Collaborative master’s degree program

Strengthening urban teaching at no cost to students

11/19/2010  |  KURT BROBECK
public/private partnerships
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A new master’s degree program at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development set some hearts racing when it was announced in February. The program essentially offered a master’s degree from one of the nation’s top education schools at no cost. In return, students accepted for the program would have to make a five-year teaching commitment to Nashville’s public school system.

The program, Teaching and Learning in Urban Schools (TLUS), has deeper aspirations than graduating a few more teachers with master’s degrees. Its planners want to strengthen teaching in all Nashville middle schools (grades five–eight) by better preparing teachers for the particular challenges of urban education. Vanderbilt and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) have collaborated to develop the curriculum, which is open to newly licensed college graduates, as well as experienced teachers. Coursework is spread over two years during which students also teach full-time in MNPS schools. After receiving their degrees, participants must teach an additional three years in Metro.

Camilla P. Benbow, dean of Peabody College, expects the program to accomplish three things. First and foremost, she says, it will strengthen teaching for Nashville middle school children in the critical areas of math, science and literacy. Each participant in the program must choose a concentration in one of these three areas. Benbow, a member of the National Science Board and a nationally recognized expert in talent identification and development, says, “There is no success in life without success in these subject areas.”

Second, Benbow says the program should enroll “good teach teachers who want to become great teachers.” This means knowing their subjects, being able to tailor instruction to meet student needs, being able to measure learning appropriately, and having the ability to reflect on and improve their own practice.

The third outcome, Benbow hopes, will be a stronger partnership between Vanderbilt and Nashville’s public schools. “We believe we have much to offer in education expertise,” she says, “and we also think that MNPS has a lot to teach us about the challenges of urban education.”

“This program will serve multiple purposes,” MNPS Director of Schools Jesse Register said in February when the program was announced. “It will provide top training to our teachers, which will directly impact classroom instruction, and it will assist in our recruitment of the country’s most talented and promising young teachers.”

The admissions process for the first cohort of students operated on an accelerated timetable in order to launch in the summer, but initial results were promising. Vanderbilt fielded hundreds of inquiries and reviewed more than 200 applications from individuals in 23 states. Sixteen were selected for admission after also being approved (and in some cases hired) by MNPS. Classes started in July.

Prior teaching experience among students in TLUS varies from novice teachers to those with more than a decade. Perhaps because of that, students in TLUS face differing kinds of challenges. LaToya Anderson was already a teacher in MNPS before beginning the program. However, she had spent the previous three years teaching kindergarten. “Most of my experiences have been with young children, so the program presented the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about teaching adolescents,” said Anderson, who is now a literacy teacher at Nashville’s Litton Middle School.

Despite the shift in student ages, Anderson is finding the transition manageable. “I am learning educational theory, current research, and issues facing students, families, and teachers in urban schools, in particular. The great thing about the program is that nothing is taught in isolation; we are expected to go to our classrooms and implement best practices under guidance from our supervisors and instructors. The real world application of learning is a challenge, but it makes the information real and meaningful for me.”

Justin Poythress, at Wright Middle School, graduated from Vanderbilt in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. He is excited about returning for a master’s degree. Now in his second year as a teacher, he has moved from teaching social studies in an affluent suburban county to teaching sixth grade mathematics in a school that includes about 60 percent minority students, many of whom are English language learners. Poythress says he values the fact that several of his peers in the program also teach at Wright. “It’s better than having each one of us at different schools. You feel closeness and understanding with the people you have class with, but you’re seeing them once a week for a couple hours. The people who are at the school I know a lot better because I see them every day. It’s good to know that others are going through the same process.”

Six faculty members within Peabody’s Department of Teaching and Learning are directly involved in the TLUS program on a day-to-day basis. They teach seminars on urban education as well as classes in the three concentrations. Three of them also act as onsite coaches in the schools. Senior faculty members at Peabody have been deeply involved in shaping the content of the curriculum.

Sharon Yates, who directs the program, is one of several faculty members who work hands-on with the TLUS students in their assigned schools. She spends four mornings each week observing and coaching in classroom settings. Yates says she is already seeing a broader impact on the teaching culture of the schools in which TLUS students are placed. “The principals have been wonderfully receptive and have welcomed us with open arms. In addition to doing the coaching, we are also doing a great deal of professional development,” she says. “I’ve done several sessions with the faculty at Wright, and Bailey [Middle School], and Litton. What we try to do is send the message that while we are there to work with our master’s program, we’re happy to provide resources to any teacher in that building to the extent we have the time to do so.”

Indeed, time can be the critical factor when you are juggling a career as a full-time teacher with in-depth study in a rigorous master’s degree program. “If there’s one word I would use to encapsulate my life right now I would say busy,” says Poythress. “There are a lot of demands on my time, but that’s part of what I signed up for. It’s good to do it earlier in my life, and it’s manageable.”

For her part, LaToya Anderson is taking to heart the Peabody College belief that an effective teacher is always thinking about his or her practice. “The main change in my teaching practice is that I am becoming more reflective; I have to constantly self-assess and determine what is working, what is not working, and why. I am slowly becoming more willing to try approaches to instruction that are research driven. That is a big step for me — not to rely so heavily upon district curriculum, but to be more willing to branch out and to incorporate other valuable approaches to instruction, as well.”

To learn more about the program, inquiries should be directed to the Peabody Office of Graduate Admissions at 615-322-8410. Information can also be found on the Web at http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/mnps.xml

Kurt Brobeck is director of communications for Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

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