Teaching in urban schools

08/21/2012  |  BY JENNIFER WETZEL, KURT BROBECK and ANN MARIE DEER OWENS
Specialized Graduate Programs
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The first graduates from a two-year master’s degree program offered at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development in partnership with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

One of the nation’s highest ranking schools of education is offering a free master’s degree while seeking to improve student outcomes in some of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

Fourteen students with a commitment to improving teaching in urban middle schools were the first to graduate last May from a two-year master’s degree program offered at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development in partnership with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

“How can we create classrooms that move students from
unwilling and disaffected ...
to willing and engaged ...?”

The master’s degree program in Teaching and Learning in Urban Schools was instituted and welcomed its first cohort in 2010, after Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Jesse Register approached Vanderbilt about developing the program.  Working in partnership, Peabody and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools were able to establish precisely focused goals for improving teaching effectiveness and student outcomes.

The program provides capability for enhanced instructional effectiveness, improved student learning and increased retention of excellent teachers among the most difficult-to-staff Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Open to newly licensed as well as existing teachers, students attend the program tuition free and agree to teach in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools for five years — two years while enrolled in the degree program and three years following graduation. Peabody discounts the students’ tuition, with the difference paid by the school system.

While enrolled, students are able to draw on the rich intellectual resources available at Vanderbilt while practicing teaching skills using select Nashville middle schools as an applied laboratory setting. Students benefit from moving through the program as a cohort while teaching in the upper elementary grades through grade 8. Students also deepen their knowledge and refine their instructional skills in one of three areas: literacy, mathematics or science.

“Teaching in inner-city, low-performing schools is hard work, and even licensed teachers may not be fully prepared for that challenge,” said Camilla Benbow, Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development. “Many teachers in these settings leave as soon as they can, and yet, these are the schools that are most in need of a stable teacher corps. Our intention with the Teaching and Learning in Urban Schools program is to prepare teachers to run a 20-year marathon, not a two-year sprint, in difficult-to-staff urban schools.”

Teaching and Learning in Urban Schools director Lanette Waddell says urban schools are challenging because many of their middle and high school students, particularly students of color, are disaffected by school.

“A big question we ask ourselves is, ‘how can we create classrooms that move students from unwilling and disaffected participants to willing and engaged consumers of education?’” Waddell said. “Developing the pedagogical skills that address these concerns and incorporating them into culturally relevant and academically successful classroom environments is a challenge urban teachers face.”

The Teaching and Learning in Urban Schools program was designed to achieve several outcomes, Waddell describes.

First, the program intends to recruit and retain outstanding new teachers. Applicants are sought from a national pool, with candidates selected by both Vanderbilt and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. The hope is that teachers will want to remain in these challenging schools because the program will enable them to become more intellectually engaged and professionally adept. The program will also promote networking among teacher colleagues who attend the program and may share the program’s vision of learning and goals for continued improvement.

Additionally, it is hoped that teachers will deepen their disciplinary knowledge and understanding of learning and refine instructional methods as they experiment with new practices in their classrooms and discuss their experiences and best practices with colleagues.

Further, students will learn to employ new assessments and assessment practices, understand the proper conditions under which those practices may be deployed, and use them to track student learning and make needed adjustments in their instructional methods to improve instruction and student outcomes. After developing content knowledge, the focus is for students to use the knowledge they gain about instruction and assessment to advocate for student learning in their classrooms and buildings. Moreover, students are encouraged to engage with the communities in which their schools reside, enabling them to understand more about their students than just the academic stories they bring into the classroom.

Finally, Waddell says this program does more than educate and retain a few exceptional teachers. It is designed to support development of communities of reflective practitioners in participating middle schools and develop capacity for change and academic success within these schools. The presence of Teaching and Learning in Urban Schools students in a school, along with Peabody College faculty and personnel, has the benefit of catalyzing change and stimulating interest in professional improvement within the wider school faculty.

Lisa Wiltshire, chief strategy officer for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, says reciprocal knowledge-sharing between educators in K-12 and university faculty ultimately benefits all of our students.

“The TLUS program represents an innovative approach to district-university partnerships that has the potential to transform teaching and learning for the benefit of traditionally underserved students in our public school system,” Wiltshire said. “The program is designed to provide exemplary professional development for cohorts of teachers in order to distribute best practices in instruction not only in specific classrooms, but throughout schools. This program is a key part of our turnaround strategy for under-performing schools.”

The 30-hour program combines classroom instruction with field-based support for applying the learning. Students are divided into cohorts based on specialty. The three tracks — literacy, mathematics or science — have some classes in common as well as domain-specific classes. Students take the same classes simultaneously, thereby ensuring intellectual cohesiveness that fosters communication among participants.

Classes are created with the intention of providing intellectually rigorous content instruction and realistic, research-based instructional methods. Students are taught by leading researchers, and classes integrate research with practice. Each class includes classroom-based applications and supports teachers as they grow to understand how the things they are learning apply in their classrooms.

The field-based, onsite supervision from Peabody faculty is perhaps the most valuable feature of the program, Waddell says.

“The most unique aspect of the program is the weekly coaching support offered to the graduate students by full-time Peabody faculty,” Waddell said. “Coaching gives both teachers and coaches focused time to reflect and reconsider practices and ideas. The students receive informed and focused feedback on their teaching practices on a regular basis, and coaches are offered an opportunity to understand how educational theory translates or does not translate to the everyday work of teachers.”

While many days spent in the schools later extend into evening classes for the Peabody students, current student Lindsey Nelson believes the program is definitely worth it.

“The level of rigor and expectations of the faculty is outstanding,” said Nelson, who teaches sixth-grade language arts and social studies. “I have learned more during the past five months than I did during five years of previous teaching. In addition, I receive strong support from [my] principal and am pushed to success from every angle.”

Nelson, who previously taught in Charlotte, N.C., says she knew this was the right program for her given her interest in urban education.

“What has been especially great is having a tight-knit group of colleagues who are teaching at the same school and then taking classes together at Peabody,” she said. “We truly learn and grow together in our shared experience.”

Jon Loudermilk, a member of the 2012 graduating class, says the TLUS program is the best approach to achieving an advanced degree because of the time spent in the classroom.

“Your classroom functions partially as your laboratory,” said Loudermilk, who will continue teaching in one of Nashville’s hardest-to-staff middle schools. “This arrangement also puts you shoulder-to-shoulder with other educators within your building who are facing many of the same challenges you are.”

The Teaching and Learning in Urban Schools program currently serves three Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and will soon expand to two additional schools.

Peabody researchers will track the implementation and progress of the program in hopes of devising a model for other such partnerships.

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://vanderbi.lt/tlus.

Jennifer Wetzel is Senior Information Officer, Vanderbilt University News and Communications. Kurt Brobeck is Director of Communications, Peabody College. Ann Marie Deer Owens is Senior Public Affairs Officer, Vanderbilt University News and Communications.For more information, visit http://vanderbi.lt/tlus.
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