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Building an Economic Engine?

Building an Economic Engine?

First, overhaul student and teacher education.

Nancy Zimpher

Chancellor, The State University of New York, the nation's largest comprehensive public university system
NYAS Governor since: 2009
PhD: teacher education and higher education administration, the Ohio State University
Extracurricular activities: Water color painting and playing music on the baritone ukulele, dulcimer, and guitar
Further reading:
The Power of SUNY strategic plan
Blue Ribbon Panel on Clinical Preparation and Partnerships for Improved Student Learning
Strive report card
Strive data

When Nancy Zimpher entered the one-room school house in the foothills of the Ozarks, she knew she was in trouble. "I was the sole teacher for four grades meshed into one classroom. The disconnect between how I had been prepared—as an English teacher—and what I was expected to do in the classroom couldn't have been clearer," Zimpher recalls.

"I hadn't developed the disciplinary skills to stretch across that range of subjects. I didn't know as much as I needed to know about managing a classroom. I also didn't know enough about how young people developed cognitively and emotionally and socially at different grade levels. And I didn't know how to provide for students the kinds of extracurricular and home life assistance that were required in what we now call a 'high-needs' school."

That experience, in the early 1970s, helped shape Zimpher's career, which ultimately took her out of the classroom and into the spotlight as a passionate advocate and respected leader in transforming education for students as well as teachers. In her current role as Chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY), a post she accepted in 2009, Zimpher has continued her efforts to revitalize the educational system, focusing on New York State as a model for the nation.

"It's not unusual for teachers to be teaching out of their depth and out of their discipline, often certified on some emergency basis to teach in some of the most challenging environments. This indicates that the supply chain is quite broken," Zimpher says. "In terms of solutions, what started as a little ball rolling down the hill has become a huge issue that is coming together at this stage of my professional career through my work at SUNY, where we're creating models that enable a very different approach to education."

Education pipeline

At the heart of Zimpher's vision is an "education pipeline" that encompasses "everything people are learning at home and in schools, from the time they're born through college graduation and as they pursue a career," she explains. "We need to make a more connected pathway, supporting students not only in the classroom, but outside of school, in their families, in their neighborhoods, and in the whole social structure of our communities," she says. This systemic approach is exemplified in two recent initiatives she spearheaded: Strive and the National Cradle to Career Network.

Strive, which Zimpher helped launch in Ohio when she was president of the University of Cincinnati, has since been adopted by a number of other cities across the United States, including Houston, Richmond, and Portland, Ore. The initiative brings together, among others, teachers, school district superintendents, college and university presidents, business leaders, and early childhood advocates—experts who usually work in their own "silos," she says.

By encouraging these individuals to work together across sectors, Strive aims to ensure that children are better prepared for school, supported inside and outside of school, succeed academically, enroll in some form of postsecondary education, graduate and embark on a career. Its most recent "report card" and other data (see "Further Reading") show that in participating cities, Strive implementation has increased academic achievement, kindergarten preparedness, and college graduation rates.

The National Cradle to Career Network, launched in February 2011, is modeled after Strive, bringing together parents, teachers, administrators, and thought leaders from pre-kindergarten through higher education, as well as representatives from industry, community organizations, and government. For the prototype network, which is being developed in and around Albany, SUNY will collaborate with the Albany city school district, several regional SUNY campuses, and local governments and nonprofit organizations. Similar networks will soon be underway in Buffalo and in the borough of Brooklyn, in New York City.

"Clinical" curriculum

Zimpher emphasizes that teachers "are in a practice-based profession like doctors, nurses, and clinical psychologists, and they need a whole series of on-campus laboratory experiences, simulations, and video demonstrations to begin to understand the culture of specific schools and classrooms. Even when they're sent out to a school to observe, they typically don't know what to look for. Therefore, they cannot see."

Convinced that clinical preparation should be the "centerpiece" of teacher education, Zimpher agreed to co-chair with former Colorado Commissioner of Education Dwight Jones the Blue Ribbon Panel on Clinical Preparation and Partnerships for Improved Student Learning, convened by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education in November 2010. In line with Zimpher's approach, the expert panel called for teacher education to be "turned upside down" and refocused on clinical practice; as in the medical preparation model, "teachers, mentors, and coaches, and teacher interns and residents [will] work together as part of teams." Stronger oversight by states and accreditation agencies is also recommended to ensure that teacher-preparation programs become more accountable.

Thus far, New York, California, Colorado, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, and Tennessee have agreed to implement the panel's recommendations.

Power of SUNY ... and NYAS

Shortly after she came on board at SUNY, Zimpher launched a strategic plan, called The Power of SUNY, with the goal of making the university system an "economic engine" for New York State. Not surprisingly, a "seamless education pipeline" is a key objective. The plan highlights the increasing need for workers with knowledge and skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—the very areas in which performance drops as students move from elementary school through high school.

SUNY is the largest higher education system in the United States, with more than 467,000 students on 64 campuses. Its breadth, scope, and potential are what drew Zimpher to her current post. "Over my 40 years in higher education, I've seen a great deal of innovation, but it all had the look of a cottage industry—boutique innovations that are very difficult to take to scale," she says. "I saw coming to SUNY as a one-of-a-kind opportunity to take innovation to scale at every level—in education, in the sciences, in art, and in health care. My greatest desire for an accomplishment is to realize the power of this complex, diverse system by implementing innovative ideas across multiple campuses."

That aspiration propelled Zimpher to join the New York Academy of Sciences' Board of Governors, largely because of the Academy's "strong commitment to education and, in particular, to the STEM disciplines," she says. "Linking SUNY's many scientists, faculty, and graduate students to the Academy's scientific community has the potential to yield mutual benefits on a huge scale." (For more on how NYAS is helping Zimpher to strengthen the SUNY economic engine, see "How to Build an Innovation Ecosystem.")

Zimpher also was attracted to the Academy's international projects and connections. "These dovetail with our desire to better coordinate SUNY's global affairs and outreach," she explains. "Many people talk very vehemently about how America's educational system lags behind those of other countries. Some of what ails our system is being taken care of in other systems. Nevertheless, as word got out about our cradle-to-career partnerships, people in other countries learned about them on the web, and have begun to solicit our advice. So, I'm thinking that all educational systems around the world get pieces of the comprehensive picture right. But the whole picture—the need to imbue the education process with academic, cultural, and social investments in our future—is something that everybody is challenged with. And that means we have an opportunity to be a model."

Zimpher's passion for teaching and revamping the educational system has deep roots. Although her experience in the one-room school house was a precipitating factor, the foundation was laid much earlier. Her father was a principal in a Herndon, West Virginia, elementary school when he met her mother, who came from Kentucky to teach "commercial" classes in the local high school. "Commercial classes were taken mainly by women who were not college-bound," Zimpher notes. "Ironically, though, these classes included the one subject that has the most value for us in the 21st century—keyboarding [typing]."

"Another irony is that my mother placed students in cooperative internships in local businesses, and years later I learned that the city of Cincinnati was the founder of cooperative education, close to a hundred years ago," Zimpher says. "And here I am now, working diligently to bring paid internships and cooperative education to scale in New York."

Marilynn Larkin is an independent health, medical, science editor and writer in New York City.