The Future of Teaching in Clark County – and the Nation

Students from Clark County School District at the Rebel Science Camp in March. The district’s diversity makes it a "living laboratory” for developing educational practices the entire country will eventually adopt.

This article was originally published in the UNLV News Center and is reposted with permission. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

From the earliest days of our republic, we have believed that education was critical to our democracy. Our founders knew that the health of our country, the wellbeing of the citizenry – and particularly the strength of the democracy – would be built on a well-educated population. Though disagreements have been fierce regarding who is to be educated, how much education they need, and whether to measure its value in economic growth, individual growth, or societal growth, fundamentally, we have always agreed that educating our citizens is important.

With this belief in mind, in 1917 our country began a unique experiment: We required education to be available to all of our citizens for free. Now, after a century of well-intended effort and research by countless experts, 17 presidents and their respective agendas, and 50 congresses armed with the education reform du jour, frankly, we’re still experimenting. We still haven’t figured out how to make our educational system work consistently for all children.

How can this be? The past several decades have been filled with announcements that THE new idea – the unequivocal “fix” – for public education has been discovered. “If only we allow parents more choice in selecting their child’s school,” or “find better ways to hold teachers and schools accountable,” or “develop better tests,” or “standardize curriculum,” or “integrate more technology,” or “expand states’ authority.” The list of efforts is long.

Yet there is very little evidence that these initiatives, individually or collectively, have done much to improve educational outcomes or equity. Why have these efforts been so fruitless?

Let’s look back for a moment.

Nearly all of these reform approaches are grounded on concepts codified in a single policy document: A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform. Often credited as the catalyst for a pivotal shift in public education policy, the genuinely innovative concepts in A Nation at Risk changed the way our country, and much of the western world, thought about and approached educating its citizenry.

This genuinely groundbreaking set of ideas was released in – 1983. The same year Motorola unveiled the first hand-held mobile telephone, aptly named “The Brick” for its weight, shape, and size. In the years since, future-focused innovators have pushed the boundaries of technology and engineering in ways that were only vaguely imagined, if imagined at all, by those who clamored to get their cutting-edge “Brick.”

Over that same period, the education and policy communities have intensely focused on refining the original concepts presented in A Nation at Risk. From America 2000 in 1991 to No Child Left Behind in 2001 to our most current iteration, Every Student Succeeds, each plan promised to overhaul education from bottom to top. And fundamental to these reforms was the perpetual quest to identify best practices. For 35 years, literally billions of dollars have been invested in massive efforts to find teachers, schools, and states that seemed to be performing better than others, determine what it was they were doing that might explain this, and then implement (or impose) these best practices more broadly.

The problem with best practices is that, by nature, they’re always out of date.

They represent the “best” of what was being done in some place and at some time in the past. At most, they improve achievement of yesterday’s goals; at worst, they actively promote the status quo by continually looking backward rather than forward.

To meet the needs of students in our rapidly evolving world, we must set our sights beyond settling for the best we once knew or even know now. The problems, issues, and needs of yesterday may no longer be relevant, so even the best strategies known to address them may have little consequence to the world of tomorrow. To achieve tomorrow’s outcomes, we must set our sights on developing the next practices necessary to serve the future generations and the issues they will face.

The Future Is Here

Since the College of Education’s inception in the very early days of UNLV’s history, one of its major objectives has been to educate and prepare high-quality teachers to serve in Nevada’s schools. But educating our state’s educators is far from the college’s only purpose.

Our faculty have always been engaged in future-focused research to inform policy making and validate new professional approaches for a new era of students. Notably, research and methods stemming from the Silver State today have intrinsic benefits for far more than just Nevadans.

Many have noted what a June 22 New York Times piece recently featured: Las Vegas is the future. The population of Southern Nevada today – in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and age – is nearly identical to projections of U.S. demographics in 40 years. In essence, Nevada’s present is America’s future.

For the College of Education, our community provides a “living laboratory” in which to create, research, evaluate, and cultivate the newest strategies – the next practices – that will educate future generations … made in Nevada, shared from coast to coast and beyond.

Challenging the status quo, our faculty and students have accepted the task to usher in change. Pioneering new research and testing new methods to achieve our nation’s grand promise of equitable education for all citizens is our mission. From studying the benefits of rigorous early childhood education in a fully inclusive setting, like the Lynn Bennett Early Childhood Development Center, to developing more effective ways to use virtual reality in educator preparation, as in our Interaction and Media Sciences Lab, or improving the use of real-time data to adapt and improve instruction and learning, as in our Metacognition and Motivation in Advanced Learning Technologies Lab, our faculty’s research and findings are shifting the way we, and our peers, approach education and educator preparation.

This focus is bringing UNLV national acclaim as a leader in developing practical solutions to future educational challenges. AACTE recently featured UNLV as one of the colleges of education leading innovative research partnership programs with their community’s PK-12 schools (stay tuned for the Research-to-Practice Spotlight series to launch this month!). The Abriendo Caminos/Opening Pathways program – a UNLV initiative to add more teachers of color to the pipeline – was chosen by the U.S. Department of Education from more than 90 applicants as a focus project for the 2016 Teach to Lead Summit. As a result, we are creating actionable plans for school districts to begin implementing the program in their own, increasingly diverse, schools.

UNLV’s role as education innovators is anchored in being unanchored. We politely refuse to be tied down by what has been established as “the best.” Exactly where this takes us remains to be seen, but knowing there is always more to research, more to study, and new answers to be found, will be what drives us into the future. We will always strive for what’s better than the world’s presumed “best.”

Kim Metcalf is dean of the UNLV College of Education.

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Kim Metcalf

University of Nevada, Las Vegas