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Commitment to World-Class Education

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Mary John O'Hair is dean of the University of Kentucky College of Education in Lexington, Ky. She writes about how school-university-community partnerships play a role in innovations in P-20 education.

After living and working in Kentucky over the past four years, I was not surprised when Time magazine took notice in September that Kentucky has become an "unlikely pioneer" in education (read the article). It's nice to see that level of public recognition for Kentucky in becoming "the undisputed national leader in holding its teachers and students to a higher bar." As dean of the College of Education at the University of Kentucky, I have witnessed that commitment, first-hand and almost daily, over the past four years. I agree with the author's take on the value of Kentucky's strong commitment to the new common core standards -- as evidenced by our state implementing the standards three years before other states.

After listening to concerns about the common core from my colleagues in other states, what continues to amaze me is how anyone (right, left, red or blue) might 'oppose' the rigorous, college and career-ready standards for our kids. Just visit schools in Singapore, Finland or Shanghai, and tell me we aren't compromising our future by not collectively supporting 'deeper learning' for all.

Despite disagreement over the value of the common core, I think we can all agree that colleges of education must play a role in supporting that 'higher bar' for all students. However, it's more than a commitment to producing high quality, classroom ready teachers through our educator preparation programs.

Traditionally, colleges of education located in a flagship, land grant institution like UK have recognized their collective worth or reputations through the individual accomplishments of their faculty, staff and students. For example, a faculty member's national reputation in a specific discipline is based on his or her individual research, as demonstrated through peer reviewed publications and sponsored research funding, as well as a willingness to network and eventually serve in leadership roles in his or her discipline's national associations. While important, at the UK College of Education, we have expanded our role to include a strong focus on our 'additional responsibilities,' or what we jointly deem to be important, such as helping Kentucky stand firm on higher standards for students and preparing future educators to fulfill that commitment.

We feel as committed and responsible for the success of P-12 students as we do our own students. We take to heart the concept of 'a seamless P-20 education system' (preschool through higher education) and often we serve as the glue in connecting others within and outside the university with school, community, governmental and association partners to support 'fewer, clearer and higher' learning standards.

And we are doing this because there is a real need. Despite climbing in national education rankings, we, like many other states, continue to hear stories of students who are not prepared well for college - including those who graduated from high school with honors. To address this need in Kentucky, we have engaged extensively in working together across the state to create an inspiring and inclusive vision for education. Here are three distinct, but interrelated, examples of the work that's moving us forward:

1) The Kentucky P20 Innovation Lab (led by the UK College of Education) looks at one of the most perplexing challenges of our time, "How do we transform public education to sustain a culture of innovation?" We are doing this by creating a bridge between P-12 educators and innovation-driven college faculty. We are helping schools create a culture of innovation to ensure university discoveries become practical tools in Kentucky's schools and communities. David Cook's recent blog post about what 'innovation' truly means reveals the importance of a culture of innovation. He describes why it is rarely beneficial for a school to simply adopt an innovative practice from another school that found it successful. Rather, a culture of innovation first creates commitment from teachers, students and parents and allows them to develop innovative practices based on unique needs. I have found Kentucky to be a highly collaborative state when it comes to education, and that's why this effort has worked so well.

Here's just one example of a project that stems from the P20 Lab. John Nash, a UK College of Education faculty member, helps create a culture of innovation in Kentucky schools through the Design Thinking in Education (dLab). The dLab applies design thinking to create new solutions to challenges in education and the community.

Consider this summary from John Nash:

Students and teachers from Danville High School (DHS) visited the University of Kentucky with this challenge: "How might we create an innovative day pattern for schooling that allows students to hit ACT benchmarks by 10th grade and flexible academic exploration in 11th and 12 th grades?" (Thus, shifting from the typical seven-period school day, which stifles innovation.) Working shoulder to shoulder, teachers and students prototyped five different approaches to the way in which DHS could implement a day pattern that met the structural scheduling constraints of a large high school and respected the emotional and learning needs of students.

Go here to read more about how the P20 Innovation Lab works.

2) The Next Generation Leadership Academy was derived from the P20 Innovation Lab. The Academy focuses on the 'how to' of dramatically improving schools and post-secondary graduation rates for ALL students. The Academy emphasizes critical attributes that characterize new systems of learning designed for higher, world class standards for learning such as personalized and performance-based mastery learning, anytime/anywhere opportunities to learn, authentic student voice, and comprehensive systems of learning supports. Over three years, the Academy has brought together more than 200 P-12 leaders representing all regions of the state, university and corporate partners, along with state and national leaders to collaboratively design and build new systems for learning. These prototypes of new learning systems or Innovation Zones (iZones) are piloted, assessed and expanded across schools districts in Kentucky. Go here to read more about how the Next Generation Leadership Academy works.

3) Redesigning Educator Preparation Programs to Support New Environments. The need for developing next-generation models for educator preparation has never been greater. Information, once collected in reference books and distilled by teachers, is now everywhere. Even the most specialized topics and guidance are only a few keystrokes away. Beyond memorizing information for tests, students must be prepared to think critically and creatively, collaborate globally, utilize technology effectively, solve problems independently and in groups, and perform flexibly and fluidly as situations evolve and change. Teachers need to perform in their roles with these skills, and have the ability to develop an atmosphere for this kind of learning among students. As a college, we know our role in this major shift is two-fold. It is what drove us to create the Kentucky P20 Innovation Lab and the Next Generation Leadership Academy, which help support schools as the very nature of what they do is changing to meet the demands of 21st century learners. But what are we doing for our own students - the ones who will soon be entering new teaching careers in these schools? We began by developing college-wide collaborative redesign teams, clinical teacher preparation pilots and professional mentoring programs to help us transform ourselves around a collective 21st century vision for educator preparation. What has emerged from this redesign are teacher preparation programs focused on the skills and attributes of the global knowledge economy. And, most importantly, the redesigned programs ensure our students receive authentic P-12 experiences beginning as freshmen. This time spent in real-life 'clinical' learning environments (similar to the clinical training of physicians) sets the stage for our teacher candidates to build the competencies necessary to help their future students problem-solve, work collaboratively, and be creative and self-motivated. At first only a few traditional voices, namely faculty and administrators, were involved in these collaborative redesign teams to define and address new challenges that lie ahead of us. As we built trust among our colleagues in P-12 schools, public and corporate communities, governmental agencies, and higher education, the voices of students, staff, and external advisors have emerged and are gaining momentum in joining our engaged learning and action-focused culture.

The strategies I've highlighted here culminated in this question: Can public school districts working in collaboration with postsecondary institutions rethink education, meet the needs of students, and keep the U.S. competitive economically? To develop an answer, the University of Kentucky and Fayette County Public Schools have partnered to create the STEAM Academy, an innovative new high school in close proximity to UK's campus ( view video about the STEAM Academy). STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math and is grounded in project-based learning and the attributes of teaching next generation learners (read about the critical attributes of next generation learning here). The school received start-up funds from Next Generation Learning Challenges, which is supported by large foundations such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. STEAM students are routinely on the UK campus for classes, and our faculty, students and staff are on-site at the STEAM Academy daily. In one dual enrollment credit course taught by UK College of Education faculty member Laurie Henry, UK students serving as peer instructors learn 'elbow to elbow' with Fayette County teachers in a specially designed course focused on college readiness skills and problem-based learning; peer instructors apply instructional techniques they have learned in methods classes directly with 9th graders in Fayette County schools. Our collaboration allows pre-service teachers to get involved in STEAM classrooms early in their college studies and helps to establish a 'blue ribbon model' for clinically-based teacher preparation programs.

When I think about the efforts our college has made, I am thankful to be part of a state that is so dedicated to collaboration in education. I'm glad Kentucky has become a leader in adopting and, most importantly, implementing the common core standards. When I hear of high school graduates being underprepared for college, as we have seen in Kentucky and across the U.S., I'm all too aware of the magnitude of the work that still needs to be done. To maintain our country's vitality, we need a unified vision and goals for the educational attainments of all our children. The common core standards lay the groundwork for what our students need to know to be prepared well for their futures. And, they provide a much smoother path for the innovation efforts we must all embark upon to stay relevant and competitive in the global economy. I hope to see a stronger movement toward our 'shared responsibility' to our children and to holding each other, as a nation, to a higher bar of excellence.

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