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Cancellation of MAT track met with frustration

2018-19 elementary program suspension to impact student-teacher ratios in local schools

The School of Professional Studies has faced intense criticism from numerous alums and current students after announcing its decision to suspend the elementary track of the Masters of Arts in Teaching program for the 2018-19 academic year as the program undergoes a review. Because no new students will be able to enroll in the elementary MAT program, the suspension will affect not just potential applicants, but also numerous public and private schools that rely on and benefit from the teachers-in-training.

The absence of elementary MAT candidates next year will increase student-teacher ratios in many Providence classrooms and temporarily end SummerPrep, a supplemental education program that serves about 100 Providence students each year, according to some alums, current students and members of the Providence community.

Seven alums and three current students expressed their shared frustration to The Herald, and another alum communicated similar feelings over email. Six teachers in both public and private schools shared their concerns about the harm this suspension will cause to the Providence community. Allison Gaines Pell ’96, head of school at The Wheeler School, Jon Green, director of the Hamilton School at Wheeler — which serves students with learning differences — and Dan Corley ’75, head of school at Community Preparatory School, also shared their concerns about the loss of the program.

When asked if the program will return after the one-year suspension, Dean of the School of Professional Studies and Vice Chair of the Department of Education Karen Sibley MAT’81 P’07 P’12 said, “I can’t tell you that. I don’t know for sure.”

The University’s MAT program is an “intensive one-year master’s and certification program that prepares tomorrow’s teacher leaders,” according to the department of education’s website. The program is split into two tracks: elementary and secondary. This year, 11 students are enrolled in the elementary MAT program and 31 are enrolled in the secondary MAT program.

Both the elementary and the secondary MAT tracks are under review, but just the elementary track was suspended. “The secondary track is easier to keep running” during the review process, Sibley said.

Sibley asserted that this review is a standard process. “It’s about … the opportunity here to take a look at something we do that is really valuable to society and to ensure that we’re doing the best job that we can.” Sibley, a secondary MAT alum herself, said she has “more than just an administrator’s stake in the game.” The University is just beginning the review process and plans to be more communicative with current students and alums in the future, as well as to incorporate their feedback as the review progresses, she added.

While most MAT degree programs span two years, the University’s MAT program combines pedagogy and in-classroom experiences into one year. A normal day for an elementary MAT student at the University includes traveling to their placement school and student-teaching from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., coming to the University for three to four hours of class and then going home to complete graduate level homework as well as prepare for the next day of teaching, said Margot Miller MAT’11, elementary MAT alum and fifth-grade teacher at The Wheeler School.

The decision to suspend the elementary track was not made lightly, said Diane Pimentel, director of teacher education.

A number of other administrators and teachers involved with the program declined to comment, including Joan Gujarati, director of elementary education and Jeanette Epstein, adjunct lecturer in elementary education. Laura Snyder, lecturer in education and director of English education, did not respond to a request for comment.

The University “often seems to have a hard time taking seriously” its community responsibility to Providence and Rhode Island, said Keith Catone ’00, executive director at the Center for Youth and Community Leadership in Education at Roger Williams University.

For example, the elementary MAT program has collaborated with the Community Preparatory School in Providence to create SummerPrep, a free program that allows students entering grades one through six to catch up in school. No one from the University communicated with Corley about the elementary program’s suspension, which means that SummerPrep “won’t be happening” this year, he said. Advertising for the program still remains on the University department of education’s website.

Green believes the program’s suspension will be a great loss. “The children I work with, their futures are determined by third or fourth grade in this country. When kids are behind in fourth grade, statistics show they never catch up. Never,” Green said. “Engaging young talented teachers in an innovative and successful special education program can shine a light to show us one way to improve education for all children in our country,” he wrote in an email to The Herald.

The presence of teachers-in-training helps “the kids in the classroom and helps the teachers who are mentoring … to be more reflective and more intentional in their practices,” Gaines Pell said.

In addition to staffing SummerPrep and student-teaching, many elementary MAT students feed into the Providence school systems after graduation. “We’ve gotten some amazing teachers from the MAT program. … I feel like we’ve really benefited tremendously,” Gaines Pell added.

The decision to suspend just the elementary program appears to reflect a shift in the University’s values, multiple alums said. “It feels like a slap in the face to eliminate elementary and only keep secondary, as if to say that Brown is ‘too prestigious’ to train elementary school educators,” said Ana Lopez ’10 MAT’11, elementary MAT alum and third-grade teacher at the Oyster Adams Bilingual School in Washington, D.C. “Quite frankly, I thought we were better than that.”

“I think this (elementary) program has been shafted for a few months — if not years. It seems like secondary gets a lot more attention than we do,” said Jess Williams GS, a current elementary MAT student.

The University’s decision to review the MAT program is in “alignment with the University’s priorities as outlined in the strategic plan, Building on Distinction,” wrote Provost Richard Locke P’18 in an email to MAT students. The ongoing review processes are meant to ensure “the academic excellence and rigor of (the University’s) educational programs,” Locke wrote.

However, the decision to suspend the program in the name of assessing rigor feels insulting to many current students and alums. The University has “always questioned the rigor of the (elementary MAT) program, which is absurd,” Miller said. “Anybody who’s done the program would tell you it’s the most rigorous year of their entire life.” All seven of the alums interviewed expressed similar feelings.

Many alums agree that the University seems to question the value of the elementary MAT program, but “nobody has ever come to sit in on a class,” Miller said.

Current students and alums of the elementary MAT program have felt a general lack of transparency from the University regarding the suspension. For example, in the fall, Sibley asked current students to gather and provide feedback on the program without being informed that the program was under review, Williams said. Students spoke about a disappointing required course — POBS 2010A: “Language Theory and Curriculum Development” — which cost them an extra $6,500, Williams said. Other complaints included having to pay to print “copious course readings” and a particularly “disorganized professor,” said Suzanne Keating ’89 GS, another current MAT student.

“We were misled, and a lot of us feel really bad about the constructive criticism we had, because instead we felt that it was twisted in order to further the University’s agenda to cancel the program,” Williams said. Keating agreed, adding that “Dean Sibley knew she and the Provost would be deciding on the program’s immediate future. We did not.”

“We would have appreciated honesty. Instead, we were given free pizza,” Keating said.

The students who gave feedback put “too much weight on their influence,” and hearing about their disappointment “pulls on my heartstrings,” Sibley told The Herald in response to the criticism.

The only form of contact between the University and elementary MAT alums was a survey the University distributed asking for feedback on the program. On the survey, numerous alums left their names and contact information in hopes that the University would reach out. Of the alums The Herald asked to comment, none were ever contacted by the University.

These concerns may have a long-term impact, but ultimately, the program’s suspension “will be Brown’s loss,” Green said. The Hamilton School plans to offer a two-week training course inspired by the University’s elementary MAT program for new and veteran teachers. Community Prep is actively looking for other partners to help build a replacement for SummerPrep. Although some of the best teachers at the Hamilton school are elementary MAT graduates, “we will fill the void,” Green added.

“At best, the decision was capricious,” Keating said. “At worst, the provost and dean were diligent, sought to understand who would be affected by this decision and decided to withdraw Brown’s  support of these classrooms anyway.”


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