By Lauren Matlach, Daniela Fairchild, and Sarah Whiting
We’ve all witnessed the education blame game. Our education system is imperfect and, at times, it’s easier to blame someone else than to own the part we play in failing our students. Over the past few years, teacher preparation programs have become a favorite punching bag of the media. Tomorrow’s educators are not prepared for today’s students—and that’s a huge problem. But, rather than point fingers, Rhode Island PK-12 educators and preparation programs rolled up their sleeves this past year and asked, “What happens when PK-12 educators and preparation programs work together to innovatively solve problems?”
In 2017-18, eighteen PK-12 educators served as Ed Prep Design Fellows. Fellows met five times to deepen their knowledge of educator preparation context and best practices while engaging in the design thinking process. During the fellowship, educators had the opportunity to meet with educator preparation program leaders and learn more about the challenges our prep programs face, the efforts they have made already, and more specifics about the future teachers they serve.
At the same time, educator preparation program leaders participated in a “catalyst speaker” series, where they had the opportunity to hear from leaders in the field about supporting future teachers from underrepresented backgrounds. During her discussion, Monika Williams Shealey, Dean of Rowan University, challenged program leaders to think about change management and how to gain buy in for diversity initiatives. During a discussion with Travis Rogers from ETS, programs learned about best and emerging practices related to the recruitment and support of underrepresented candidates. In addition, program leaders engaged in solutions-oriented conversations focused on how they could make a difference through design-thinking activities.
And all participants—the Ed Prep Design Fellows and preparation program leaders–shadowed an educator candidate for a day to better understand the candidate experience.
This parallel and ongoing professional learning culminated in Rhode Island’s Ed Prep Design Challenge. The first of its kind in the nation (as far as we know), the Ed Prep Design Challenge encouraged PK-12 educators, through our Ed Prep Design Fellows, and RI educator preparation programs to come together to address an issue or problem in educator preparation in an innovative way. Over the past two months, teams have worked arduously to brainstorm challenges, collaboratively identify potential solutions, and co-develop proposals. Proposals included improved preparation to serve English language learners, redesigned and more intentional clinical experiences for our future educators, and shared ongoing professional learning experiences that connect prep program faculty, future educators, and current PK-12 educators.
The Ed Prep Design Challenge generated new ideas, but, more important, it allowed for transparent and vulnerable conversations about the challenges that PK-12 districts and prep programs face regarding the recruitment, preparation, and support of new educators. During the problem-identification conversations, we stopped seeing finger pointing and instead witnessed co-ownership of challenges and solutions. We have seen teams collaborate to better serve our future educators in Rhode Island. And our teams are motivated to continue to iterate and improve their craft—not just because of this design challenge, but because of the enthusiasm and care with which teams approach their work.
So where do things stand now? On August 15, five finalists–of nine applicant teams–pitched their ideas to a panel of local and national judges in hopes of winning $15,000 to support bringing their idea to life. Think Shark Tank for ed prep, with an equally tough panel of judges!
After hearing the pitches, the judges awarded implementation grants to two winning teams. Michael Broschart (Teach for America), Alexa Brunton (New England Basecamp), and Maureen Rooney (U.S. State Department) received a grant to pilot a yearlong professional learning community and mentorship for new teachers of English language learners. Kelly Donnell (Roger Williams University), Theresa DeRiso (Lincoln Public Schools), Liz Russillo (Smithfield Public Schools), and Alicia Storey (Westerly Public Schools) received a grant to determine “power standards” for Teachers of English as a Second Language (TESOL) and then create a bank of calibrated videos and accompanying feedback that differentiates between practice that approaches and meets standard.
The challenge may be complete, but the work continues. Even though two teams walked away with the prize money, all participants have gained important perspectives, ideas, and a new professional community. Multiple teams have shared that they intend to try to implement their ideas even though they did not win funding—proving that sometimes the most powerful work we can do to improve education is to listen to a different perspective, roll up our sleeves, and work together.
Interested in learning more about the Ed Prep Fellowship and Design Challenge?
- Educator Preparation Fellowship and Design Challenge
- RIDE and Office of Innovation Award $30,000 to Improve Teacher Preparation
Lauren Matlach and Sarah Whiting are Education Specialists at the Rhode Island Department of Education. Daniela Fairchild is the Director of Education at the Rhode Island Office of Innovation.