A look under the hood: teacher prep at the University of Idaho

In September, I had the chance to get out of the office and dig into the real work of teacher preparation. I traveled to Moscow, Idaho – a community of about 25,000 people located about six hours north of Boise – to visit the University of Idaho’s College of Education as part of the first Deans for Impact Learning Tour.

Through these Learning Tours, Deans for Impact staff and member deans will be traveling around the country to see our members’ programs first-hand, so we can talk about teacher preparation in ways that go deeper than surface-level pronouncements and show the successes — and challenges — of teacher preparation from the ground up.

The most striking aspect of our visit – and one reason why I believe that policymakers should spend time on the ground at teacher preparation programs – is the unique complexity that different programs face in preparing teachers.

Teacher candidates’ schedules are determined, not only by the courses offered by the College of Education, but also by the courses that they are taking in other academic units that do not coordinate with the COE program. This leads to conflicts and time-management issues. But scheduling is only one such challenge. Clinical placements are another. The College of Education aims to provide high- quality clinical experiences, and to do so they rely on their local K-12 districts and schools. Each district – even each school – handles clinical placements differently, and placement availability varies by year, even by semester.

Then there are the complexities that come from serving a diverse set of schools. The University of Idaho serves the Moscow school district, which is relatively urban, as well as rural school districts, including schools with high Native American populations and remote schools in blue collar communities. Finally, there are simple logistics: while it’s appropriate for policymakers to push for teacher-candidates to have high-quality clinical placements, what happens when the commute to a rural district is one hour each way – and when many teacher-candidates don’t even own a car?

While the faculty at the College of Education are undertaking their own internal process to revamp their program, one big question is what policymakers can do to help them out, given these and other challenges. The first answer that comes to mind is that policymakers can listen: across the country, as other states have taken on teacher preparation reform through the Council of Chief State School Officers Network for Transforming Educator Preparation, a key takeaway has been the importance of stakeholder engagement. In short, the people making policy need to learn about the conditions on the ground, from the people doing the work of preparing teachers.

More specifically, policymakers can set up lines of communication between school districts and teacher preparation programs, facilitating the exchange of data and information on district needs and program graduates’ performance. While this would not solve issues of transportation and scheduling, it would certainly allow preparation programs to work more closely with the schools and communities they serve, and, in the case of the University of Idaho, to tailor the preparation of teachers to teaching practice as it occurs in rural Idaho.

And just maybe, when policymakers are made aware of the unique needs of rural teacher preparation, maybe they can come up with some unique solutions: a pool of cars for the use of teacher preparation students, or a state-funded position to coordinate placements of candidate across programs and districts, are two possibilities that come to mind.

What I’ve described here is only a hint of the complexity of preparing teachers, but my prevailing impression of the visit was not of the challenges that educator-preparation programs face, but rather of the efforts already underway to take them on, and to seek out ways to improve the preparation of teachers. In my role as vice president of policy at Deans for Impact, I intend to help create the conditions under which such efforts can thrive. The will for improvement already exists in our members’ programs. It is up to us to find ways to support and empower them, and I’m excited to be a part of that.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of an ongoing series about the educator-preparation programs led by Deans for Impact members. The posts reflect insights from Deans for Impact Learning Tours, multi-day visits by staff and member deans to programs led by our members. These visits are opportunities for transparent discussion about the triumphs and the challenges involved in implementing the guiding principles of Deans for Impact.

Steve Wojcikiewicz

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