Deputy secretary of education gets firsthand look at ASU initiative

Group of people sitting around table in high school classroom

Cindy Marten, deputy secretary of education, listens to teachers and community members from Stevenson Elementary School in Mesa, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Tim Hacker/Mesa Public Schools


Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2023 year in review.

Cindy Marten smiled as she looked at the Mesa Westwood High students sitting around her at a table in the school library.

Marten, the U.S. deputy secretary of education, was at Westwood on Wednesday morning to learn about the Next Education Workforce initiative developed by Arizona State University.

“You’re the boss,” Marten told the students. “You’re who we work for. Truly everything we’re doing is for you.”

Marten’s appearance at Westwood and Stevenson Elementary School in Mesa was the kickoff of her national “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” tour. She’s meeting with students, parents, teachers and community members to discuss ways schools can promote academic excellence and prepare for global competitiveness. 

“Education opens doors,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a press release. “As a student, as a teacher, school principal and as a parent, I’ve seen firsthand the way it transforms lives. That’s why, when we talk about the future of education, I could not believe more strongly that we have to Raise the Bar. We have what it takes to lead the world in education, but it will take the collective will to challenge complacency and status quo in education and focus on substance, not sensationalism. 

The Next Education Workforce initiative is an attempt to change that status quo. Westwood is one of 50 schools across 10 school systems that have put into practice the team-teaching approach, which was born out of conversations school officials had five years ago with leaders from Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

MORE: ASU-developed team-teaching model a hit at Valley schools

Dean Carole Basile and a team of faculty and staff at the college developed the design principles of the approach, which acknowledges — and addresses — realities in the teaching profession.

“We have manufactured a system that creates crisis on a daily basis,” said Brent Maddin, executive director of the Next Education Workforce initiative, which works with schools to redesign staffing and instruction. “Preparing a teacher is really hard work. And if they’re peeling out of the profession after a year or two, this is bad for kids, this is bad for educators, this is bad for our democracy. What we’re doing is totally a retention play.”

How it works: Teachers are no longer on an island, in a single classroom, solely responsible for preparing curriculum, teaching, grading, discipline, planning, etc. At Westwood, for example, a team teaching more than 130 ninth graders includes an English teacher, agriculture teacher, career exploration teacher, instructional specialist and math teacher. The school, part of Mesa Public Schools, also employs student teachers from ASU.

In talking to students and, later, parents at Westwood, Marten heard the same word used as a benefit of the iniative: relationships.

“I feel like I belong, like I matter, and I’m being listened to,” a student told Marten.

Stevenson Elementary Principal Krista Adams told Marten that after starting the program three years ago, team teachers “were going home happy and fulfilled, and when they told (how they were feeling) to the staff, the rest wanted to join in.”

“In this model, teachers are learning and growing and changing so fast,” Adams said. “It is not uncommon for us to see them in a meeting one day discussing a problem and coming up with a solution for the next day.”

Marten took time out of her tour to talk to ASU News about Next Education Workforce and whether it can be a model for school programs throughout the country.

Question: What are your impressions of the Next Education Workforce initiative?

Answer: There’s been innovation for a long time in education, but what this district and this school (Westwood) in particular has done is figured out what they need right now at this moment, and they’re bringing together ideas from teachers and the community.

I see something working at this school. It’s pretty incredible, the way these teachers are able to collaborate together. What stood out for me was how when the teachers have two hours a day of planning time — what are they doing? They’re planning for their students. They’re not sitting around planning curriculum. They’re not planning what to teach. They’re planning who they teach. That is how we lead the world. That is how we raise the bar.

The Mesa promise here is to know our students by name and serve them by strength and by need. You can have those words, you can make that your promise, but unless you build really robust collaborative design models like this school has done, it’s really hard to deliver on that promise. So, I see a delivery here.

Q: Can you see how Next Education Workforce can help in terms of teacher retention?

A: At the heart of this is teachers are feeling a sense of authenticity in their work when they can focus on the kids. Teachers go into the profession because they want to work with kids. When you get a model like this, it gets people not just in the profession, but they’ll stay in the profession. I see a lot of promise.

Q: Is this the kind of innovation you’d like to see throughout the country, and can you see the Next Education Workforce initiative expanding in other areas of the country?

A: The reason why you could expand it is, first of all, it was created local. The best solutions happen when they’re created local. The school district got together with (ASU) and local partners. You want to know what works? Ask the people doing the work. So, every community should start with what they care most about. Bringing smart people together and developing things like this, I think there’s something scalable and replicable in what I see here, and it begins with teachers’ voices at the center of it.

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