As dean of Texas Tech University’s College of Education, Scott Ridley transformed the way teachers are prepared, impacting millions of lives across the country.
Standing more than 6 feet tall – and made taller by his trademark cowboy boots – Scott Ridley was a big man, and he had big ideas.
Ridley was dean of Texas Tech University's College of Education from 2011 until his death on Oct. 22 at age 63. During his career in academia, Ridley led a paradigm shift in how teachers are prepared, leaving a legacy that stretches across the country and touches millions of lives.
Disillusioned by the business world after his first career in marketing at a pharmaceutical company, Ridley entered the world of academia in the 1980s.
He earned a doctorate in educational psychology from The University of Texas at Austin in 1990, then joined the faculty at Arizona State University (ASU).
At ASU in the late 1990s, he found himself working with an elementary school in Phoenix, where he realized universities were not producing high-quality teachers.
Before being housed in universities, teacher education in the U.S. was handled by state normal schools. These schools specialized in training teachers and began popping up in the 19th century, but that focus fell by the wayside as they expanded in the mid-20th century. Droves of men returning home from World War II used the GI Bill to attend college, and normal schools expanded their academic offerings to meet this demand.
The schools transformed into universities, and teacher education became one program among many. ASU was one of those places. Established in 1885 as the Territorial Normal School at Tempe, it rapidly grew into a university in the 1940s and 1950s.
While teacher preparation was fading to the background in universities, a push for education reform came to the forefront in the 1980s with the publication of “A Nation at Risk.” The landmark report released by the Ronald Reagan administration showed American schools were failing to educate students well and recommended reforms to teacher preparation as one remedy.
Against this backdrop, Ridley decided he should try turning ASU's method of teacher preparation on its head. He applied his business background, creating a client-centered solution that made the needs of public schools paramount.
Ridley placed an emphasis on real-world immersive training and mentorship. Teacher candidates were moved off the university campus to do their undergraduate coursework in the school where they would teach. The candidates also spent more time in classrooms alongside mentor teachers.
Anchored by a close partnership between the school and the university, the changes were successful. The work there would soon spread to other campuses in the Phoenix school district and become a template around the state. Eventually, spurred by millions of dollars of grant funding, it formed the core of ASU's teacher preparation program, which is called iTeachAZ.
His early work at Arizona put him “absolutely at the forefront” of teacher preparation, said Bob McPherson, dean of the University of Houston College of Education.
“We've lost a real champion for teacher education in Texas and nationally,” McPherson said.
Ridley's reforms took root in Texas with his arrival at Texas Tech.
Today, his program framework – which, in a 2015 blog post, Ridley said was “literally” created in the “library of an inner-city elementary school” – serves as a model for teacher preparation programs around the nation, earning praise from state education agencies and the U.S. Department of Education.
In a job interview for the College of Education deanship, Ridley introduced his ideas to Texas Tech. He showed the interviewing committee a graphic he often used, a triangle representing the collaborative style he wanted to apply at Texas Tech.
“If you're really not serious about this work, don't hire me,” he said.
Ridley got the job.
“That is true, and that is why we hired him,” Guy Bailey, who was then the president of Texas Tech, said of Ridley's demand.
His model flourished at Texas Tech, propelled by a surge of grant funding he brought to the College of Education. In 2010, the year before Ridley arrived, the college received $3.3 million in grant awards. That number grew to almost $6 million in 2014 and topped $15 million two years later in 2016.
Mari Koerner, who was Ridley's dean in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU, said he was a genius at writing grant proposals.
“He would lock himself up for weeks to write these things,” Koerner said. “But he had a clear vision: Every child in every school deserves a good teacher, period. He would say, ‘We're in the business of preparing teachers, so that puts a huge responsibility on us.'”
Ridley revamped Texas Tech's teacher-preparation program, and the result was TechTeach, which deploys and builds upon many of the same methods used in Arizona. Through school-university partnerships, teacher candidates are placed into classrooms earlier than those in traditional preparation programs and focus on learning practical skills. They spend an entire year co-teaching alongside a mentor teacher as opposed to just 12 weeks of student teaching, the minimum required by state law.
Other, more tailored teacher-preparation programs spun off of TechTeach.
One of them is TechTeach Across Texas, a partnership arrangement with school districts and community colleges throughout Texas. Texas Tech faculty members are embedded in districts around the state, and teacher candidates with associate degrees are fast-tracked to a bachelor's degree and teaching certification in one calendar year. Texas Tech has partnered with Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston school districts, which struggle with huge amounts of teacher turnover and often rely on less rigorous teacher preparation programs to plug holes.
“He was always asking: What are you doing, and how can we help?” Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said.
Another version of the program sought to tackle a shortage of teachers in rural areas, also through strong school-university partnerships. Solving that problem was personal for Ridley, who was born in rural Kennett, Missouri, and grew up on a ranch in Deaf Smith County in the Texas Panhandle.
“He really wanted to make a difference in these communities in West Texas, where he is from and where he knows,” said Joshua Barnett, co-president and chief learning officer at the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.
Ridley often said universities had become too satisfied with mediocre methods of producing teachers and too isolated from the schools and communities they were supposed to serve. Improving teacher talent was particularly important, Ridley would say, in order to help “children of color living in poverty.”
“He was a very strong advocate that universities should be responsive to the needs of the communities,” Barnett said. “That view was not, and is not, commonly shared across the nation.”
In 2012, Ridley secured the largest grant award in Texas Tech's history – a $25 million U.S. Department of Education grant that the College of Education used to form East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood (ELPN). ELPN, which is one of just a dozen Promise Neighborhoods in the nation, has been a massive undertaking to revitalize the East Lubbock community with reform both in and outside schools.
“The work on this project has been the most rewarding of my career,” Ridley said in a newspaper editorial this year.
The program involves partnerships with six high-need Lubbock Independent School District (LISD) campuses in the east side of the city, an area with high rates of poverty and schools that have had a long history of poor performance. ELPN also includes partnerships with community organizations and social services to provide comprehensive “cradle-to-career” assistance. For example, the program worked with health clinics in East Lubbock to provide late-night hours after it was discovered that the community often turned to emergency rooms and local hospitals for primary care on evenings and weekends.
“You see families getting educated on healthy meals, on where to access resources,” said Bill Stubblefield, vice president of the LISD Board of Trustees and an east Lubbock community leader who helped implement ELPN. “This brought resources together and created a safety net.”
The centerpiece of ELPN is Estacado Early College High School, which gives youngsters the opportunity to graduate with up to 60 hours of college credit, classifying them as college juniors. The college-level courses are offered free of charge.
Thousands of Lubbock children have received assistance through ELPN, and high school graduation rates in the area have increased dramatically – from 67 percent in 2013 to 93 percent in 2017.
“People are proud of their schools again,” Stubblefield said.
For East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood, Texas Tech was named one of four regional winners of the 2018 W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Engagement Scholarship Award.
At Texas Tech, Ridley sought partnerships that helped spread his ideas nationwide. He helped create several organizations committed to moving his work forward.
Through a 2015 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ridley created an organization called University-School Partnerships for the Renewal of Educator Preparation. Called US PREP for short, it is a coalition of eight universities that work closely with a school system to improve teaching.
Headquartered in Lubbock, US PREP also involves institutions in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas. The coalition is set to soon double in size, executive director Sarah Beal said.
Ridley also was a founding member of Deans for Impact, a group of higher education leaders who work together to promote a collective vision for improving teacher preparation. The group conducts research and policy advocacy and also offers other resources to leaders of teacher preparation programs.
“He was not interested in ivory towers — he was interested in connecting with schools,” said Benjamin Riley, the executive director for Deans for Impact. “This sort of focus on really closely connecting teacher education with the schools seemed simple, but it's actually very complex to execute, and he managed to develop a way to do it at a really broad level.”
McPherson, the University of Houston dean, expressed confidence that Ridley's work will live on.
“There is momentum there and a cohesion among the institutions that, I think, will be sustained and keep moving forward,” he said.
Larry Hovey, a longtime College of Education faculty member and former interim dean, attributed Ridley's success to a stable vision and sheer will to turn that vision into reality.
“He was very driven, and he drove other people, too,” Hovey said.
Robin Lock, the acting dean of the college, called Ridley “one of a kind with a gigantic vision and an indefatigable drive focused on bringing about equity for even the youngest child.”
“Scott embraced and implemented ideas bigger than our sky,” Lock said.
Despite a cancer diagnosis in 2017, Ridley continued working at the college and attacking what he said was a troublesome “lack of deep and authentic university-school partnerships.”
“Now we have the opportunity to demonstrate how alignment can be a solution,” Ridley said in a 2015 Texas Tech Today article. “We rise or fall together.”