Conveying urgency is deans’ work

Bill McDiarmid is an Alumni Distinguished Professor and formerly dean of the School of Education at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Dr. McDiarmid is also a facilitator and advisor to Impact Academy, a year-long fellowship and leadership development experience for deans. In this post, Dr. McDiarmid argues that communicating a sense of urgency is part of the work of leadership – a topic we also tackle over the course of the fellowship through case studies of our member programs. Through his work with Impact Academy, Dr. McDiarmid helps us build a professional network of Fellows and member deans who are collectively working to improve educator preparation and elevate the teaching profession.

Outside of medical schools, urgency is not a term typically associated with the academy. “Complacency” is the term Harry Judge, in his 1983 study of education schools, used to describe the state of American teacher education. And more than 20 years later, James Fraser’s excellent history of teacher preparation in the U.S. captures how the field, over time and in spite of pointed criticism, just kept on keeping on.

Events over the past several decades have rocked that complacency, and at no other moment in the history of U.S. teacher education has communicating to teacher-preparation faculty the urgency of improving the enterprise been more important. We must improve the enterprise not for its own sake, but for the learning and life chances of the many children and youth long denied the resources essential for success. Foremost among those resources is a well-prepared, skillful, and committed teacher. For deans, this has to be a top priority.

A series of external pressures and threats has steadily ramped up this sense of urgency.

First, the standards and accountability movement, prompted in large part by the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 and initially focused on P-12 schools, caught up with teacher-preparation programs in the late 1990s. Federal policies – notably, Title II of the Higher Education Act, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top – required schools of education to collect and make public evidence of their impact on K-12 pupil learning.

As the accountability pressure from federal legislation mounted, accreditors began to shift their focus from inputs to outcomes. First, the upstart Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC) required evidence of program impact of pupil learning, followed quickly by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). The marriage of NCATE and TEAC (to create the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation) begat rigorous new program standards that require evidence of graduates’ impact on student learning.

The pressure from federal legislators and accrediting bodies was magnified by attention from another external organization: the National Council on Teacher Quality, which was founded in 2000. NCTQ publishes annual rankings of teacher-preparation programs, generating more external public pressure on programs to demonstrate their effectiveness. As if all these accountability pressure were not enough, alternative pathways to the profession have proliferated over the past four decades, often competing with university-based programs for candidates.

In short, to say that some schools of education and their teacher-preparation programs are facing an existential threat is no exaggeration. Many deans confront this reality daily. Yet faculty and other program personnel are often insulated, to various degrees, from this reality. They are fully engaged in the demanding work of teaching and supervising candidates. Moreover, close scrutiny and criticism of their work leaves many of them demoralized and defensive. Little wonder that many keep their heads down, try to ignore the critics, and just do their best.

The heightened external scrutiny and threats can lead teacher-preparation programs to assume a stance of compliance rather than of inquiry and continuous improvement. Yet research suggests that focusing solely on compliance with regulations can lead, in some contexts, to resistance, mistrust, and obfuscation within an organization. Successful leaders, on the other hand, appeal to the values and commitments of the people in the organization. They rally folks to the mission of the enterprise even as they also ensure that external expectations and regulations are met.

As educational leaders, a primary task is to remind those we lead of the moral and ethical imperative of the work we do. The work we do is urgent. Every day, we lose students who become discouraged and leave our schools. Every day, too many students are denied access to the knowledge needed to realize their potential.

The sense of urgency we feel comes from the responsibility we share, as educators, to improve learning for all students. As teacher-educators, this means constantly pursuing the evidence that would help us to better prepare our teacher-candidates. And as deans, this means infusing our words and deeds with the urgency the situation demands. Complacency is not an option.

New deans face a daunting task. They must navigate an opaque bureaucracy, establish credibility, nurture productive relationships, and figure out a complex environment – and that’s just within the dean’s office! But, somehow, they must also lead and energize the push to improve the teacher-preparation program. Impact Academy is a chance to figure out how to lead improvement work in the company of both other novices and experienced veterans who share a sense of urgency.

Bill McDiarmid

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