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From the dean
Preparing good educators takes more than a single village

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Bill McDiarmid

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Three different entities are responsible for preparing educators: arts and sciences departments, schools of education, and schools for children in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade (P-12 schools). Historically, close collaboration among these three has been rare. As a consequence, preservice educators are often left on their own to do the difficult work of making connections among what they learn in each setting.

The relationship between what prospective educators are taught on-campus and what they are taught in schools is particularly critical. Frequently, students report that practicing educators in their placement schools convey ideas that differ sharply from those they encounter in their university courses. Teacher education researchers long ago have termed this the “two-worlds problem.” 

Underlining the significance of this problem is the seminal role that preservice clinical experiences play for most prospective educators. School classrooms are typically much more compelling social and emotional environments than are university classrooms. In addition, preservice teachers are usually eager to “get their hands dirty” in real classrooms with real students, chafing at the bit that they view university classes and requirements to be. Finally, teaching is a clinical practice. Although ideas – about learning, learners, pedagogy, context and curriculum – are invaluable resources, classroom teaching is an applied art and science that can be mastered only in classrooms. Little wonder that many educators report that their clinical experience was the most valuable aspect of their program.

Traditionally, P-12 schools have been the “junior partner” in preparing educators. That is, the university faculty, operating within state requirements, largely determines the program structure, curriculum and standards. The supervising professionals in the host schools rarely have much input, despite escalating state requirements that they be included in program design and execution. As a consequence, preservice educators may or may not have opportunities to try out what they are learning at the university, and the quality of clinical experiences often varies greatly from one student to the next.

Many educator preparation programs – including those at the School of Education – have been attempting to forge different relationships with their P-12 partners. The creation of professional development schools (PDS) in the 1980s and 1990s was an attempt to make P-12 educators more truly equal partners in educator preparation. The idea was to ground preparation and research more solidly in the realities of schools and share resources to the benefit of all partners.

The advent of accountability and assessment systems, first at the state level and then at the federal level with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, complicated and, in some cases, derailed the nascent PDS movement. These systems brought unprecedented pressure to bear on educators, especially those in under-resourced, low-performing schools. Understandably, P-12 educators redoubled their focus on improving students’ tests result, eliminating activities not directly tied to this goal. Consequently, however committed to their profession they might be, many educators view hosting preservice educators as a distraction from raising their students’ test scores.

Accountability systems are here to stay. This suggests that the role of university preparation programs in P-12 schools must adapt. Students from university programs represent a resource to help schools address the accountability pressures under which they operate. For these students to be true resources, university faculty and school administration and staff must collaborate closely. Together, they must determine how to ensure that preservice educators have the opportunities they need to learn and practice effective strategies and, at the same time, assist teachers in supporting students to achieve at higher levels. It can be done. The key is regular conversations and advanced planning between educators from both settings and flexibility and creativity in designing learning experiences.

The Research Triangle Schools Partnership, under Professor Harriet Able’s leadership, has been a vehicle for just such planning and conversations at the School of Education. Some faculty, such as Professors Cheryl Mason Bolick and Suzanne Gulledge, conduct their classes in partner schools, thus grounding their students’ learning in real-world settings. Others, such as Professor Susan Friel, work closely with teachers to implement new curricula and, in the process, learn lessons about the challenges teachers face that inform their university classes.

The School of Education’s aim is to expand and deepen our collaborations with P-12 schools and educators. We have much to learn from practitioners that can improve our preparation programs. At the same time, we have resources – in the form of faculty, graduate students and preservice educators – that can help improve learning opportunities in partner schools. By fall, we hope to add a “Distinguished P-12 Educator” to the faculty to assist in building and maintaining our partnerships with schools. The stakes are high. We are committed to working elbow-to-elbow with our P-12 colleagues. At the same time, we must ensure that our faculty has the time needed to do the scholarship that is the lifeblood of a school of education at a research university. It’s certainly a challenge but I’m confident we can figure it out – together.