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Prepping teachers for challenging classrooms: A Q&A with the U of M’s Deborah Dillon

On Friday the Board of Teaching will vote on a first-of-its-kind Alternative Pathway to Teaching Program, which includes a partnership between the U of M and TFA.
Deborah Dillon

On Friday, May 9, the state Board of Teaching is scheduled to vote on a first-of-its-kind Alternative Pathway to Teaching Program, which includes a partnership between the University of Minnesota and Teach for America (TFA) to prep TFA recruits for Minnesota classrooms. As seems inevitable with all things TFA-related, the proposal has been the subject of numerous headlines.

Newsworthy as the partnership is, it turns out to be just the first — and most visible — partnership to capitalize on a quiet revolution in how the U of M College of Education and Human Development prepares teacher candidates for Minnesota’s most challenged classrooms. Deborah Dillon, associate dean for graduate, professional and international programs, described the changes in a recent interview.

An edited version of that discussion follows. It’s longer than most MinnPost Q&As, but readers who are educators will want the level of detail Dillon provided.

MinnPost: I hear the proposed U of M-TFA partnership is just one of a series of innovations in teacher education you’ve got in the works.

Deborah Dillon: Over the last six years we’ve completely redesigned our comprehensive teacher preparation program, or our initial licensure program. We got a fabulous grant from the Edith and Archibald Bush Foundation and we formed a partnership with several other institutions of higher education in the state.

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We started talking about, “What would you do if you really redesigned your teacher prep program and put in the best of what we know from the research literature into practice?” Some of those hallmarks are getting teacher candidates out into schools earlier and doing a different kind of student teaching than we have ever done before.

Traditionally the way we prepared teachers was they took foundational coursework and then they learned their content pedagogy strategies. After this they student taught. And sometimes you had some clinical experiences, where they went out and tried something, sprinkled in along the way.

But really that model is out of date and wasn’t very effective. Now we get our teachers out into schools on day one using a different kind of model, which we call co-teaching, where they actually start to teach alongside a mentor teacher from the beginning of their program. Then we layer in the content knowledge and the content pedagogical knowledge along the way. We’re finding that the preparation of the teachers is incredibly enhanced.

Part of that is they work side-by-side with an experienced classroom teacher who is very effective and provides strong mentoring that we mutually value. The K-12 students they work with recognize them both equally as teachers. They plan together.

We’ve not been able to redesign our program alone. We formed partnerships with schools. Part of their mission is to work on the co-teaching model with us because they want to help us prepare teachers who are going to be successful in their schools and successful in specific contexts.

Our partnership relationships right now include Minneapolis Public Schools, Forest Lake, Brooklyn Center, St. Paul, Columbia Heights and White Bear Lake. We meet together with all of these partners — 23 elementary schools and eight secondary schools — and our 20-plus licensure program faculty. We come together and share ideas about how to best prepare and support teacher candidates.

That has never been done before. So it is very exciting. And it’s collaborative — it requires a great deal of communication and a lot of work together. It is definitely paying off.

I’m going to use the example of Roosevelt High School. Our teachers have been co-teaching there now for a couple of years and student test scores have gone up. Roosevelt colleagues are so excited about the U of MN teaching candidates that have co-taught in that setting that they have hired several into permanent positions.

Our candidates are valued because they know the school culture, they know the kids, they know what is expected of them, and they’ve contributed to making a difference. Candidates hired by Roosevelt are likely to stay because their co-teaching experience has been so positive and they feel like they have been mentored so beautifully.

One of the goals in our comprehensive program is to enroll more teachers of color and more multilingual teachers. We certainly need and desire to do that to better meet the needs of our changing Minnesota K-12 student population. We’re making some really good gains and one way we are doing that is by supporting our teacher candidates of color with funding.

We’ve been working hard to secure scholarships, and that has made a difference in helping defray tuition costs. For example, in the 2012-13 cohort, of the 32 students self-identified as students of color, 23 of them have received on average about $7,000 apiece, amounting to about $162,800 in scholarship monies awarded.

To maintain a high-quality preparation program, we’re collecting data on our teacher candidates all the way through their program so that we understand at different points how they are developing as individuals prepared to teach students from culturally diverse backgrounds.

Several of the assessments require that they design and teach lessons and that the lessons are videotaped and critiqued, and the teacher candidate reflects on their critique. They have to conduct several case studies of various learners, such as English-language learners and students with special needs. These two emphases, along with culturally relevant teaching, are areas of teaching expertise that we focus on in our teacher preparation program.

And our teacher candidates are doing quite well. They are feeling very well prepared. And when we ask those who employ them about their preparation they say these are fabulous new teachers, and we want to hire University of Minnesota graduates.

The principal at North Park Heights Elementary in Columbia Heights really likes the way we are training candidates as urban teachers. As he notes, U of MN candidates don’t come to his schools like teachers sometimes can where they feel really sorry for kids living in poverty who may not be where they need to be. Instead he says the teacher candidates come in with clear, high expectations for students saying, “We’re going to hold them to those high expectations. Let’s see what strategies we can use, what tools we can use, to really help them learn.”

MP: If results in your established teacher prep programs are so strong, why create alternative pathways?

DD: I wanted to start our conversation by describing our comprehensive, albeit nonconventional post baccalaureate program so that you know what we are doing to effectively prepare new teachers. But that said, we know one route to becoming a teacher is no longer enough. Our faculty are committed to preparing individuals who want to be teachers and for whom our comprehensive program, the way it’s designed, just isn’t workable for their lives.

Essentially an alternative pathway to teaching is a way to take individuals from non-traditional backgrounds and prepare them to be teachers. They might be teaching aides right now. They may be people who are coming to teaching from another workforce area who need to keep their day job to keep their families running. They may need a more flexible schedule for coursework and learning, but they still need a rigorous program to prepare them to teach.

And school districts are really interested in these alternative pathways because they don’t have enough highly qualified teachers who may be multilingual, who really want to work with kids in urban settings, or who are in high-need areas like math and science.

And we need alternative pathways to teaching for rural schools as well as urban sites. Our colleagues in the Ojibwe Nation, for example, are also interested in preparing members of their community to become teachers. They’ve approached members of our faculty saying, “What can we do together to create a grow-your-own program?”

To develop an alternative pathway program we had to think about how we could take the very best of what we know from our comprehensive program and rethink it, redesign it yet again into an alternative pathway program. We knew we would have to front-load some knowledge base, maybe in a summer program. And then to continue to work with the alternative pathway teacher candidates over two years while they co-teach with a highly qualified teacher for a portion of their preparation and then teach on their own while concurrently taking coursework.  

But we knew we wouldn’t be able to have the alternative teacher candidates for an extended period of time before they became the teacher of record in their own classroom. So we had to ask ourselves: What is the most important knowledge and experiences that teacher candidates need to have immediately? How might we front-load that knowledge in a summer residency program where they are studying with us full time, for eight hours a day, for eight weeks, but at the same time putting those ideas into practice by co-teaching with a skilled teacher and working with kids? This intensive summer residency would be the first layer of their preparation — what they need to know and be able to do to be successful as they start teaching in the fall.

As they serve as the teacher of record at the start of the school year, the alternative pathway teacher candidates would still get a lot of support from the university supervisors and school liaisons or mentors as they teach during the day across the first year of teaching.

We will also be continuing to develop their knowledge and pedagogical skills in evening coursework during their first two years of teaching and during special Saturday course experiences. And U of MN supervisors — along with mentor teachers on site — will observe and provide feedback to new alternative pathway teachers as they develop their knowledge and pedagogical skills.

It is important to note that the alternative pathway candidates will be held to the same standards as our comprehensive candidates in terms of the assessments along the way that they would need to complete successfully. They would need to pass the state tests, just like our comprehensive students do, to be recommended by the University of Minnesota for licensure. Alternative pathway candidates would also have the option of earning another six credits on their own — that we are going to make very accessible — that would allow them to earn an M.Ed., a master’s degree.

MP: What you are describing sounds like a model that can be easily adapted to preparing specific groups of teachers.

DD: Yes, we have designed a high quality program, but we can organize the way the program is configured and provided to best meet the needs of groups who partner with us. And the partnership aspect of creating and delivering alternative pathway programs is a critical component of state law.

A partner might be a local school district who seeks to partner to prepare educational aides who might be multilingual at the elementary level. The U of MN would work together with school colleagues to determine how that program could be configured to best meet the needs of the candidates while still providing a quality experience.

We might start with a summer experience, for example, and some school districts might have the financial means to continue to pay their educational aides while they are co-teaching for a year or more beyond the summer intensive work. The district may also exact a promise from the aides that they will continue to work within the district for multiple years if the district invests in their preparation program.

We’ve also learned that many prospective teachers need to work in the summer because their jobs or teaching-aide contracts are only nine months. So we’re going to need to figure out how to work within these parameters. 

Each alternative pathway program may look a little different in its configuration. Professionals who form the partnership will need to figure these details out — including what school sites the preparation program will take place in, and the kind of support that’s going to be offered by the school partner and the university to make the program successful.

In the end, the university will assume the responsibility for recommending candidates for licensure who have completed all program components and assessments in a high-quality manner.  This is because the U — as a nationally accredited institution for teacher preparation — is accountable to the state.

MP: I think that brings us full circle to your first partnership.

DD: Yes. The proposed “Alternative Pathway to Teaching: U of MN-TFA Partnership” will be the first configuration of an alternative pathway to teaching that we have created. I have really enjoyed working with TFA colleagues, Crystal Brakke in particular. Just as university colleagues have rethought their ideas about how to prepare teachers in alternative pathways, so too have the national TFA staff, primarily due to the work of Crystal and her colleagues.

For example, the U of MN-TFA partnership will be the first preparation site that will expand the summer program beyond its traditional five weeks. It’s also been revamped and renamed as a summer residency program because the candidates will co-teach with experienced teachers as they learn to teach. The candidates will also have their preparation program here in Minnesota, vs. being prepared in a state different from the one they are to teach within — which occurs elsewhere across the country.

The TFA teacher candidates’ eight-week summer residency program will be in Minneapolis. Our partner there is the Northside Achievement Zone, which we are very excited about. They have a summer program, but they haven’t had as much of an academic component to it prior to this year, and we will be providing that with the corps members’ work.

Our teacher candidates will be learning and working in the very sites that we want them to be prepared to teach in. This is a very different model for Teach for America.

The corps members are accepted by TFA at their national site, but they will have to be admitted to the University of Minnesota, which means they will have to meet our admissions criteria. So if someone plans to be a secondary science teacher, for instance, they will have to have a science background. In addition, the University of Minnesota will be the licensure recommender at the very end of the program, and we will be holding the corps members to the same accountability standards as our comprehensive program candidates.

We will be preparing teacher candidates in just four areas as we begin our partnership: secondary science; secondary mathematics; K-12 English-language learners, and elementary teachers who will primarily work in bilingual classrooms. These are high-need areas, as expressed by our school partners, who are seeking to hire these individuals.

Teach for America has accepted a group of 42-45. One of the really exciting things I’ve learned about the corps members we’ve accepted is the high percentage of corps members who are persons of color. Of the 31 who have accepted the offer TFA has extended so far, 53 percent received a Pell Grant in college, which is an indicator that TFA uses as a measure of socioeconomic status, or self-identify as a person of color.

When TFA started in Minnesota in 2009, they had about 21 percent of corps members self-identifying as persons of color. They have put, as we have, a lot of emphasis on diversifying their teaching force.

Part of our goal with the TFA corps members we prepare at the University of Minnesota is to ensure that they want to stay in teaching beyond their two-year commitment and beyond the national statistics for TFA. We have a deep commitment to preparing individuals who want to stay in the classroom for four to six years or more. And I think that will play out because our candidates will be well-prepared and supported as they learn to teach and develop as new educators.

We examined five alternative pathway programs nationally and took the very best of those programs, along with our own comprehensive program, to create the partnership with TFA. So, for example, the University of Michigan, which prepares teachers for the Detroit public schools, indicated that their partnership has resulted in a very high percentage of people staying in teaching beyond two years. They are at about 60 percent retention rates of TFA teachers beyond the two-year commitment.

MP: Clearly, you’ve designed this to evolve.

DD: That’s one of the reasons the University of Minnesota was interested in exploring alternative pathways to teaching. We have an active research agenda focused on understanding the best ways to prepare teachers well and keep them in the teaching profession.

And we plan to design a research agenda to study our alternative pathway programs as well. We are not interested in comparing our comprehensive program with alternative pathways because that would be like comparing apples to oranges, but we need to look at our different pathways to teaching to analyze how we are preparing individuals, what’s working with our preparation programs, and what we can continue to create to meet the needs of new teachers.

We are so excited about the future — alternative pathways and partnerships with school colleagues have a lot of our faculty excited because we feel this holds great promise for meeting the needs of our diverse K-12 Minnesota learners.

(Two disclaimers — one standard and one new: Teach for America Co-CEO Matt Kramer is the son of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer. Matt is married to TFA alum Katie Barrett Kramer. His brother Eli Kramer is married to TFA’s senior managing director of alumni engagement, Jessica Cordova Kramer. None of the aforementioned Kramers were involved in the preparation of this interview.

This blog is supported by a grant from the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation, which has also supported the U of M’s work on redesigning teacher preparation. The author is grateful to Associate Dean Dillon for mentioning this support; otherwise I wouldn’t have known a second disclosure was in order.)