The University of Maryland (UMD) College of Education (COE) undergraduate elementary education program may be producing graduates unprepared for the classroom, as a rudderless redesign of the literacy program to improve diversity training has dragged on for years, sowing confusion among students and lecturers, according to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
According to internal emails and individuals involved in the overhauling of the curriculum, new courses have been developed and taught by graduate students with little guidance by their superiors, and a crucial course on how to assess students' reading ability was done away with, replaced with another diversity class.
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The plan was to reorganize five existing courses into a four-course block that would "prepare our teacher candidates with the skills and knowledge to teach reading and language arts within the framework of a child's background of experience, ethnicity, language, and culture," according to the initial proposal in 2013.
The four new courses were labeled EDCI 361, 362, 363, and 364, though since their inception, they have been listed under a changing banner of titles and course numbers.
John O'Flahavan of the COE's Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership (TLPL), was to lead the redesign.
Jennifer Albro, who will be receiving her doctorate from the College of Education this winter, said she was among a small team of graduate students recruited by O'Flahavan in January 2016 to create syllabi for two of these courses, EDCI 362 and 363. They were to be parts one and two of a course that was at one time called, "Promoting Skilled and Motivated Readers in Elementary Classrooms."
Despite the initial proposal for the literacy redesign stating its first cohort would graduate in Spring 2017, and a second document asserting that the new program has been "effective" as of Fall 2015, this was apparently the first time these two courses were ever developed, said Albro.
Albro said she and the other doctoral students were simultaneously designing and teaching the courses, while receiving little instruction from O'Flahavan.
Albro said she was only assigned development of EDCI 362, and was told she would be given a fully prepared syllabus from O'Flahavan for 363 before she taught the class in Fall 2016.
Around early August, Albro was instead handed the same rough outline she was given eight months earlier.
"So, I planned the class on my own, and tried to make the two courses flow coherently," she said.
The curriculum she was forced to throw together for EDCI 363 has since been used by at least one other teacher in a subsequent semester, said Albro.
Albro noted that she elected to incorporate assessment elements into the sections she taught, because she worried her students would otherwise never learn how to collect, analyze, and effectively use reading assessment data when a core class devoted to the subject had been suddenly pulled.
"You need assessment data to guide your teaching. Otherwise, how do you know where students are, or how plan for the future," said Albro. "The course has been replaced with a diversity and community class, but assessment is as important as teaching diversity."
"Unless they took a class with me, there is no guarantee that anyone graduating in May 2017 would have been taught assessment," she said.
Albro said that in the three years she spent at UMD, what to do with the assessment course was a subject of contentious debate. O'Flahavan advocated eliminating it, but professors were concerned about how the necessary information would then be cohesively applied across the remaining courses.
Without reaching any conclusion on these crucial questions, "the old assessment course was done away with," said Albro.
Graduates of Spring 2016 would have been the last to receive formal training in literacy assessment.
Meanwhile, Albro said she has never seen a syllabus for either EDCI 361 or 364, and it appears that the latter, titled "Culturally Responsive Language Instruction in Elementary Classrooms," has never been offered.
(Course 364 was at the center of a grievance filed last year by former UMD Professor Melissa Landa. She was slated to teach the class, which was a redesign of a class she had taught for 10 years, but was then told she was not qualified to teach the course and reassigned. She was subsequently denied a contract renewal. She said she was the victim of political and religious discrimination.)
Students have repeatedly approached administrators with concerns about the new program, which was meant to "eliminate redundancy," according to the redesign proposal.
In a letter dated May 8 addressed to John Bertot, associate provost for faculty affairs, and Benjamin Bederson, associate provost of learning initiatives and executive director of the Teaching and Learning Transformation Center, five soon-to-be graduates wrote they were "worried that we are not completely prepared for the coming fall when we take over our own classrooms."
"Over the past two years most of our elementary education professors have not practiced the things that they have preached to us. They have told us that teaching is not just skin deep," wrote the students. "However, we feel as though their courses are unhelpful and very flimsy. Two years have gone by and we have learned the same topics over and over again."
"This concern is more so in regards to conducting formal reading assessments," they wrote, continuing. "Not all interns feel prepared for reading assessments, which has not been a huge focus of the program. Not enough time was made for this aspect of teaching."
They added, "we feel as though some courses haven't really taught us anything at all."
A response came from TLPL chair Francine Hultgren, who wrote, "The Elementary Ed program has been in a time of transition to the new program, and there have been some glitches."
The last documented meeting of College of Education staff regarding the redesign was in Spring 2017, where Albro said the discussion was reopened on all four courses, including the ones she had spent months creating.
"It sounded like were starting all over again, like we were starting from scratch," said Albro.
Last year, Albro said she confronted Hultgren and Jennifer King Rice, then associate dean of faculty affairs and now dean of the College of Education, with her serious concerns about the disorganized program.
"Hultgren assured me everything was fine. Rice assured me everything was fine," said Albro. "They told me O'Flahavan was taking care of it, that he has received approval from the state and the university for what he's doing. I got the run-around, and it always came back to O'Flahavan is taking care of it."
"But I worked with him on this redesign, and I don't feel that he really followed through," she said.
"There should be a cohesive, coherent, well-planned, systematic approach to an undergraduate education degree. It should be sequenced, planned, and thoughtful. Courses should build on each other, with each class laying a foundation and then adding to it," said Albro. "That's not happening here."
"There is no clear guidance, no solid curriculum design in place, no clear communication," she said. "Collaboration is not happening. Sections are uneven."
"I probably would not encourage someone to enroll in the undergraduate elementary education program right now," she said.
In a statement to the Washington Free Beacon, UMD said:
"The Elementary Education Program in the College of Education graduates individuals who are ready to teach in elementary classrooms throughout Maryland. Our graduates are highly sought after in the state's school systems and score well on standardized tests required by the Maryland State Department of Education for certification.
"As with all successful teacher preparation programs, program faculty and staff constantly upgrades course offerings and internship experiences. A significant renovation was approved by the University of Maryland and the Maryland Higher Education Commission in 2015. Some courses were added to the program, some were dropped and some were changed. Changes to the MSDE-approved literacy courses associated with the program are underway and will be finalized when the new MSDE literacy course standards are released (expected in spring 2018).
"During this transition, program faculty are exploring innovative ways to distribute the standards across the new program structure and making changes to those courses."
"Allegations that the program is out of compliance are false," concluded the university.
Phones calls and emails to Hultgren and O'Flahavan were not returned.