By Katharine WebsterIn her short tenure as dean of SNHU’s School of Education, Mary Heath beefed up the faculty, shepherded the school through accreditation, and added a host of new programs online and on campus, including a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction and a Master of Education for school principals. As she handed over the reins in February to new Dean Mark McQuillan, former Connecticut education commissioner, they talked with The Extra Mile about innovation and the future of education. The following is distilled from that conversation.
How are you training teachers for the 21st century, and what role does technology play?
Heath: Our students are learning how to employ Skype, WebQuest, iPads and interactive whiteboards to help pupils learn – technologies that public school teachers are still trying to grapple with. Then they’re using those technologies in the classrooms where they student-teach. So not only our student teachers, but the district teachers are learning as well, and our students and the public school pupils are the winners.
McQuillan: Our graduates must be trained to provide online and face-to-face instruction. They have to master the whole repertoire. Let’s say they teach in a rural district or an urban district where there is little or no technology: They’d better be equipped to teach without it.
Can your students take classes online?Heath: Our undergrads mostly do traditional, face-to-face learning in the classroom, because that’s how they are going to teach and we want to model how to do that effectively. However, they can take many of their general education and subject area classes online.
McQuillan: A survey course is quite amenable to online learning. Let’s say you’re planning to be a social studies teacher and you need to take a course in American history; you can easily do that online.
Heath: Hybrid instruction is the best of all worlds. We do a lot of that, where you might have a face-to-face class once a week and then supplement that with an online class once a week. Our Master of Curriculum and Instruction can be done completely online, but we’ve found that most students prefer a mix of face-to-face, online and hybrid classes.
Apart from state-mandated testing, how do you judge when a student teacher is ready to lead a classroom?Heath: Our candidates have to go out and do early field experiences, looking at things like the learning environment and lesson planning. When they start their student teaching, they meet weekly with a supervising teacher. The whole time, they’re also building an e-portfolio that shows evidence of their ability to teach, assess their students’ progress and demonstrate mastery of their subject area. In the portfolio will be a video clip of that student teaching, pictures of the classroom and assignments completed by their pupils. We teach them that every single thing they’re learning has to connect with the learning of their pupils, and evidence that their pupils are learning, based on a set of standards.
McQuillan: It’s no longer acceptable to talk about preparing a teacher by saying they’ve taken three credits in mathematics methods or six credits in elementary teaching philosophy. We have to see boots-on-the-ground demonstrations of what they know and are able to do, measured by a set of competencies. But measuring those competencies well and reliably is not easy.
What are the biggest challenges facing the School of Education right now?
McQuillan: A major challenge facing all schools of education is that under proposed legislation, our federal funding could become dependent on our ability to train “highly effective teachers,” as defined by the government. That’s huge: That means we’re going to measure the success of the School of Education by the success of the pupils that SNHU students have taught. Forty-five states have agreed to a set of common core standards in reading and math, but with the federal government now calling for highly effective teachers in all subjects and schools, we have to figure out how to assess pupils in science, social studies and other subjects. How do you measure the effectiveness of an art teacher? We not only have to design better assessment tools, but figure out how to use those tools creatively and skillfully to ensure that all students learn. We also must strive to place highly effective teachers and principals in the neediest schools in the country, to break the cycle of academic failure based on income inequality. Achievement gaps are widespread among the urban poor.
What new programs do you have in the pipeline?
Heath: The principals program has been running for one year now, and we’ll start offering a doctorate of Education Leadership this July.
McQuillan: Under No Child Left Behind, the focus for the past 10 years has been on training highly qualified teachers, with limited attention to the administrators who lead them. Principals are an essential part of school reform: principals who can actually supervise, evaluate and lead fledgling young teachers to high levels of expertise. We also need superintendents and curriculum administrators who can help guide the way and support them with resources – and who have a clear sense of urgency. So I really want to be tackling the leadership doctorate of education with everything I’ve got, because we’re not going to solve our problems by working with teachers alone. It’s the whole enchilada: principals, superintendents, community leaders, parents and support staff. And actually, the whole enchilada starts with early childhood education for 3- and 4-year-olds.
Heath: That’s why we need an early childhood education center here at SNHU. We need universal preschool.
McQuillan: I agree. We know now, after years of research, that the most critical period of learning, brain maturation, development and language acquisition in
children is from birth until kindergarten. And yet we don’t have any public school
districts or states focused on 3- and 4-year-olds like they focus on high schools. It’s stunning – and yet, as a matter of public policy, that’s where the game is won.
Mark, if you could bring one innovation to the School of Education, what would it be?McQuillan: If we could build a three-year, competency-based program for students to receive a bachelor’s degree, and then complete a master’s degree in the fourth year while working full-time in the districts and earning a partial salary, that would be a breakthrough. It would be similar to SNHU’s three-year, competency-based degree in business administration. At other universities, these so-called residency programs last five or six years, but that’s very expensive. If we split the cost with the school districts during that fourth year, the students get a master’s degree for a lower price than a typical four-year college education. Everybody wins.
Heath: That’s in the spirit of what university President Paul LeBlanc is trying to do: reduce the cost of education loans for our students. So you’re getting four years, a master’s degree, excellent preparation, and almost a surety that you’re going to be hired by a school district if you do a good job. It’s the best of all worlds.
McQuillan: Fortunately, at SNHU we have the support of the president and provost to experiment, and innovate, and bring our innovations to scale. That’s what makes this job so attractive.