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Outgoing UVEI Director Says Schools Have Learning Opportunity

Rob Fried of the Upper Valley Educators Institute in Lebanon says the U.S. had a chance to reevaluate what works in education during the Great Recession. (Valley News - Libby March)

Rob Fried of the Upper Valley Educators Institute in Lebanon says the U.S. had a chance to reevaluate what works in education during the Great Recession. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

Since the onset of the Great Recession, the United States has squandered an opportunity to scrutinize its educational system.

That’s the view of Robert L. Fried, who will leave the Upper Valley Educators Institute in June after seven years as executive director. Fried has overseen a period of substantial growth at UVEI, and, perhaps more importantly, has been a prominent voice for critical thinking about education.

For example, the recession offered a chance for educators both to delve into what school lessons had been helpful for people who either kept their jobs or found new ones despite the downturn, and to uncover whether schools had failed those who lost jobs and were unable to bounce back. “I think this period we’ve been through should have been a wake-up call,” Fried said in a recent interview in his Lebanon office.

Asking questions about how and what we learn should start early, and all students should be encouraged to take control of their own learning, Fried said. For example, he said, high school sophomores ought to be interviewing graduates of their schools to find out what they wished they’d learned in high school.

“We can’t have adults taking that on for kids,” Fried said.

The aim of a school and its teachers should be to create a community of learners, rather than a top-down structure in which teachers impart knowledge.

“Schools have to move from seeing themselves as teaching organizations to seeing themselves as learning organizations,” Fried said. A “learning” school would be a place in which both teachers and students would ask, “What do I want to learn this year?”

In the long run, this is an area in which UVEI can play a leadership role, working with a whole school to transform its culture, Fried said.

Under Fried, UVEI has already started in this direction. He started a new program to prepare school principals for certification, which led the organization to change its name from Upper Valley Teachers Institute. The nonprofit organization began life as the Upper Valley Teacher Training Program in 1969, with the aim of helping people established in other careers to obtain a teachers license.

The program has always been largely competency-based, rather than course-based, and participants spend a school year in the classroom under the wing of a teacher-mentor.

In addition to starting the principals program, Fried led the move to UVEI’s current home, on Dartmouth College Highway (Route 4) in Lebanon. The building has offices, classrooms and a library, for which Fried built the shelves.

Fried also started planning for two new degree programs, a Master of Art in Teaching and a Master in Education. The state has approved the programs, but they are still in development. Becoming a degree-granting institution will permit UVEI to offer graduate credit for professional development. It would also allow the institute to co-design courses with schools or school districts.

“I see that’s a huge area for us to develop,” said Fried, who has a doctorate in education from Harvard University, and came to UVEI after teaching at Northeastern University. He is the author of several books on education.

The new emphasis on learning, as opposed to teaching, is a shift in priorities for UVEI, Fried noted. “We used to be focused on quote ‘great teaching,’ ” he said. Now the institute is focused on “school transformation.” While the institute prepares teachers for how schools are, it also prepares them for how they should be, and for the tension between the reality and the vision, Fried said.

When he was hired in 2006, Fried was given the task of elevating the status of what had become a well-regarded teacher training program.

“I had the most wonderful mandate in the world,” Fried said. “I was told this is a successful teaching program. We want to bring it to another level, but we don’t know what that level is.”

The growth has happened even as the recession has caused sharp cuts in education, and in the number of available teaching jobs, Fried said. “The education sector was the last to go into recession and the last to come out of it,” he said, adding that a high percentage of UVEI graduates find jobs.

In retirement, Fried plans to write and paint and build in his woodshop. He’s at work on a pair of novels, and said the thing he’s most attracted to about retirement is having the time to write. He and his wife live in Concord and have two grown sons.

He wants to leave his successor with a free rein to run the organization, but he could step back into education in some other capacity.

“I might be interested in developing a competency-based doctoral program for highly engaged education reformers,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.