Leadership & Governance

Owning the K-12 Challenge

Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State U. of New York

May 16, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

With New York and several other states facing teacher shortages in the coming years, Nancy L. Zimpher says it’s time to rethink how public universities prepare tomorrow’s educators. As the chancellor of the State University of New York system, which educates nearly 25 percent of New York’s certified teachers, she pulled together a panel of education experts to build a consensus on how SUNY — and perhaps other university systems — can better recruit, train, and provide career support. It’s an effort, she hopes, that will ultimately benefit SUNY over all, with new students from New York public schools who are more prepared for college-level work. "Instead of just pointing the finger at K-12, saying why don’t you send us better, smarter students,” she says, SUNY wanted to "say to our K-12 colleagues, we own this challenge with you."


IAN WILHELM: I'm here today with Nancy Zimpher, the chancellor of the State University of New York. Ms. Zimpher, thanks for being here today.

NANCY ZIMPHER: Yes, thank you.

IAN WILHELM: One of the things you put a priority on as chancellor is teacher training. As you've said, you want to make sure that teachers are prepared to be effective leaders in the 21st-century classroom. What have you done in that area and why is important for a public university system like yours to put a focus on that?

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NANCY ZIMPHER: Well I'll start with the most immediate challenge. We believe we're going to have a massive teacher shortage. Finally, the boomers are retiring. And we thought this was coming five, six, seven years ago. It's coming now. And we want to make sure that in that shortage – first of all, we meet that shortage and give the supply that our schools need, but second, that we really make sure that we don't miss a beat on quality. We know from mounds of research that the single most important thing in the classroom is the quality of the teacher and so we want to respond to that.

And the reason we're so interested is that SUNY prepares about 5,000 teachers a year. We have 17 baccalaureate – what we call comprehensive colleges, many of whom were founded as normal schools. They are devoted to their teacher-education programs and so it's they who can give this supply chain their full attention. And the second thing we worry a lot about is the number of students who come to college not quite ready for college work. Puts a big drain on remediation and the needs of students who need remedial work.

So instead of just pointing a finger at K-12 and saying why don't you send us better, smarter students, we prepare the teachers who teach those students who come to college ready or not. So we say to our K-12 colleagues, we own this challenge with you and the key element is the relationship of the quality of the teacher to the learning of the students.

IAN WILHELM: So ultimately you hope to see some benefit for your campuses and the students who are coming out and graduating the years ahead?

NANCY ZIMPHER: Well it's a big payoff in several ways. First of all, yes, we think that if we're really good at teaching in the K-12 grades that students will be ready for college. Second, we're really working on that diversity issue. We want a more diverse population of teachers so we're creating what we call an Urban-Rural Teacher Corps at SUNY. And we know that many teachers come from community colleges, which is where we get a lot of our diversity. And then we'll have a more diverse student population at SUNY. So every time I think of a reason why we're doing this, it solves about five problems.

IAN WILHELM: Right. As you said, public university systems have been working on this issue for a while. Many of them have been preparing teachers. I mean, do you feel as a whole they're doing enough to the focus on this issue?

NANCY ZIMPHER: Well I think we're not doing enough and that's why we formed an advisory board a year ago. For 18 months we have talked about nothing else but how we can prepare teachers and do a better job and work more effectively with our schools. So I have had a lot of years in this business and I've seen a lot of good practices come and go. I used to videotape my teachers and now that's a rarity. We used to do classroom simulations. There are a few people using avatars and simulating the classroom, but not enough.

We used to have partner schools. Some still exist. We used to call them lab schools. Now we call them professional-development schools. But I am amazed at how many innovations here and there have occurred that have not been adopted at scale. So if SUNY does nothing else – and we do a lot – we are capable of scaling what works.

So if we get this right, if we take our 60 recommendations and the really hot buttons that we're talking about right now in terms of policy and execution and we take them to scale across the SUNY system, we will do good for New York and hopefully work with other states and with other policy makers too to take what we're learning across the country.

IAN WILHELM: And how do you do that? How do you take those innovative practices and get them out there? How do you make sure the report you may produce doesn't just sit on a shelf? How do you make sure that active change is out there?

NANCY ZIMPHER: Well I can tell you – at my age, I have authored and co-authored a lot of those reports that are absolutely on the shelf. That is not going to happen this time. So watch us. In May we will announce the findings of this advisory board. Phase two will be seeing which ones have synergy. Maybe there'll be one everybody dislikes and we might put that one on a lower level, but let's get started.

Let's start implementing and we will do that by putting our recommendations to the test, to sort of test drive or stress test, what of these recommendations really ring a bell with multiple constituencies. Because the problem or the challenge of teacher education – we can't just do it right on our campus. We have to have that teaching school – like a teaching hospital, like interns going into those hospitals – we need that same relationship codified in policy. In medicine, it's in law. And to make sure that both the practicing teachers in the field and our academic professors, faculty members are working hand in glove to move that teacher from pre-service to induction to professional development. So we're going to start right away.

IAN WILHELM: And one of the things you've said for this effort was the idea of the changing of student demographics, something your institution, obviously, is working on right now and wrestling with in many ways. Last fall, you announced a sweeping effort so all of your campuses would be more welcoming to Latino, first- generation students, and others. I wonder, what have you learned from that so far? How's it going?

NANCY ZIMPHER: Well I think we had a readiness and desire. We're doing a lot more recruiting, say, in New York City and pulling students into upstate New York. But we've also not gotten everything right. Sometimes our culture and our climate wasn't ready for those students. They didn't feel welcome, and we've heard this.

We listen to the concerns of our students and now we're going to have a chief diversity officer on every one of our campuses. We have diversity policies that are being sent to SUNY central and then we can help the campuses implement the practices that they want. But fundamentally – and we hear this all the time – we need a more-diverse faculty. We need more-diverse presidents and leaders on our campuses.

And, of course, this pipeline of kids from K-12 to our campuses can really be tempered by the access they have to good teachers who came from SUNY. You know the ratio of guidance counselors to children, youth in high schools is, in some schools, from one to 300? In other words, one guidance counselor, 300 students. In dense urban systems, it might be one to 700 students.

So why not have a teacher be a counselor? Why not have a teacher from a SUNY school know all about what the possibilities are, even if the student doesn't end up going to SUNY, that college is in their future. That's why we have these early-college high schools, which we have about 60 of those in New York that SUNY administers. So it all fits together as a sort of climate for changing culture and yielding, pivoting toward diversity, equity, and inclusion.

IAN WILHELM: Ms. Zimpher, thanks for your time today.

NANCY ZIMPHER: Well thank you.

Ian Wilhelm edits coverage of international issues and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @ianwilhelm, or email him at ian.wilhelm@chronicle.com.