Teaching teachers

Blame game must end for schools to improve, says new dean of CU education school

PHOTO: Courtesy of CU
Kathy Schultz is the new dean of the School at Education at the University of Colorado.

BOULDER — There’s a new dean in town.

And she wants to make teaching fun and intellectual again.

Kathy Schultz, who will begin her role as dean of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Education in August, said in a wide-ranging interview with Chalkbeat that everyone needs to stop blaming each other for a broken school system and that teachers should be given more autonomy and better training based on individual needs.

Schultz currently runs the School of Education at Mills College, a liberal arts college in Oakland, Calif. She will succeed Lorrie Shepard, who led the school at CU for 15 years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you getting settled in Boulder?
It’s been great. I’ve been able to meet with Lorrie about once a month.

This is such a strong school of education. What I really want to do is build on its strengths. I want to build on all the incredible programs going on already, while bringing in my own vision to support people to move forward.

There is an incredible faculty here. And from what I know, an incredible group of students. The kinds of programs and the research agenda and community engagement that people are doing make it really strong. The scholars here are nationally and internationally recognized. There’s this very nice combination of people committed to educational research and educational practice and educational policy. That kind of combination is really rare.

What is your vision for the school?
To really flesh out what my vision is, I need to keep learning about what’s being done here. My work has been in preparing urban teachers. One of the things that’s very interesting to me is that this school is not located in an urban center. I think that presents really interesting possibilities. I will continue to be very interested in understanding what the connections can be in Denver while thinking about how to look at underserved populations in rural areas.

As a dean, I’ve become increasingly interested in education policy. I really do see this as a place where there are a lot of people working on issues. There’s an opportunity to highlight our role in participating in public conversations.

The Denver-metro area student population is changing very quickly, in part to gentrification.
That’s one of the big issues I’ve been working on in Oakland: How are we responsible to these new and changing groups of students? I think that’s very relevant here. How do we think about changing demographics? What are our responsibilities? And what are our responses?

What are the responsibilities for schools of education?
It’s really important that schools of education present themselves as in the conversation, not the experts who are going to determine the conversation. So I’d like to think of the walls as being really porous. As a school of education, we should be learning from the community and using the external resources of the community to inform the courses we’re providing. At the same time, we’re not only educating the students in our walls, but (asking), ‘How do we contribute to the larger education of the community?’ Again, this school does this a lot. More and more schools of education have that obligation: take in knowledge, but also contribute knowledge through scholarship and research and through practice like professional development for teachers and policy briefs.

Many states, including California and Colorado, are in the midst of teacher shortages. What should teacher colleges be doing to address this? What have you done?
The figures are incredible in California: Over the last 10 years there’s been a 75 percent drop in people going into teaching. So that’s been a huge concern both for the health of the teacher education programs and school districts.

One of the things CU Boulder is doing is developing a new major for undergraduates. This major is being connected to leadership and civic engagement. It’s just such a strong move for the university to be making. What this means is that when students come in as freshmen, they have opportunities to think about teaching and think of it as being closely connected to community engagement work.

I think this generation of students, of youth, is interested in making a difference and being engaged in community. I think there’s less and less of an interest in just being a teacher.

Partly that’s because teaching is being de-professionalized. It’s not intellectual work in the same way it used to be.

That’s one way to work on it: make it a better profession.

Are we asking too much of our teachers?
I think what’s important is that when you have greater demands there should be greater rewards. And I’m not just saying financial rewards — although that would help. I’m also saying, make it so that teaching continues to be a rewarding profession. There just has to be a real, greater appreciation for teachers.

One of the things that happens in education is that there is this revolving set of targets for who to blame. It’s the parents or the children who are being blamed. More recently it’s been the teachers and the teacher educators. Some people would say the truth is it’s none of those — it’s poverty.

I don’t think it’s helpful to blame any group, or even poverty. I do think poverty is an underlying cause and needs to be addressed. People can’t learn if they don’t have breakfast. But I think that rather than blaming, there has to be a focus on, ‘What are the rewards? How do you recognize the successes of teachers?’

How do you make it so it feels not like a losing, overwhelming job — because people will leave it. And they do. It’s not only that people aren’t going into teaching. It’s that people are leaving too quickly. We not only have to get more people into teaching, but we especially need to work on retaining teachers.

At Mills, we put a lot of effort into programs to support teachers through their first three or four years of teaching. If you can get teachers to stay for three to five years, it’s more likely that they’ll stay longer. It’s that revolving door that is really creating the shortage.

What was your program at Mills like?
Teachers would come together once a month. They would bring questions from their classroom. Now, it’s really structured on teachers doing practitioner research in their own classrooms. We’ve developed it so principals are supporting whole schools to do this work.

Teachers feel like professionals. They’re actually doing research. They’re feeling respected for doing it. They’re teaching is improving. And they’re talking every month with their colleagues about a puzzle they have about teaching. And collecting data about it.

What could lawmakers do to improve the teaching profession?
For schools to succeed, teaching has to be a respected profession. And I think that means we need to attract the most excited and engaged people into teaching. That includes salary and work conditions. It’s really tied to the demands on teachers.

How do we both hold high expectations and give teachers autonomy? One of the ways that teaching doesn’t feel like a profession now is when teachers are given very little autonomy and are told what to do. That’s because accountability is held at such a premium.

I think the Every Student Succeeds Act is flawed in many ways that No Child Left Behind was. But I think more local control is a good thing. And the state would do well to give more local control.

I’m for even more than local control. I’ve written a lot about how teaching is about listening to students. So when I talk about standards, I talk in a way about respecting students’ own standards. I think we need to pay lots of attention to who students are and build curriculum around that.

That’s doesn’t mean as a country we don’t have high expectations. You don’t have to have national standards to hold high expectations for everybody. This is a cliche, but there is a difference between standards and standardization.

If you were going to open up a school for the 21st century, what would it look like?
It would be open to the community and it wouldn’t be just from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. It would be porous to the community. I think students would be able to pursue their interests. It would be well-resourced. There would be structure for people who need structure.

The idea of who is a teacher would be greatly expanded. There would not only be the people who are paid to teach, but also community members would be teachers and maybe students would be teachers.

There would be very high expectations. Maybe clear graduation requirements that would be adaptable to how the world is changing. It would have plenty of technology, as well as technology free spaces so there could be different forms of creativity.

… That sounds pretty romantic.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Mills College is an all-women’s institution. It serves both genders.  

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.