting public conversations from palliative measures to systemic ones.

It’s not easy. But it should be why we exist.