The Future of Teaching in Clark County — and the Nation

As the rest of the country becomes as diverse as Las Vegas, UNLV is creating better-than-best practices for our next generation of kids.

BY KIM K. METCALF • Read this article at the UNLV News Center

Rebel Science Camp
March 17, 2017
(Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

From the earliest days of our republic, we have believed that education was critical to our democracy. Our founders knew that the health of our country, the wellbeing of the citizenry­ — and particularly the strength of the democracy — would be built on a well-educated population. Though disagreements have been fierce regarding who is to be educated, how much education they need, and whether to measure its value in economic growth, individual growth, or societal growth, fundamentally, we have always agreed that educating our citizens is important.

With this belief in mind, in 1917 our country began a unique experiment: We required education to be available to all of our citizens for free. Now, after a century of well-intended effort and research by countless experts, 17 presidents and their respective agendas, and 50 congresses armed with the education reform du jour, frankly, we’re still experimenting. We still haven’t figured out how to make our educational system work consistently for all children.

How can this be? The past several decades have been filled with announcements that THE new idea — the unequivocal “fix” — for public education has been discovered. “If only we allow parents more choice in selecting their child’s school,” or “find better ways to hold teachers and schools accountable,” or “develop better tests,” or “standardize curriculum,” or “integrate more technology,” or “expand states’ authority.” The list of efforts is long.

Yet, there is very little evidence that these initiatives, individually or collectively, have done much to improve educational outcomes or equity.  Why have these efforts been so fruitless?

Let’s look back for a moment.

Nearly all of these reform approaches are grounded on concepts codified in a single policy document: A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform. Often credited as the catalyst for a pivotal shift in public education policy, the genuinely innovative concepts in A Nation at Risk changed the way our country, and much of the western world, thought about and approached educating its citizenry.

This genuinely groundbreaking set of ideas was released in — 1983. The same year Motorola unveiled the first hand-held mobile telephone, aptly named “The Brick” for its weight, shape, and size. In the years since, future-focused innovators have pushed the boundaries of technology and engineering in ways that were only vaguely imagined, if imagined at all, by those who clamored to get their cutting edge “Brick.”

Over that same period, the education and policy communities have intensely focused on refining the original concepts presented in A Nation at Risk. From America 2000 in 1991 to No Child Left Behind in 2001 to our most current iteration, Every Student Succeeds, each plan promised to overhaul education from bottom to top.  And, fundamental to these reforms, was the perpetual quest to identify best practices.For 35 years, literally billions of dollars have been invested in massive efforts to find teachers, schools, and states that seemed to be performing better than others, determine what it was they were doing that might explain this, and then implement (or impose) these best practices more broadly.

The problem with best practices is that, by nature, they’re always out of date.

They represent the “best” of what was being done in some place and at some time in the past. At most, they improve achievement of yesterday’s goals; at worst, they actively promote the status quo by continually looking backward rather than forward.

To meet the needs of students in our rapidly evolving world, we must set our sights beyond settling for the best we once knew or even know now. The problems, issues, and needs of yesterday may no longer be relevant, so even the best strategies known to address them may have little consequence to the world of tomorrow. To achieve tomorrow’s outcomes, we must set our sights on developing the next practicesnecessary to serve the future generations and the issues they will face.

The Future Is Here

Since the College of Education’s inception in the very early days of UNLV’s history, one of its major objectives has been to educate and prepare high-quality teachers to serve in Nevada’s schools. But educating our state’s educators is far from the college’s only purpose.

Our faculty have always been engaged in future-focused research to inform policymaking and validate new professional approaches for a new era of students. Notably, research and methods stemming from the Silver State today have intrinsic benefits for far more than just Nevadans.

Many have noted what the a June 22 New York Times piece recently featured: Las Vegas is the future. The population of Southern Nevada today — in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and age — is nearly identical to projections of U.S. demographics in 40 years. In essence, Nevada’s present is America’s future.

For the College of Education, our community provides a “living laboratory” in which to create, research, evaluate, and cultivate the newest strategies — the next practices — that will educate future generations… Made in Nevada, shared from coast to coast and beyond.

Challenging the status quo, our faculty and students have accepted the task to usher in change. Pioneering new research and testing new methods to achieve our nation’s grand promise of equitable education for all citizens is our mission. From studying the benefits of rigorous early childhood education in a fully-inclusive setting, like the Lynn Bennett Early Childhood Development Center, to developing more effective ways to use virtual reality in educator preparation, as in our Interaction and Media Sciences Lab, or improving the use of real-time data to adapt and improve instruction and learning, as in our Metacognition and Motivation in Advanced Learning Technologies Lab, our faculty’s research and findings are shifting the way we, and our peers, approach education and educator preparation.

This focus is bringing UNLV national acclaim as a leader in developing practical solutions to future educational challenges. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) recently featured UNLV as one of four colleges of education leading innovative research partnership programs with their community’s preK-12 schools. The Abriendo Caminos/Opening Pathways program—a UNLV initiative to add more teachers of color to the pipeline—was chosen by the U.S. Department of Education from more than 90 applicants as a focus project for the 2016 Teach to Lead Summit. As a result, we are creating actionable plans for school districts to begin implementing the program in their own, increasingly diverse, schools.

UNLV’s role as education innovators is anchored in being unanchored … We politely refuse to be tied down by what has been established as“the best.” Exactly where this takes us remains to be seen, but knowing there is always more to research, more to study, and new answers to be found, will be what drives us into the future. We will always strive for what’s better than the world’s presumed “best.”

New Face: Sean Mulvenon

This new associate dean in the College of Education says that working a variety of jobs has taught him to respect all occupations.

BY KELSEY HAND • Read this article at the UNLV News Center

Sean Mulvenon, College of Education photographed for New Faces on August 21, 2017. (R. Marsh Starks / UNLV Creative Services)

With a background as a statistician, Sean Mulvenon joins the College of Education as both a faculty member and as the associate dean of research and sponsored projects with a plan to increase research funding and opportunities for faculty and students at UNLV.

Tell us about an object in your office that has significance to you.

I have a red button that is similar to the “easy” button you see on TV, but this is a “bull****” button. Several years ago during a meeting at my research office with several doctoral students I was getting the “yabba dabba do” responses to a few projects and I said “that’s bull****! You need to develop a better protocol.” They loved my reaction that day and then found this button in a novelty shop and decided it was a perfect gift for me. Seldom does a person visiting my office refrain from hitting the button to hear one of the five versions of “That’s bull****” and chuckle. I think this button sets a tone of candor, clarity, and levity.

Why did you decide to come to UNLV?

Several reasons made UNLV a wonderful career move for me. UNLV’s Top Tier mission and the aligned support from the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, Clark County School District, Nevada Legislature, NSHE, and many others within the community make this a wonderful place to be, and the expansion and growth of research in the College of Education requires the positive support of these groups; The opportunity to join the college’s leadership team of Dean (Kim) Metcalf, Dr. (Danica) Hays and Dr. (Doris) Watson, who are amazing and knowledgeable regarding the commitment required to be successful; and the energetic faculty within the College of Education, who are active in grant writing and scholarship, provide the intellectual capital to be successful.

What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you’ve worked or where you went to school?

UNLV is a big little school. The university reports approximately 30,000 students, but as a large university, it has a smaller feel relative to other universities where I have been. Additionally, this is the first campus I have been on since 1982 that does not have a football field on site. Which may explain why my question “what is the faculty discount for football tickets?” led to such chaos at the UNLV ticket office. Two ticket agents, one facilities maintenance worker, two administrative assistants, and an assistant director in the athletic department later, I had my tickets, with the faculty discount of 20 percent!

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Yakima, Washington, a small town in south central Washington. Yakima County is often referred to as the “fruit bowl of the world” because of the fruits and produce generated in this community and shipped everywhere. I’m most proud of the hops we grow for beer.

What other jobs have you had?

I have a long history of regular jobs beginning with delivery of newspapers to 70 homes when I was 10 and a half years old. I then continued with various jobs to support myself during school, including working on golf course maintenance crews through high school and college breaks, working as a janitor at Nordstrom’s and in the Kennedy Library at Eastern Washington University. During graduate school I worked a graveyard shift as a bellman at a Scottsdale Resort and various graduate research assistantships during my time at Arizona State University.

After earning my doctorate, I served as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois before joining the faculty at the University of Arkansas. There, I served as a professor and the director of research and assessment in the office of the vice provost of research and economic development. I also had the opportunity to serve as the senior advisor to the deputy secretary of education in Washington, D.C. I also created the National Office for Research on Measurement and Evaluation Systems (NORMES) and directed over $12 million in funding as principal investigator.

I believe my early experience framed a dedicated work ethic, respect for all types of jobs, and it paid for all my schooling that led me to place greater value on my education. Additionally, working on golf courses and as a bellman, janitor, etc. helped grow my interpersonal skills, appreciation for all roles in life, and made me a much better academic.

Tell us about a time in your life when you’ve been daring.

Any major research project requires the principal investigator to be daring. You must embrace the risk of failing, the risk of succeeding, and the risk of public record and accountability for your research. You have to be willing to fail, and willing to use both the negative and positive information you find to move forward. And in the process, you must learn to ignore any bruises to your academic self-esteem.

Finish this sentence, “If I couldn’t work in my field, I would like to…”

Referee golf rounds. I am certified as a United States Golf Associate rules official and I have worked many of their national championships as an official. I would enjoy doing this full time, focusing on junior golf programs and the NCAA competitions.

Tell us about someone you admire and why.

Father Himes, a Jesuit priest, who during the last two years of high school when I lived in seven foster homes taught me perseverance, discipline, and to never feel sorry for myself. The day after I had moved between two foster homes, in an understandably difficult situation, Father Himes put his arm over my shoulder and said, “I know you had a bad day yesterday, but you didn’t do your homework!” There are very few days that go by where I do not think of that simple life message.

I also admire Albert Einstein. Yes, he was the father of nuclear physics (my undergrad degree), but the message in his quote, “Do not tell me your difficulties in mathematics for I can assure you mine are still greater” is a lesson in keeping things in perspective. In addition to many other things, his writing, thoughts, and lessons contained in Opinions and Ideas, a collection of his letters, essays and other works, are excellent… They assert his commanding presence and his ability to influence an academic perspective.

Any tips for success?

Focus on how to solve problems, not why there are problems. I have always asked my doctoral students to share any problems they encounter, but they must also share a possible solution they have developed to move forward.

Pastimes or hobbies?

Avid golfer. Mocking the neighbors who spend all day working in their yards. Tailgating with other faculty and doctoral students at football games. Generator, TVs, tents, coolers, I have the full SEC (Southeastern Conference) fun pack for tailgating, which I have converted to UNLV gear. Go Rebels!