Death by a Thousand Cuts


            The warning flags have been up for a long time, so it didn’t come as a complete surprise when word began to trickle out that the University of Chicago was phasing out its Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP); still it felt like a punch in the gut. Being part of the team that birthed the program and seeing it through its first 11 years was an amazing coda to my professional life, coming as it did when most people are contemplating retirement. Being around to see the doors closing is yet another reminder of the fragility of innovation and the brevity of its life expectancy.

The program, which admitted its nineteenth cohort last fall, began operation after a year of planning in 2003. The earliest cohorts were small, between 9 and 12 students, but later grew to include 20-30 each year, so by my estimate, there will be in the vicinity of 400 alums of the program.

            Because the University had shut down its Education Department in the mid-90s, the team of UTEP planners had the gift of a tabula rasa landscape. We were free to design our program according to our understanding of best practices in teacher education, a field desperately in need of change after decades of stagnation. In the mid-80s, a group of Education School deans produced the Holmes report, which proposed scrapping the traditional ten-week student teaching experience and replacing it with a year-long residency while apprenticing to a skilled mentor teacher. The idea fell victim to the vested interests in schools of education whose faculties depended on that structure for their livelihood. We were under no such constraint and adopted the residency model as one of the cornerstones of our program at a time when Teach for America was parachuting young people into their own classrooms after a six- week summer preparation program. Teaching, particularly urban teaching, is a challenging endeavor; children deserved teachers who were better prepared for the hard work ahead.

            Existing programs suffered from a disconnect between theory and practice, a constant source of student complaint. We sought to close that gap by designing courses directly linked to the work they were engaged with in their residencies. We aimed to prepare teachers with the skill to plan, to teach math and reading effectively, based not on survey courses on methods but on research-based practices instead. Another unique aspect of the plans for the program was its place-based focus. We were preparing people specifically to work in Chicago public schools, so we built into the design opportunities to learn about Chicago communities, their strengths and their challenges. There was a clear commitment to seeing teaching as a critical part of promoting social justice. Because the vast majority of students our UTEPers would be serving were Black, Brown and low income, we felt it was critical for the people in our program to examine their own racial, social and gender identities and how they might affect their work with children. This was cutting edge work and we were excited to be breaking new ground in teacher education.

            There were also unique structural elements to the program. The design called for students moving through the program as a cohort, building a strong sense of community among those entering in a particular year. We felt that being embedded in a supportive community would provide what was needed to help teachers through the inevitably difficult starting time. Unlike almost every other graduate teacher education design, UTEP extended its program over a two-year period, rather than attempting to cram the course work and the field work into a year and a summer. Many at the university argued that this was not economically viable, but we were able to demonstrate that the program was attractive enough to draw students in sufficient numbers and of sufficient quality to make it viable. This has posed more of a challenge in recent years for reasons we’ll discuss later.

            Finally, and most radically, the program promised three years of coaching and support once students graduated and were teaching in their own classrooms. These are the critical years when novice teachers falter and are most likely to abandon the work. To my knowledge, no other program offered this support. Although it was a costly commitment, it was a major drawing card for students eager to work in challenging environments but recognizing that they were likely to need serious help to be successful.

            I will add one other element of the design which was unwritten but turned out to be a key element of its success while also becoming a factor in its demise. Without exception, every member of the staff was a practitioner, someone who had logged significant time in the classroom and demonstrated that they could walk the walk. It may surprise readers unfamiliar to education departments that this is not the case in many universities. A friend at the University of Michigan reported that former teachers were a distinct minority in her School of Education, which may account for the disconnect between theory and practice I mentioned earlier. A handful of us on the UTEP staff had Ph.D.’s but the majority of the staff did not. At a status-conscious elite university like the University of Chicago, this marked us as outliers in a world definitely skewed away from the practical and toward the theoretical.

            Make no mistake. There were bumps in the road. There were racial conflicts we naively had not anticipated. There were sometimes tensions with the schools in which our students did their residencies, including the University’s own charter schools. There was a failure to account for the changing demographics of the school district. We were oriented toward working with predominant Black schools and children, while the district was becoming more and more Hispanic. But we were always reflecting, revising and redesigning. UTEP was a living organism which is why it was such an exciting place to work.

            Both the landscape of the University and of the teaching profession have undergone dramatic changes in recent years that served to drive the program downhill. UTEP was the beneficiary of unqualified support from the University’s administration for many years. It was seen as part of the evidence that the UofC was giving back to the community. But the cast of characters in leadership roles is constantly shifting and some of the new leadership was not inclined to support this maverick program. Lacking in institutional memory of why it existed at all, the support turned into strategies for how to contain and eventually eliminate UTEP. First, the co-directors were removed on rather flimsy pretexts. Then the entire Urban Education Institute, under whose umbrella UTEP operated, was absorbed into the Crown School, formerly SSA, the School of Social Work Administration. Most recently, the program was instructed not to recruit a new cohort for next year, on the grounds that this would allow a year devoted to a redesign of the program. Those of us who were skeptical about that rationale proved to be prescient. It was the final step in the campaign of Death by a Thousand Cuts.

            At the same time, dramatic changes were taking place in the world outside the University that had major implications for the future of the program. The years-long campaign from the right to brand public schools as failing institutions and the accompanying effort to blame teachers for that alleged failure took its toll. Enrollment in teacher education programs plummeted. That was reflected in UTEP’s own recruitment struggles, which in turn had a powerful impact on the program’s economic viability. Like most institutions in our society, the bottom-line rules at the University. That may be the primary reason for the decision to end the program, but the school’s characteristic lack of transparency leaves its staff, alumni and supporters to only speculate on what I think is a short-sighted abandonment of its social responsibility.

            I suppose I should be angrier about the demise of UTEP, but I find myself more sad than angry because I’ve been preparing for this outcome for a long time. What consoles me and makes me proud are the many ways in which the innovative ideas it represented live on in the classrooms of our graduates and in the tens of thousands of students who have passed through their classrooms. In addition, many of the elements of the program’s design have been adopted by teacher education programs across the country. Residency-based programs are now a strong presence in teacher education. Attention to teacher identity and issues of race, class and culture are common elements in most programs today. Place-based programs exist where they were previously unknown.

            There are many aspects of the shut down of the program that I haven’t addressed; my account is incomplete. But I will circle back to the beginning by repeating that innovation is fragile and ephemeral. The seeds of change carry within them the genes that impose time limits on their ability to continue sprouting. This is a dark time in education in general and in teacher education in particular. We need to plant new seeds and to find better ways to protect the ones that are already in the ground. With greater commitment to revamping the program rather than eradicating it, the University could have been part of that renewal. When the closing of UTEP is officially announced, it will become just another footnote in the institution’s history, just as the demise of the Education Department was in the mid-90s. What a sad ending to an inspiring effort to restore respect to the profession of teaching.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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