Christopher O.H. Williams
Every day must be Teacher Appreciation Day: Why I joined the Board of Directors at Reach University
Dear Mrs. Jones:
Last Monday was National Teacher Appreciation Day, and I thought about you several times during the day, as I have often over the last few decades. You are no longer with us, but I decided to write a few words in recognition of the influence you have had and continue to have on my personal and professional success.
(P.S. You taught me in classes 4 and 7. I still look back on your impromptu “hot quizzes” with gratitude and nostalgia.)
A few weeks ago, I joined a local non-profit in Denver at one of their grantee schools and witnessed a first-grade music class in session. Over an hour, the adult guests in the class watched in awe as a 25-year-old teacher engaged the twelve kids in the class and took them, and us, on a captivating journey of rhythm and dance. They twirled and sang and improvised and identified sounds – using their heads, eyes, hands, and voices. When we were not too self-conscious, we adults joined in too. I hurried home to teach my 11- and 9-year-olds the jingles and jiggles I learned. They laughed. “You are funny, Daddy,” they said.
Sadly, the full story is anything but funny. The principal told us of budget cuts to programs like Music and STEM. She talked of declining enrollment and the difficulty of finding teachers who would stay long in their roles. She was wistful as she admitted that her school was not doing very well on key city mandated metrics and that it could soon be caught in Denver Public Schools’ much dreaded and controversial closure dragnet.
And this notwithstanding the brilliant performance of the music teacher who left us all complimenting her classroom management savant and her obvious love for her students and for her job.
If it sounds like Denver is ground zero for the challenges facing primary and secondary education today, it is not.
Last year, as reported by USA Today, in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) report card, “reading scores in fourth and eighth grades decreased by three points from 2019, and math scores in fourth and eighth grades decreased by five and eight points, respectively.
Eighth grade reading scores declined in thirty-three states and districts, and eighth-grade math performance declined nearly everywhere. More than a third of eighth grade kids performed below basic on the math assessment, a national increase of seven percentage points from 2019.
Oklahoma, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania all saw the most striking eighth grade math score declines, the worst drop for the nation since 1990.
No group of students was untouched by the lackluster results, but some of the most significant academic losses were among poor, Black, and Latino students.”
Another USA Today article, just recently, citing a study by RAND Corporation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, highlighted that “rural high schools, small high schools and high schools that serve historically marginalized students don't provide the same access to advanced math classes as other schools.” On top of this, the data shows, is a crippling teacher shortage in the US.
There is no surprise about USA Today’s conclusion of the survey: “As a result, students who attend those schools may be less likely to pursue future courses or careers in science, technology, engineering, and math and miss out on admission or financial aid to college and higher-paying job opportunities.”
Mrs. Jones would have wept at this dire assessment of the leaders of tomorrow, and we must all find it just as concerning.
Many states have tried to attack the problem with a variety of measures, including the use of fast-tracked teacher certifications or assigning teachers outside their area of expertise, but they have not been highly effective. A recent Kansas State University report found at least 163,000 teaching positions nationwide are held by “underqualified” teachers. Another 36,500 teaching jobs remain vacant.
Research points to the teaching profession’s declining reputation as a key reason teacher colleges are losing students. While this may be true, economics also plays a role; a traditional teaching degree is expensive and time-consuming and not attractive when teachers make less than 77 cents on the dollar compared with other college graduates.
And, all the while, annual report cards from NEAP remind us of the full cost of these inefficiencies and the urgency of the crisis.
This is a lot to lay at the feet of our nation’s teachers who show up to work each day and give their level best.
Influenced by the powerful (and extremely positive, I must add) experiences I have had with teachers throughout my life, I am often drawn to the question of how we can make student outcomes more effective and how we can make access to quality education, at all levels, easier, affordable, and equitable. The need for solutions has become even more urgent in today’s increasingly technologically driven and globally competitive world.
There may not be a single answer, but the best answers will need to be disruptive for the status quo to change.
Last March, I was drawn to a podcast interview hosted by Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, who has been at the forefront of reimagining education for over 15 years. His guest was Mallory Dwinal-Palisch, the Founder and Chancellor of Reach University. Their hour of conversation was fascinating and offered a compelling glimpse of some powerful work underway.
Reach University was conceived to attack the core of the problems I have described – address acute teacher shortages in some of our most underserved rural communities and their schools and solve not only the challenge of teacher quality, but also address the problem of access to and affordability of high-quality teacher education.
The university, a nonprofit, uses job-embedded learning to help communities target and grow their own talent. The school debunks the presumption that there is declining interest in the teaching profession. Instead, what Reach has concluded is that traditional universities focus on the wrong thing – adding frills to the university experience, versus addressing the fundamental challenge of why people do not enroll in teaching programs in the first place or focusing on the communities that have the most need.
Reach offers adults already employed in schools and other workplaces the opportunity to earn a teaching degree that embraces their work experience as part of the learning process. For illustration, imagine any of the faces you would find in any school – paraprofessionals, classroom aides, afternoon volunteers – but who do not have the financial wherewithal to suspend working and attend college or who find a full-time teaching program cost prohibitive. Reach collaborates closely with schools to identify candidates who can earn teaching credits as they work, augmented by hybrid after-work seminars and active coaching and feedback – aptly named The Reach Method. This way, Reach’s students go to school while they are in the classroom, earn a salary, and contribute nominally to their college degree, all at the same time.
In effect, Reach is pioneering a new era in higher education where a job leads to a degree instead of the other way around. And it is catching on.
In 2023, the number of states with federally registered apprenticeship programs for teachers has grown dramatically, as policymakers and school district leaders look to the model as a promising solution to teacher pipeline challenges. As well, the government, led by the White House and the U.S. Department of Labor, has opened federal funding to pay for tuition assistance, wages, and other supportive services, such as textbooks and childcare assistance.
Since it first launched its job-embedded program, Reach University has expanded its accreditation to more states - from California to including Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, and soon, Tennessee. Via one-of-a-kind partnerships, with innovative institutions like Arizona State University, the school is also now exploring the opportunity to scale by teaching other organizations how to adopt and adapt its unique model.
Last November, it was an honor to be invited to join Reach University’s Board of Directors, and work alongside Mallory, the school’s leadership team and other talented board members to continue shaping its innovative solution to an irksome problem. Together, we wrestle questions about strategic enrollment and risks to government payer models and ponder which systemic shifts could further distort higher education. We are excited about Reach’s unique role not only as a teacher training institution but also as a pioneering model for how we could develop high-quality specialized talent for the workforce of the future.
My days of being an elementary school student may have long passed but Reach University has returned me to a place of pleasant recollections, from where I can perhaps help young minds, as I once was myself, enjoy rich lives of impact, by enabling the life transformers, like the music teacher in Denver or Mrs. Jones in Sierra Leone, who eagerly answer the call each day to be there for their students.
They deserve a lifetime, not just a day, of appreciation.
A native of Sierra Leone, Colorado-based Christopher O.H. Williams is founder of Custament Partners LLC, and his professional and educational journey spans 13 cities across four continents. From Nike to adidas, Gap, Goldman Sachs and more, Chris has led business transformation agendas amidst shifts in consumer behavior, digitalization, and the competitive landscapes. In honor of his African roots, Chris left a highly successful corporate career to serve as President of The African Leadership University (Mauritius and Rwanda), a highly-impactful higher ed start-up. He believes true transformation is unleashed through the diligent practice of courage.