BY TRACY BAUMANN
From an innovative program to educate Montessori teachers around the country to curriculum designed to encourage more girls to enter the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, the College of St. Catherine's education faculty are developing groundbreaking ways to educate today's educators. Their work has received regional and national attention.
Linda Schaak Distad '71, Ed.D., associate dean of education programs, has taught at St. Catherine's for 25 years. She serves on a number of national boards and is past president of Minnesota Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Distad currently works as part of the Minnesota Teacher Education Research Consortium to study the effectiveness of new teachers, especially those who are teaching in highly diverse settings. She also works with EcoSTARS, a collaboration with the Jeffers Foundation, the Prior Lake/Savage school district and St. Catherine's, to support teachers in environmental education. She recently published Talking Teaching: Implementing Reflective Practice in Groups, and "Leadership for a New Normal," a chapter in The Children Hurricane Katrina Left Behind. Distad discusses St. Kate's education programs and the challenges inherent in preparing teachers for the 21st century.
Q: What is the history of education at St. Kate's?
A: Education has always been part of St. Catherine's. When the College first began, we prepared teachers in the area of English education. Data show that the second largest group of teachers hired in St. Paul and Minneapolis was prepared at the College.
Elementary education has always been the larger of our two programs, with about 80 percent of our students. Approximately 20 percent are in the secondary/K-12 program. We offer 22 different licenses. In addition to the initial licensure programs, we have a distance learning Master of Arts program in education curriculum and instruction for advanced professional development for classroom teachers. This very successful 6-year-old program is mostly online, with some on-campus experiences. We also prepare teachers in Montessori, both locally and across the nation, and currently have Montessori satellite programs in Springfield, Massachusetts; Lansing, Michigan; Kansas City, Missouri; and Portsmouth, Virginia.
Q: What do you see as the strengths of St. Kate's education program?
A: The feedback we get from the field is that our students are very committed to differentiated instruction and individualized student learning, and are really aware of the realities of the classroom. Differentiated instruction is when you look at all the children in your classroom and organize your curriculum to meet the individual learning needs of each child.
We use a strong professional development school model in our programs. That means we have strong relationships with partner schools in the Twin Cities, where our students do extensive fieldwork. This fieldwork has become a hallmark of our program.
We have a wonderful working relationship with the Prior Lake/Savage school district, where all our elementary education students go for fieldwork in math, science and social studies. That's really a rich experience for students. Plus, all our students engage in the literacy lab at Randolph Heights or Highland elementary schools [in St. Paul], where they have authentic experiences working with children and doing literacy assessments and diagnoses.
This experience creates an advantage for them when they go out to student teach and then ultimately become classroom teachers. As a result of these in depth fieldwork experiences, our students enter their student teaching at a much more sophisticated level than before. Students in all our programs have a strong commitment to social justice. It's evidenced in the way they approach student learning, advocating for their students, advocating for a just curriculum.
Q: What are some challenges in education today, and how does St. Kate's address these challenges?
A: A recent report confirmed once again the shortage of math and science teachers. We have been proactive in this area by developing the STEM minor, which is designed to attract more elementary teachers into the STEM area. To counter this shortage of teachers in STEM and to counter the shortage of proficiency in STEM in the general population, we need to start at the elementary level. So our STEM minor supplements the elementary program and encourages elementary teachers to gain this area of expertise. We are statewide leaders in this area.
Classrooms have become very complex. For example, St. Paul has almost 100 different languages represented in its schools, and Minneapolis has more than 60. One classroom may have 10 or 15 different languages represented. That has increased the richness of the learning environment, but it also presents some very specific situations for teachers to work with. So we need to prepare our students to address the learning needs of all the children in their classrooms. That's one of our biggest challenges.
Also, external accountability, particularly related to the federal "No Child Left Behind" law, has increased the stakes, so our students have to be ready to perform at very high levels right away. Our heightened emphasis on fieldwork truly serves our students well and prepares them for the realities of the classroom.
Q: St. Kate's seems particularly strong in the area of education research. What are some recent initiatives by our faculty members?
A: Susan Goetz recently published a book called Science for Girls, aimed at parents and middle-school teachers.
Tony Murphy is nationally recognized in STEM education, particularly in the area of GLOBE (Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment).
Diane Heacox is a national expert in differentiated instruction and is working on her third book on that topic, which she embeds in our curriculum. School districts around the country use her books and plan seminars around them.
Our work in preparing teachers to be credentialed in Montessori is exciting. Schools from across the country come to the Montessori center and ask that we engage in a conversion with the whole school. These schools are generally in low socioeconomic areas, are highly diverse and usually have very low performance. They apply for a federal desegregation or magnet school grant and use the Montessori philosophy as the magnet to desegregate the school. So over a two- to three-year period, we train all teachers in the school, and the school changes from a traditional school to a Montessori school.
This process makes a huge difference for these schools. For example in Springfield, Massachusetts, we worked with the lowest performing school in the district prior to the Montessori program transformation. Three to four years later, it's now at the top of the district. The school now has a waiting list and it is just going off the charts as far as performance. So we know that this works, and it is getting a lot of attention across the country.
Q: How do you work with these schools?
A: Our staff presents a very intense summer program. We have a whole cadre of Montessori faculty who visit for five to 10 days at a time and teach their area of the program. Additional teaching also takes place over some weekends throughout the academic year. Typically, this continues for two additional years. It's a huge commitment for our faculty and for the school faculty, who do this in addition to their regular jobs.
Q: Are other colleges around the country also doing this?
A: There are many Montessori training centers across the country, but only six are affiliated with a college or university. St. Kate's has had a Montessori program for about 32 years. It's interesting to note that 95 percent of the Montessori teachers in the Twin Cities public Montessori schools have been prepared by the College of St. Catherine.
Q: What other trends do your education programs address?
A: We're at the forefront of action research. All our master's programs use the action-research model for their research component. In this model, classroom teachers identify a problem in their classrooms and then conduct research to solve it. It's very practical. As a result, we see teachers becoming more reflective. They have tools for problem solving they didn't have before, and they continue to use this model after they complete their master's degree.
Our department sponsors City Academy Charter School in St. Paul, which was the first charter school in the nation. About seven years ago, the entire faculty completed St. Catherine's Master's in Education program and learned the action-research model. Since then, they have embraced the model for professional development in their school. Each year, Dr. Ken Voss works with them and engages them in action research. They love it, and they feel like they are a more action-oriented, cohesive faculty. It has been a wonderful model for conducting professional development school wide.