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UNM hits ‘reset’ on teacher education

Pictured is the College of Education building on the main UNM campus Tuesday afternoon. 
Albuquerque, New Mexico.(Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
Pictured is the College of Education building on the main UNM campus Tuesday afternoon. Albuquerque, New Mexico.(Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
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The University of New Mexico’s College of Education dean stepped down Tuesday in what administrators say is the beginning of a multimillion-dollar revamp with the goal of improving the quality of education in New Mexico.

Provost Chaouki Abdallah said although UNM’s College of Education graduates only about 15 percent of licensed K-12 teachers in New Mexico, it is the biggest one in the state and has a responsibility to lead on reforms.

He likened the plan to hitting the “reset” button on teacher education. Changes include expanding a promising student teaching program, increasing graduate level research and specializing in certain areas.

“Ultimately, I think what we can do is we will become a magnet. … People will come from everywhere to study, let’s say, how to teach English as a second language,” Abdallah said.

UNM will soon launch a national search for a dean to replace Richard Howell, who had served in the position for more than five years. Viola Florez, who was a longtime College of Education dean, one-time interim provost and former Higher Education secretary, will serve in the interim.

Abdallah said it is important to hire a dean from outside New Mexico who can bring a fresh perspective.

“Bringing somebody from the outside, it’s almost like saying, ‘OK, let’s start new on this one,’ ” he said.

“It’s probably a five- to 10-year plan … and we will need, for the first five years, external, outside-of-the-state and UNM partners to help us,” Abdallah said. The numerous initiatives, including the hiring of more faculty, likely will cost anywhere between $1 million and $2 million per year, he said.

He said the university will work with outside foundations and organizations for funding the initiatives. Administrators will form three different advisory groups on the local, state and national level who will help craft changes and find the resources for them, he said.

Abdallah said the changes are in response to a Legislative Finance Committee report in December that found New Mexico’s colleges aren’t doing enough to prepare teachers for the classroom, which in turn affects student performance.

New Mexico students traditionally are at the low end of national proficiency rankings. About 30 percent of high school students don’t graduate, and many who do need remedial courses to do college work.

“We looked at these recommendations carefully, and some of the things that people agree both in the state and outside is that, for example, that we have some area of weaknesses that can be addressed with teacher training at the university,” Abdallah said.

Among the changes Abdallah is seeking is an increase in clinical training, most often in the form of student teaching. That will come with a hefty price tag, he said.

For example, UNM now spends about $60,000 annually on one of the student teaching programs it offers. The Bandelier Project, a collaboration between the university and Bandelier Elementary, places education students with selected teachers. The program was established about two years ago and has shown promise, the LFC report found. Now, Abdallah wants to expand that program, to the tune of about $500,000 annually.

Howell, who was named dean in April 2009 but had served in the position on an interim basis since 2007, is taking a sabbatical but eventually will return to UNM in another capacity, Abdallah said.

UNM College of Education Dean Richard Howell

UNM College of Education Dean Richard Howell

Howell said he wanted to emphasize the college’s achievements over the past several years. Those include: protecting “the core values” of the college during the recession, continuing a focus on research, strengthening faculty, providing salary relief for faculty and staff and building two new structures, he said.

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