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The New School of Education?

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Experts are beginning to notice that some of the most interesting examples of urban education reform anywhere in the nation are happening here in Los Angeles. One of these reforms, however, is receiving less attention than the rest, despite having possible national implications.

Last week Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Gompers Middle School in South LA as part of his Listening and Learning tour. While at Gompers, a school that is part of the Mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, he visited the classrooms of two high-performing math and science teachers: Ma'ayan Weinberg and Nisha Wadhwani (both 2008 Teach For America corps members).

Upon concluding these classroom visits the secretary shared with a group of education leaders -- including Superintendent Ramon Cortines, the LAUSD school board, Mayor Villaraigosa, the heads of all of the major Charter Management Organizations, union leaders, and civil rights leaders -- his belief that the most important factor in closing the achievement gap in Los Angeles will be the ability to continue to attract talent to the system.

Pressed on this point the secretary was asked about the responsibility of schools of education in this regard. Indeed, barely a month earlier the secretary put education schools on notice in a widely remarked upon speech at Columbia Teachers College noting that:

Tomorrow's teachers must not merely be plentiful enough, they must be good enough. They must possess the old virtues of energy and dedication, but they must possess new knowledge and new skill." In our new era of accountability, it is not enough for a teacher to say, "I taught it -- but the students didn't learn it."

As the secretary responded to the query, he was sitting across from an individual who has arguably dedicated as much attention to addressing this challenge as anyone in the nation. Listening contemplatively, a smile crept across the face of Dr. Shane Martin, the chairman of the board for Green Dot Public Schools and a member of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Dr. Martin is also the Dean of Loyola Marymount University's School of Education, which has emerged as a pioneering example of the 21st century education school. Weinberg and Wadhwani whose classrooms Secretary Duncan visited, were both the products of LMU's School of Education.

While many traditional schools of education have looked upon teacher training and support in a territorial fashion, LMU has recognized the power of collaboration (and by extension innovation) with diverse partners. Far from seeing other routes into the classroom as competition, LMU has embraced their potential as thought partners. It is a school that strives to be involved in the real world of education, with faculty who are themselves leaders in education. Moreover it is formally committed to "educational programs that make a difference." It is a model that takes seriously the stewardship of the community in which it serves, and which demands practical accountability for outcomes in terms of training teachers to close the achievement gap in Los Angeles.

Confounding traditional boundaries which have defined education schools for at least a century, LMU actually runs its own "Family of Schools" in coordination with LAUSD's I-Design division, where they manage a network of seven schools in the surrounding Westchester community. Five of the seven schools are now transitioning to a governance and decision-making structure grounded in local responsibility and authority for budget and instructional choices.

As part of its approach to partnership LMU has dedicated substantial resources to aligning the curriculum with the work being done by entrepreneurial educational organizations. For example, in a partnership with Teach For America, our organization prepares entering teachers in a five-week summer institute and then works closely with the LMU School of Education throughout the year to gauge new teachers' experiences and provide feedback. Through this process, LMU provides intensive support to increase the likelihood of early success, and as a result the majority continue teaching in the classroom beyond the initial two-year commitment. Many have gone on to positions in school administration and leadership in the education reform movement.

Moreover the faculty are steeped in the context of the schools where university interns are placed. In a partnership with the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools, a network of public charter schools that has been recognized for significantly outperforming neighboring schools in LA's most economically challenged neighborhoods, LMU has developed an innovative Center for Math and Science Teaching. Designed to address the fact that 15 out of the 20 fastest growing careers require extensive math and science training, in the schools where CMAST has been piloted LMU has proven its ability to hold itself accountable for strong outcomes. Prior to partnering with LMU 68 percent of the students in the Alliance achieve a passing score on the math section of the California High School Exit Examination in 2006. Two years into the partnership 89 percent of Alliance's more than 5,000 students are passing the California High School Exit Examination.

As we move into a new era of accountability the evolution of graduate schools of education will be a key part of the story. Best practices are being identified such as the work being done in Louisiana to link teacher training programs to outcomes in the classroom. In a similar vein, LMU has demonstrated a willingness to challenge traditional assumptions to innovate on behalf of kids, and has then translated that spirit into the design and implementation of programs that set its teachers up for success. This is an approach to teacher training worth paying close attention to.