Diez Reflects as Sun Sets on Alverno Tenure, Rises on SSSF

Alverno’s Mary Diez (right) with her SSSF vice presidents

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true: After 38 years, Mary Diez is leaving Alverno July 1.

Diez, professor and former dean of the School of Education at Alverno College (WI), was elected last month to a 4-year term as president of the School Sisters of St. Francis (SSSF), an international congregation with 850 sisters in the United States, Europe, India, and Latin America. This full-time commitment will take her to all of those places, although she plans to retain her campus residence at the college where she has lived for nearly 4 decades.

Taking her leadership skills off campus is hardly new for Diez, whether as a consultant in the Milwaukee community, member of standards boards, convener of assessment institutes, champion of dispositions work, or president of AACTE—among countless other roles she has held around the country and internationally. Despite having so much on her plate, Diez generously responded to my questions this week about her career to date and future plans.

Q: You served as president of AACTE in 1993-1994. What issues were highest on the professional agenda at that time, and how have they been addressed since then?

In 1993-1994, AACTE had done significant work on the knowledge base for teacher education and was just beginning to look at the questions of standards and assessment. The National Board was a new idea, the 1992 INTASC standards were taking hold, and NCATE was moving away from inputs to evidence of outcomes (in alignment with the INTASC standards). I was happy to be a part of moving discussion of that forward! But I think that standards and assessment are still in the forefront, although we now use the broader term “teacher quality” as the driver. And rightly so: Standards are in the service of helping us see what vision of teaching should drive our picture of quality teaching.

Q: What trends or practices do you see as promising in today’s teacher preparation?

I think edTPA is one of the most promising developments. For me, the key to edTPA is in the work of teacher educators through embedded signature assessments. From Day 1, programs need to provide candidates with practice that comes closer and closer to what they will be doing as teachers. Absent giving candidates feedback and support for development (the true role of formative assessment), edTPA will not fulfill its promise.

Another promising area is the focus on teaching as moral work. Teacher educators need to help candidates grapple with the responsibility to build the knowledge and skills to be able to help every child in their classroom/caseload learn. In the work of AACTE’s task force on Teacher Education as a Moral Community [now a topical action group], we found some institutions doing this very well, but it’s still too rare.

Q: What trends worry you most?

My number-one worry is the elitism that seems to be driving a focus on hyperselectivity in admissions. The power of teacher education (and higher education for that matter) is in transforming candidates who have the capacity to learn, even if they were disadvantaged by prior circumstances. We should be selective on the way out, rather than on the way in. This concern becomes more important as we seek to diversify the teaching force, because candidates from underrepresented groups are more likely to have attended poorly staffed schools. When we assume that if we are highly selective [in admissions], candidates will do well as teachers, we leave out the critical role of teacher educators in developing teachers.

Like James Popham, I also continue to worry about the lack of assessment literacy in higher education and teacher education. Assessment needs to be both a support to ongoing learning and documentation of current levels of performance. But as with accreditation data, too many focus on using data to “prove” they are good, when they need to put the effort into using data to “improve” in an ongoing way. Similarly, it’s silly to talk about “meeting a standard,” especially with one performance. Standards are larger than any one performance.

Q: Alverno has long been viewed as a pioneer in teacher preparation, particularly in its assessment work during your years there. How has that work changed over the years?

We’ve always started with the role of the teacher and the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that we need to nurture in each individual candidate. Our sense of that role has, of course, evolved over time, making us more aware of issues of inclusion and coteaching, of integrated curriculum and problem-based learning, and of the ways technology can support learners, to name just three.

We have tried to stay grounded in our own conceptualization, while testing it against state policy or new assessments and making modifications. For example, we were delighted that a culminating assessment we had given could be phased out as we piloted edTPA; and edTPA helped us “kick it up a notch,” particularly in the clarity of the rubrics. We also learn a lot from our work with schools. Wisconsin is participating in CCSSO’s Next Generation Learning Project, and we’ve found engaging our candidates in multiage classrooms where students engage in technology-supported, independent work has helped them to apply everything they’ve learned and to keep learning.

Q: What aspects of your professional experience do you hope to bring to your new position with SSSF?

I believe that people take everything they’ve ever learned with them to new roles. Most important in my new role, I suspect, will be listening and group facilitation skills. In work with school districts over the years, I found that deeply understanding what people cared about and how they interpreted the issues they faced provided keys to helping them find solutions to problems. And in guiding groups that came with diverse viewpoints, I found Peter Block’s Community a key resource. The best question one can ask to begin working with any group is Block’s “What do we want to create together?”

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