Milken: Remembering Dr. Scott Ridley, a Visionary Educator Who Elevated Teaching Practice to Meet the Needs of At-Risk Students
Recently, Dr. Scott Ridley — an individual who played a remarkable role in revolutionizing the way teachers are prepared for the realities of today’s classrooms — passed away. His creativity, boldness, and vision will be sorely missed. His legacy not only leaves an indelible mark on generations of teachers, students, and families in communities across the country, but also carries with it lessons that universities and school districts should consider for achieving their joint mission of preparing our teacher force.
Ridley was a man of action who understood the urgency of improving the educational opportunities offered to prospective school leaders, teachers, and students. After working with students in the high-need Osborn School District in central Phoenix, he went to Arizona State University and in time took on the role of associate dean of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. He brought the knowledge of the inner workings of school districts as well as an understanding of the difficulties facing students living in poverty, learning English as a second language, possessing special needs, and having other challenges to learning. At ASU, Ridley worked during the leadership of President Michael Crow, who was making innovation a hallmark of his tenure. With an innovation focus at the university under Crow and in the college with Ridley, ASU created iTeachAZ, which has become a national model.
Based on Ridley’s long-standing work to establish professional development schools across Arizona, the iTeachAZ initiative further strengthened connections between teacher preparation faculty and school communities, particularly schools serving high-need students. It recognized that teacher preparation program leaders and faculty needed to talk to and understand the needs of districts hiring teacher candidates. iTeachAZ designed the student teacher experience to ensure it added value to students’ classroom experiences and to the work of their mentor teacher, rather than imposing additional burdens on overworked classroom instructors.
This new approach also addressed a more fundamental problem in K-12 education: that students with the greatest needs were not being taught by the most effective teachers. While there are many facets to this problem, one is certainly the failure to build strong connections and an alignment between teacher preparation programs and the specific needs of school districts in their regions. Another is the lack of focus on preparing new teachers with the precise skills, knowledge, and experiences to be successful in educating students with the greatest needs.
Ridley continued his innovations when he became dean of the College of Education at Texas Tech University. There, he led efforts to redesign the school leader and teacher preparation experience. Through the TechTeach program, he envisioned a transformation in how educators will impact the future by implementing intensive clinical experiences, incorporating video technology, and focusing on competency-based learning. To help accomplish this, Texas Tech embedded faculty in high-need school districts across the state to support teacher candidates on the ground, working in high-need communities.
The student teaching experience was aligned to the needs and expectations for teachers in these districts, including high expectations for instructional outcomes with disadvantaged students. Ridley also took on the challenge of working with his faculty to integrate strong instructional practices into the content of coursework, in order to ensure that students were learning what to teach and, at the same time, how to teach it. Ridley further expanded his quest to improve opportunities for students beyond Arizona and Texas by being a founding member of the Deans for Impact initiative.
Ridley’s work in Arizona and Texas intersected with the work I have been involved in for the past three decades: the challenge of ensuring that every student has an effective classroom teacher every year. The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a nonprofit organization I founded, works with high-need schools to improve the skills of classroom teachers by creating teacher leadership roles to support collaborative professional learning groups and individualized classroom coaching. With Ridley’s leadership and foresight, we were able to work effectively with Arizona State and Texas Tech to bridge the chasm between what is expected in a university preparation program and what is expected of a new teacher in the classroom from day one.
Ridley was intent on arming the students in his programs with the instructional and planning skills as well as an ongoing support system for new teachers to feel confident and be effective. His groundbreaking efforts are seen most clearly in his creation of the East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood, an opportunity for high-need students surrounding his community to receive educational and social service support. Ridley noted that this effort was among the proudest of his professional career — a career with hundreds of millions of dollars in resources for tens of thousands of students. By providing services to educators, students, and families in need, the Promise Neighborhood took Ridley’s work a step further, transforming students’ houses along with schoolhouses.
A truly visionary actor, Ridley looked past and marched through the obstacles that hinder much transformation today. As a colleague and friend in the pursuit of excellence in education for every child, he will be remembered for making an outsize contribution to elevating the teaching profession. Let his memory be a clarion call for school and university leaders to extend his legacy by strengthening community relationships, aligning teacher preparation coursework to school district needs and providing future teachers with the academic and career support they need to meet the expectations of the classroom.
Tomorrow’s leaders deserve no less.
Lowell Milken is chairman and founder of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.Submit a Letter to the Editor