Tuesday, November 14, 2023 - In too many rural areas, workers lack access to affordable training pathways to high-quality jobs. Jeff and Michael sit down with Mallory Dwinal-Palisch, Chancellor of Reach University, to learn about how Reach is addressing this challenge with an apprenticeship approach to teacher education. In the first of this two-part conversation, they discuss the theory and practice that informed Reach’s founding and the college’s innovative enrollment, training, and funding models. Michael considers how Reach’s clear focus helps keep their costs low, and Jeff discusses the importance of career-connected learning. The episode is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group.
In too many rural areas, workers lack access to affordable training pathways to high-quality jobs. Jeff and Michael sit down with Mallory Dwinal-Palisch, Chancellor of Reach University, to learn about how Reach is addressing this challenge with an apprenticeship approach to teacher education. In the first of this two-part conversation, they discuss the theory and practice that informed Reach’s founding and the college’s innovative enrollment, training, and funding models. Michael considers how Reach’s clear focus helps keep their costs low, and Jeff discusses the importance of career-connected learning. The episode is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group.
(0:00) - Intro
(2:45) - Innovative higher education model
(4:57) - Rural teacher shortages and innovative solutions
(8:28) - The importance of experience in education
(11:54) - Alternative university model for teacher certification
(17:57) - Education and career development
(23:38) - Innovative teacher education model for rural areas
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Jeff, as we've discussed on the show in the past, how higher ed supports the pipeline of talent for jobs in rural areas is no easy feat. And addressing that challenge seems to become, frankly, more complex by the day. Take teachers for rural school districts as one example, nearly one in five students in the country attend a rural school. And on any given day, about a million of those students will go to school in classrooms that lack a permanent teacher, Jeff.
Yeah, Michael. That number just still kind of shocks me. I've been traveling a lot this fall, as you know, and as a result, I've been on the road and driving through rural areas and it really makes you think, how do they find teachers here and government executives and social workers or any of the other jobs that are kind of the fabric of communities? The pipeline to those jobs often runs through rural colleges, and they've been drying up as well as they've shed enrollment. So today, we're going to bring you a different model for higher ed that addresses the challenge of the town pipeline in rural communities as we welcome Reach University to Future U.
This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. For more information, visit ascendiumphilanthropy.org.
I'm Michael Horn.
And I'm Jeff Selingo. Michael, as listeners of this show know, I grew up in a small town, fewer than 5,000 people, and while it's in a small metro area, it was by no means a major city and it was surrounded by a lot of rural communities. My dad was a public school teacher, and I've watched as regional public universities that are nearby where I grew up are struggling with dwindling enrollment and try to keep their costs in line for middle class families. We know the fault line right now and much of American life and politics is around the college degree. If you have one, you're more likely to live in a city or suburbia. You're more likely to vote for Democrats. You're likely to make more money. And we know from even recent research, you're likely to live a longer life.
Now, that doesn't make for a sustainable country or democracy in my opinion, we can't just write off colleges and prospective learners in wide swaths of the country, in my opinion. So how do we serve these rural communities is a really big question, and it's a question, particularly, how we provide high-quality teachers that is on the mind of our guest on today's show and has been for a long time.
That's right, Jeff. Our guest today is Mallory Dwinal-Palisch. She's the chancellor of Reach University and the co-founder of the Oxford Teachers' Academy, which was incubated at Reach, which offers an innovative apprenticeship-based model of higher ed fit for rural communities and more.
Jeff, as I think you know, I first got to know Mallory when she was actually a student at the Harvard Business School, taking Clay Christensen's popular class on innovation, and she actually reached out to me. I was at the Christensen Institute at the time, and she wanted to share her doctoral work that she had done at Oxford University about the teacher shortages across the country. She had this thought that our theories, disruptive innovation and more, could really be a big answer to the problem. So she actually ended up writing a paper for us to start to dissect just what the challenge and opportunity was through the lens of disruptive innovation, and she's been on my radar ever since. When I was on the board of Silicon Schools Fund, we funded her innovative school in the Bay Area that she started up. And then it's just, frankly, been a lot of fun to watch her career continue to lean more and more into tackling the problem that we laid out upfront. And I know you've had some chances to interact with her as well.
Yeah, Michael, it was actually thanks to your introduction, and I just think our listeners today are really going to enjoy Mallory and her story. She joined us on one of my Next Office Hour webinars, and so it's really a delight now to bring her back on the show together. Now, when we recorded this interview with Mallory, I think we expected it to last maybe 15 or 20 minutes like most of our Future U guests, but this conversation ended up lasting a lot longer. So we're going to break this topic into two parts.
The first part, which you'll hear today, dives more into Mallory's story and what she learned from her past experiences, just what is Reach University because I think a lot of our listeners probably don't know, how it operates and how it is different and similar to other universities. And then in part two, which will follow this, we will dive into the questions of quality scale and how traditional higher ed institutions might be able to copy this approach, because I find that actually very interesting about what she's doing, and what other problems in rural areas this approach and strategy can help tackle. So with that as a backdrop, Mallory, welcome to Future U.
Thank you so much for having me.
I want to dig in on Reach University and what it is, et cetera. But I first want to start about our topic today, bolstering the talent pipeline in rural communities, especially for critical public sector jobs like school teachers, because you actually did your PhD on teacher shortages, especially rural teachers. So can you tell us how you landed on that subject and maybe what were some of the headlines from your dissertation?
Yeah, this will make you guys the only people to ever want to know more about someone's PhD dissertation. So I grew up with my home base in a rural town. My grandparents farmed the same land that my family has farmed for the last 150 years, and it's a town of about 300 people. And my parents were pretty mobile when I was a kid. They lost everything in the Mississippi River floods when I was going into preschool. So they moved around a lot as my dad would look for work since he did not have a college degree. As a result, my grandparents' farm was sort of my home base.
When I got to college, it was fascinating for me because that split between my time in rural and non-rural, I was dedicated to education reform. My parents stressed all the time how many more opportunities would be open to us by virtue of getting the opportunities that my dad did not have. But when I was in these discussions, everything was focused on non-rural communities. And when I would go look at the academic literature, rural vacancies were a particular area that there was not a whole lot of research around. So that's how I landed on the subject, because what we know about rural education is there are about as many kids in rural communities as there are in urban communities. What we know is that teacher shortages both in absolute and proportionate numbers are just as large in those communities, and yet 90% of all dollars and 90% of all shortage program seats go to students and teacher training in urban areas.
So that was this subject and this focus for me that mattered a lot with what I was seeing growing up in those areas. And one of my big conclusions that we came away from the research was that we needed a new kind of university to end teacher shortages in rural areas. Rural areas have higher high school graduation rates than we have in urban areas, but way lower college attainment rates. One of the big reasons for that is, if you're from a rural community, you don't really leave and come back. So this idea that someone is going to go get a college degree to become a teacher by leaving that community, taking on student debt that is high by any levels, but certainly when you adjust it for rural wages and rural living indices and then come back and work in that community, it's just not a structural solution that can work. So we needed universities that are more adapted to being ingrained within the local rural context.
So basically grow your own then, which we'll be talking about today.
So then you went on to become a teacher with Teach For America and start the Oxford Day Academy. Can you connect those dots for us and kind of what you learned from those experiences? So now you had kind of the theory from your PhD and now you were going to have your kind of practice per se.
There is a quotation that I'm shamelessly stealing from I don't know who, but I think it would be the theme of all of my work, which is, "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is." The reason I love that quote is, the whole reason I decided after doing the PhD in teacher shortages that I should actually become a teacher was that I was talking just about the theory of what should happen inside of schools. I figured I should actually understand that from a first person perspective. So I went and I became a teacher and found out quickly that most of my ideas were bananas and would absolutely never work.
But, I was also a Spanish teacher. And I think two interesting things came back to this idea of experience being the best teacher both in my work as a classroom teacher with TFA and then also when I started Oxford Day Academy. So the first was that I was living on the other side of the equation from where my dad was. My dad was someone who was incredibly smart, a really hard worker, but because he didn't have a college degree, was getting jobs where he was paid significantly less and given significantly less experience and authority in the role because he was working for someone who had that piece of paper.
I then became a teacher and I had gone to the end of the academic ladder. I had my PhD in education. I was in theory as educated and credentialed as possible, and I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing. I was getting a lot of help in terms of managing my classroom, in terms of engaging with parents, in terms of differentiating lesson plans from people who were working in the building as classified staff, paraprofessionals, classroom aids, making minimum wage, but really knowing how to get the job done because while they didn't have the credential, they did have the experience. So that was sort of my first experience with on-the-job learning being the best teacher.
The second was, because I was a Spanish teacher and an untested subject, I was given a lot of latitude and liberty with what I was allowed to do. My first year as a teacher went about how most first year teachers experiences went. So in my second year, to change things up, working with my students, the deal we all made was we're going to pick a country that we're going to go to at the end of this year, and my students chose Costa Rica. We spent the whole year integrating all of these different subject areas and I was asking way more of them and pushing them way harder than I had in the year prior, requiring them to build out the budgets, requiring them to do all of the fundraising writing material, having to go and learn the environmental science curriculum to make sense of what they were going to be seeing when they went there. And then obviously the Spanish itself.
The transformation in terms of my ability to engage with my students, the mastery they demonstrated on not only Spanish but on other subjects outside of it that we were weaving in was remarkable. So in both of those cases, this idea that experience is the best teacher, whether it's talking about how we develop our teachers or how those teachers engage and develop those students, is something that really stuck with me. So Oxford Day Academy is a charter school that we started out in California with the idea of allowing students to go out into the field and earn up to half of their time coming from real-world experiential opportunities and then connecting that back to academic coursework through this sort of dialogic tutorial-based learning system.
So that then brings us to the next phase of your career, if you will, starting Reach University. I imagine many of our listeners might not know much about Reach or might not have heard about it at all. So why don't you tell us about it and its model and how that was the next step after Oxford Day Academy?
Reach University is the summation of the first two things we just talked about, of we need a new type of university and experience is the best teacher. So Reach is a regionally accredited nonprofit university that does exactly one thing and only one thing. And that is, we work with school districts to take high potential individuals that they've identified around their building, typically paraprofessionals, but sometimes it's lunch ladies or bus drivers, but people who that school has said, "Hey, I see this person working every day with my students. They would be a great teacher, but they don't have the college degree and they cannot afford mountains of student loan debt or years out of the workforce to get there." Reach University turns that job that they have into an apprenticeship that confers college credits and culminates in a college degree and covers all of its costs by braiding together higher education and apprenticeship funding so that there's no cost to the student, no cost to the district, and is something that allows them to earn this quality accredited degree along the way.
So there's probably a ton of questions right now for our listeners. I'll name maybe three of them, if you will. One is the faculty of Reach, two is the accreditation, and then three is, how is that work component that they're doing in the school that's not teaching, how is that counting for credit toward a teaching degree?
Yeah. So let's first talk about what's not different about Reach as a way of understanding then what is different. So first of all, what's not different is our accreditation. We're regionally accredited by WASC, which is the same regional accreditor for Stanford, all of the UCs. Any institution that has regional accreditation in California area, which is where we're founded, we have that high watermark of accreditation. The second thing that's not different is the type of degree people are getting. This is not an apprenticeship. This is a true college degree that is exactly the same as if it came from any other regionally accredited institution, eligible for Pell and financial aid just like any other institution that's regionally accredited. It is a true university.
From there, pretty much everything else is different. So first is, who is teaching the classes? Experience is the best teacher. One of the things that I found really challenging when I was going through my education training was that I would have people who had done years of research on the theory of neurolinguistic development, but had never actually worked with children who were English learners. So when I needed advice, they didn't actually know. It's not to say that that work isn't important, it's to say that that's not necessarily appropriate for training people to become the best teachers possible.
So the overwhelming majority of our educators are people who are themselves either former classroom teachers and now working for us full-time as faculty or who are themselves actually still teaching K-12 in the classroom. And then teaching these courses, because all of our courses happen on nights and weekends outside of the school day, are teaching these courses as adjunct faculty. About a quarter of those educators are actually teachers of the year or school principals of the year in the states where they work. So our faculty are incredibly talented K-12 teachers themselves with a demonstrable track record of getting good outcomes for kids who are now sharing their trade and their craft with others.
So that's who's doing the teaching. I should stop rambling, but Michael, the last question you had is, how are they doing this teaching and how are they getting the credit for work? Is it fair to dive in there?
Yep, let's do it.
Right. Michael's known me long enough that he knows that I'll go forever if you don't stop me. So, good pulse check here. So what we think is, let's first take a look at how accreditation versus apprenticeship track quality on the job learning. And this is one of the things I love about apprenticeship degrees, is it's all of the rigor of higher education around theory and around foundations combined with all of the rigor of truly tracking measurable skills gained that apprenticeship has gotten really good at. So what we start with is a true registered apprenticeship. Anyone out there who's in the registered apprenticeship world, these are our WRAP standards, our appendix A WRAP standards, and one of the things you have to list in there are competencies which anyone in the higher ed world would take a look at and say, "Oh, you're talking about student learning outcomes. Got it."
Where we typically think about this language and this conversion is what we do inside of the Carnegie credit with the "academic preparation component." This is the homework component that any traditional higher ed system running on the Carnegie credit has, and it's a two-to-one ratio. This is not a Reach thing. Again, this is any institution running on the Carnegie credit. For every one hour of lecture and seat time that I'm supposed to have, I'm supposed to have two hours of academic preparation. We typically assume that is reading textbooks, writing essays, completing problem sets, but that's not because it has to be. It's because it was the best way that university faculty could think to track student learning outcomes outside of the classroom.
So what Reach University has said and what now an increasing number of universities are saying is, what if instead we took the rigor of an apprenticeship that says you're going to have to measure these competencies out in the field? We've actually built an entire tech tool around this called Craft that is purpose-built for universities trying to track apprenticeship degree learning out in the field. It allows the professor to assign student learning outcomes that are these competencies. When the student completes that on the job, their mentor or their journey worker in apprenticeship speak, confirms that, "Yes, this was Mallory's work, this matches with all of the competencies required in the profession," gives feedback, gives a grade, et cetera, that then gets sent back to the university.
So now, the professor, rather than trying to determine if I've learned about the theory of child development from an essay that I wrote about it, is now giving me a grade based on what a veteran teacher out in the classroom has said I have mastered or not mastered and then by looking at that alongside the artifacts of that work that I'm submitting. So that's how we think about quality, is by rethinking the homework component of the Carnegie credit.
We're going to take a short break here and we'll be right back on Future U.
This episode of Future U is sponsored by as Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. Ascendium believes that system level change and a student-centric approach are important for our nation's efforts to boost post-secondary education and workforce training opportunities. That's why their philanthropy aims to remove systemic barriers faced by these learners, specifically first-generation students, incarcerated adults, veterans, students of color, adult learners, and rural community members. For more information, visit ascendiumphilanthropy.org.
Welcome back to Future U. Fascinating first part of the conversation we just had with Mallory, Jeff. I can't wait for our listeners to hear the second half in the next episode that we release where we tackle these questions of quality scale and how traditional higher ed institutions in particular can take this approach as well as what you alluded to upfront, which is what other problems in rural areas this approach can help tackle.
But for now, I want to dive into just a few of the elements that she discussed. I'd love to start with this one, which is the way she has built an offering that, frankly, between higher ed funding from federal dollars and apprenticeship money, she's able to provide a solution that, if my research is right, costs roughly $900 a year for students and nothing to the districts themselves outside of the salaries that they're paying those students in whatever roles that they were holding at the time that they enrolled. So that's something that I think clearly works in rural areas, and she does it based on this belief that experience is the best teacher, which is a line that she repeated several times. I mean, as a result, she's able to provide these individuals who are already working in schools in different roles, they are able to get real on the ground experience as a core part of their learning and drive from that to create these teachers who have real experience, Jeff, when they land in the classrooms.
Yeah, I loved her quote that "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is." There are two stories here that I want to tell, one personal and one from my reporting. Michael, I remember in high school journalism class getting a not so good grade on an assignment because I had a few errors and I was thinking, "Wow, journalism isn't that fun." By that time, I knew that's what I wanted to major in. So I was a little worried about it. And it was only years later that I realized the important lessons that taught me when a coworker of mine in North Carolina was actually fired for making too many basic errors in their journalism. Accuracy, as we know, is a pillar of journalism. And while I wasn't practicing it professionally in high school, it's now clear to me that the teacher was trying to bring reality into the classroom to say that the grade is like how you're going to be evaluated on the job when it comes to doing that job every day.
And then the second story comes from reporting two books ago. That's There is Life After College. I remember meeting a character in that book, Tim Morris, when I was in Detroit, and Tim was an architecture graduate from UVA. Like many other college students, Tim majored in a subject that intrigued him in high school, but one where he had little idea what a full-time job in the field would really entail. And before his senior year at UVA, he interned at an architecture firm in Atlanta, and that's when he first witnessed what daily life would be like after college. And as he told me, "The guy next to me was designing bathrooms for handicap accessibility, and I was designing parks and museums and college classes. That seemed fun. Designing bathrooms for handicap accessibility, while important, wasn't much fun." And as he said, he wanted to have more impact.
So when he returned to UVA for his senior year, he looked into jobs at a nonprofit or for the federal government in Washington, but he worried that a career in bureaucracy would lead to long stretches of unsatisfying work. And that's when he heard about Venture for America from a friend, and that's a firm or an organization, I should say, that Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate started. He learned about it from Smart People Should Build Things, which is Andrew Yang's book. And he was inspired to join Venture for America, which is essentially like Teach for America, but for entrepreneurs.
Now, why do I tell you these two stories, both about my high school journalism class and Tim Morris? Because I think both show that we wait too long to bring the work function into the academic core. And when I talk to faculty members, they tell me, "Well, we're not training factories. We're not job training factories." And true, they're not. But the reason for bringing job related activities into the academic core is not to train people for a job, it's to give them practice in the theory that they are learning in the classroom. So that in my first story, they know why accuracy is important. In the second story, they know that, is this even something they want to pursue as a career?
So for me, real-world practice is critical because in traditional degree programs, students might study a concept in the fourth week of a semester but not use it until two semesters later, by which they probably have forgotten what they learned, or students have no idea how a theory is applied in the outside world as they are learning about it so they quickly lose interest. By learning while doing, you use the theory and you know why you use it. It's kind of how we learn.
Yeah, it's such a good point. Clay always said, "Until someone has the question, you can't force them to learn in their mind basically." And that's what you're pointing to, right? You're creating relevance. You're also doing something different by the way, which I will say I think is just the nature of work changes so rapidly right now, Jeff, that the ability of textbooks and curriculum and theory to keep up is going to be really strained. So connecting it into work and having it really be interdependent is going to be more and more critical. Speaking of critical, I also thought that one of the really interesting facets of what Reach is doing is keeping costs low. The model's elegant for a lot of the reasons she said, but I also thought it was that it does, her quote again, does one thing and only one thing. And I love that about that.
In the second half, we get to push her a little bit on where else the model could help with filling the human capital needs in rural areas. But as listeners may recall from one of my rants on spending by colleges and universities last season, one of the biggest things that drives up overhead in administrative costs at colleges is trying to do multiple things, adding lots of programs, and trying to be all things to all people. And Mallory's basically standing at the door and saying no to that temptation, "This is who we are. We're staying focused on it. It's a really worthwhile, important mission." And my instinct, Jeff, is in addition to the elegance of the model itself, that is actually a core part of helping keep the costs at Reach in check so that it works for the rural constituencies they're serving.
Well, I'm sure, Michael, that our listeners don't want to hear you rant anymore on some of these issues, but you're right, is that one of the things you often hear these days as universities cut programs is that they say exactly what you just said, we can't be all things to all people. And I'm not quite sure why many universities, especially those in rural areas, ever thought they had the critical mass to think they could do everything. So to me, more purpose-built universities like Reach can really solve two problems at once, the one of cost and the one on focusing on a distinct local problem or local problems, which will increase the value of colleges in the local community, which we know is a big problem right now.
Yeah, it's a great point. Just last thought, Jeff, as we start to wrap up this first episode with Mallory, I confess I couldn't help wondering as she was talking if, frankly, state certification requirements are sort of creating part of the challenge for rural areas and, frankly, creating some of the need for an accredited university like Reach to solve that problem. What I mean by that is, by having certification requirements for teachers that you have to have a degree and so forth, you're sort of artificially creating a market, if you will. And it's not a fully baked thought on my part, but I'd love you to hear me out and react, is that it's long been noted that states, they create all sorts of funky certification requirements and input-based requirements. Number of years in an accredited college, for example, to be able to practice a given profession, whether that's cutting hair or physical therapy assistant or whatever. And in teaching, you need the degree to teach.
And yes, there are more alternative pathways today than there were, but for most they need that degree. So that means to get enough qualified teachers, you really do need that accredited university. I guess my point being, I would way rather that states just focus on student outcomes as the measure that they regulated schools by and then freed up the schools on the ground to structure themselves however they found it best to get those outcomes. So basically shift from a focus on regulating the inputs and focus instead on outcomes, which I'm a broken record for, but I think it might allow schools to really build some creative models that leverage local human capital in all sorts of ways to serve students.
Not that you still wouldn't need training or education for those teachers, but it might not always be a degree in many cases. And you might see some real innovation on the ground because we know that the more formal education you hold, does not correlate in the research to whether you're a good teacher. It's really, as you said, people can actually identify generally whether you're a good teacher based on your first year or two in the job. So I think allowing school leaders and educators to really build innovative models free to those requirements might do some wonders for those areas as well.
Yeah, it's interesting as you talk about the state certification requirements because there's many states, as we've talked about before, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Utah, that have dropped degree requirements for state jobs because they can't find enough state workers. Now, I'm not suggesting we do that for schools, but the point here is that scarcity I think often leads to innovation. And given teacher shortages everywhere, I think you're going to start to see a lot more innovation on this front. The other interesting thing is, if you have kids, everyone needs a teacher. So I also see the next generation of entrepreneurs and ed tech folks who have kids coming through the system, I think they're going to get frustrated with many of the things that we have been frustrated with with their own kids. And I think you're going to continue to see them pushing on the status quo and developing models like Mallory has with Reach University.
So Michael, we're going to leave it there for now, and perhaps we'll start to get into the part of the question you raised here in a different way when we return for the second half of our conversation with Mallory and dive into the actual quality of Reach University's programs, how she's thinking about scaling Reach University, and what other problems this approach can tackle in rural areas, particularly given her point that Reach really exists to do one thing and one thing only, and that's teacher education. As always, you can weigh in on the conversation on social media, on X, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook where we are @FutureU, the letter U, and Michael is at variations of Michael B. Horn, and I'm @JSelingo. Or you can jump on the Future U website and drop us a line, subscribe to our newsletter, or follow me and Michael through our own newsletters next through my website and Michael's The Future of Education at Substack. We'll see you next time for part two of our conversation with Mallory on Future U.