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Fixing the education pipeline

Posted by Apr 27th, 2011.

This post was submitted by Dr. Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York and the co-creator of Strive.

I’ll say at the outset that as an outsider to Colorado politics, I am not an expert on the candidates who are running to be the next mayor of Denver. But as a lifelong educator who has studied urban school issues for decades and helped create and implement successful reforms in Cincinnati and other cities, I would offer this advice to start: Elect the candidate who can bring this community together on education reform.

This is not simply a matter of opinion. Rather, it is a growing national consensus and the thrust behind a data-driven, evidence-based movement that’s been gathering steam among educators in recent years: In order to have educated, successful adults, we need to construct a solid education pipeline that runs straight from cradle to career. I readily accepted the invitation to participate in this week’s Great Teachers for Our City Schools National Summit in Denver because I see it as an excellent opportunity to share inspiring data on what’s happening in a few cities around the country.

The first five years of a child’s life are crucial in building a strong foundation for lifelong learning skills like critical thinking, language development, and problem-solving and social skills. This naturally leads to the idea that children need to be guided into education very early in life, and be programmatically supported in and out of the school setting all the way along the pipeline to ensure that they are prepared to succeed every step of the way until they begin their careers.

What we are finding is that there is an answer to this dauntingly tall order, and it lies in adopting a collaborative approach to building and strengthening the pipeline. In short, there is no single answer, no Superman solution and no silver bullet when it comes to education reform. It takes time, and lots of hard work from invested and interested community stakeholders to effect positive change.

Enter the Strive framework for education reform, a collective-impact approach, that I helped create in 2006. Since then, Strive’s “cradle-to-career” networks have made remarkable advances in public school districts in greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. Measurable improvements include increases in the number of preschool children prepared for kindergarten, improved fourth-grade reading and math scores and higher rates of high school graduation. Even college enrollment among graduates from public high schools has gone up by 10 percent. And at Northern Kentucky University and the University of Cincinnati, graduation rates for students from the local urban area high schools have increased by 10 and 7 percent, respectively.

The success of the Strive approach is based on the commitment of its influential, motivated participants from different sectors—local government, business, school districts, universities and colleges and non-profit and advocacy groups—who have collaborated to solve a specific social problem—rethinking, reorganizing, and redirecting existing resources to promulgate systemic changes and new approaches to problem solving that works. The framework is not meant to be a cookie cutter; rather, it is meant to be adapted to local needs. This is the key to Strive’s success, as we’ve begun to see in Houston; Oakland; Portland, Ore., and parts of New York state, where the Strive approach is being used.

We can have all the valuable, brilliant resources in the world in place to make sure that pipeline is continuous and secure—but none of that will matter if we don’t have effectively trained teachers in our classrooms, successfully guiding and supporting students every step of the way.

It’s clear then that an essential aspect of education reform must be concentrating our efforts on teacher education and preparation, making absolutely certain that every teacher who enters the classroom is clinically prepared, both pedagogically and in subject matter, with the same kind of readiness we’d expect of a pilot in a cockpit.

Last year, I co-chaired the Blue Ribbon Panel convened by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) that, in itself, represented a largely unprecedented consensus. State officials, P-12 and higher education leaders, teachers, teacher educators, union representatives and critics of teacher education were all represented on the panel, which uniformly called for system-wide changes in how the U.S. prepares and supports its 4 million teachers.

A major recommendation of the panel was to move teacher preparation to a clinically based model. This will involve a major structural change, shifting responsibility and accountability for teacher preparation from solely that of higher education to a shared P-12/higher education model.

It makes sense. Teachers who serve districts rife with economic and social challenges that inevitably manifest themselves in struggling public schools not only require, but deserve, the most sophisticated, best quality clinical practice preparation if they’re going to be effective in the classroom. And teacher support can’t end with the awarding of a degree: higher education should be a constant resource for training and best practices for P-12 educators for the length of their careers.

It is a myth that one person or group can cure our education ills by themselves, no matter how visionary or passionate. Only by working together, by engaging public and private institutions of higher education, public schools, civic leaders and elected officials, will we see real, measurable, and sustainable results. Success in Denver—and in every U.S. school district—will rise or fall on collaboration, on how successfully we rally all stakeholders around a common effort to achieve our goals and implement meaningful reform.

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One Response to “Fixing the education pipeline”

  1. Mark Sass says:

    Dr. Zimpher, can I interest you in a job as commissioner of schools for the state of Colorado?

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