The power of partnerships
You wouldn’t expect to get better at something – writing, say – without receiving feedback on your performance. Feedback has a widely accepted role to play in any improvement process.
Similarly, educator-preparation programs that want to consistently educate teachers who are prepared to be good on day one and great over time need detailed feedback in order to identify what they’re doing right, and where they need to improve.
This feedback could take the form of data on their graduates’ employment, retention or teacher-evaluation results, made available through a state-wide data system. And indeed, that’s one of the recommendations we made in the policy brief we released earlier this year. But for educator-preparation programs that don’t yet have access to these kinds of state-wide systems, partnerships with K-12 districts and schools can also provide important data-informed feedback.
I saw examples of what this can look like this spring when I had the opportunity to visit programs run by two deans who are members of Deans for Impact: Loyola Marymount University’s School of Education in Los Angeles, Calif., and the University of Nevada-Reno’s College of Education. The two programs are operating in very different contexts and have formed very different partnerships with local K-12 institutions, but both have been able to leverage those partnerships to gain insight and feedback on their performance.
I’ll return to the University of Nevada-Reno in a later post, but today, I want to focus on LMU, which sits in the heart of Los Angeles’ sprawling educational landscape. The LA Unified School District has more than 640,000 students and is the second largest school district in the country. The region also has significant numbers of charter and parochial schools.
Under the leadership of Dean Shane P. Martin, LMU’s School of Education maintains relationships with dozens of schools and multiple districts in order to provide its candidates with diverse clinical experiences. But Dean Martin recognized that LMU could also identify a limited number of schools that could serve as a demonstration space for the School of Education – places where it could try new things, learn and adapt, and then apply what it learned across all its programs and school sites.
Playa Vista Elementary School, which opened in 2012, is one of those demonstration schools—a partnership between LMU, the LA Unified School District, and the Playa Vista community. Playa Vista Elementary is a traditional, neighborhood-zoned public school – but it is also unusual in many ways. For one, it integrates STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) across its curriculum; teachers don’t teach math or science in isolated segments, but instead weave it throughout other subjects, like social studies and English language arts. Additionally, teachers at Playa Vista use an inquiry-based approach to instruction and learning, which emphasizes exploring the natural or material world in ways that lead to asking questions, making discoveries and developing new understanding.
LMU maintains a deep relationship with the school: more than 50 student teachers have been placed there since the school opened, and LMU faculty provide ongoing support and professional development for the school’s teachers. They also teach some of the program’s teacher-education courses at Playa Vista. Most recently, LMU used its partnership with Playa Vista to pilot a new approach to teaching elementary methods.
Elementary-education teacher candidates traditionally take separate methods courses for each subject: they learn how to teach math in a math methods course, English Language Arts in an ELA methods and so on. Playa Vista’s integrated STEM curriculum gave LMU faculty the idea to combine all those courses into one and to teach candidates how to approach teaching the various subjects they’ll be responsible for in a more holistic way. The pilot course that resulted from this idea – a STEM Literacy methods course – is taught onsite at Playa Vista to LMU teacher candidates by a team of instructors, including an LMU teacher-educator and several Playa Vista elementary teachers.
As a result, LMU’s faculty have been able to learn directly from Playa Vista’s teachers about what it looks like to integrate STEM across a curriculum. What does that integration mean for classroom practice? What does it mean for how we teach future teachers? LMU faculty and Playa Vista teachers have been able to develop the trust that makes it possible for them to co-teach the course – allowing LMU teacher candidates (even those not currently doing a clinical placement at Playa Vista) to benefit directly from the experience of practicing teachers.
Most importantly, LMU is able to empirically test the results of the pilot through a grant it received to conduct an evaluation, which will draw on observations, interviews, and results from a diagnostic tool that asks candidates about the nature of science. Student performance data will also be included (if they can be shared; in California, as in many states, there are concerns about student and teacher privacy). The results will inform broader, program-wide changes.
During my visit, some teacher candidates did question whether the Playa Vista environment was too unique. Many schools within the LA Unified School District use a more traditional curriculum – math is taught during math time, and reading during reading – with all teachers at a given grade level required to teach the same content at the same time. Will Playa Vista’s inquiry-based, integrated-STEM approach work in a more structured environment?
That question remains to be answered. In the meantime, the LMU-Playa Vista partnership offers one example of how educator-preparation programs can work with practicing teachers to get real-life feedback on what actually works in the classroom – and then identify how to teach that to future teachers.