teacher prep 2.0

New teacher training favored by charters comes to Denver as critics sound off

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A Relay resident practices giving directions to her peers, who pretend to be students.

The aspiring Denver teacher stood in front a cluster of four gray school desks where three of his peers were seated in blue plastic chairs, pretending to be students.

“One, two, three — all eyes on me,” he said.

“One, two — eyes on you,” they chanted in unison.

The next words out of his mouth came rapid-fire — not quite as fast as the guy at the end of commercials who says the offer is void where prohibited, but almost.

“John’s tracking me, Eric is tracking me, Tara has her voice off,” he said. “When I say ‘one,’ we’ll stand up and quietly push our chairs in. When I say ‘two,’ we’ll track the doorway. When I say ‘three,’ we’ll walk silently to the doorway. John, what are we doing when I say ‘one?’”

The role-playing exercise was a key part of the Friday afternoon practice session for the prospective teachers, who are participants in a new — and somewhat controversial — teacher residency program run by the New York-based Relay Graduate School of Education.

Relay opened an office in Denver this past spring on the second floor of Trevista at Horace Mann, an elementary school in the northwest part of the city with space to spare in its blond-brick art deco building. About 60 aspiring teachers began the two-year residency program over the summer. Relay runs the same program in nine other locations across the country, including Memphis, Nashville and Chicago.

The first year, each resident spends four and a half days in a real classroom working alongside an experienced teacher who acts as a mentor. In keeping with Relay’s charter school roots — it was founded by the leaders of three charter school networks, including KIPP — many of the Denver schools where residents teach are charters, including DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep.

The residents also take classes online and at night, and meet once a week on Friday afternoons for what Relay calls “deliberate practice.” The following year, the intention is for them to work full-time as teachers in charge of their own classrooms while simultaneously completing a master’s degree and earning a teaching license.

The model, nicknamed “Teacher Prep 2.0,” is different from traditional university programs in that it emphasizes practice as much as — and some would say more than — it does theory.

“The goal is to give them that theoretical baseline but never stop there — to always move to application and then to move to practicing it with your colleagues,” said Therese Zosel-Harper, a former social studies teacher and the dean of Relay Denver.

Criticism and a lack of research

But that approach has drawn criticism from the teacher-preparation establishment, which has itself been criticized for failing to provide would-be teachers with enough real-life experience.

Just last week, the Boulder-based National Education Policy Center published a brief (view it below) written by a university professor concluding that research has yet to show that increasingly popular independent teacher training programs like Relay are better than the traditional route.

Relay officials agree that the research is inconclusive. Part of the reason, scholars say, is that individual teacher training programs vary widely in what they require of their trainees.

“No one really knows what is the best way,” said Mayme Hostetter, Relay’s national dean. “But we see this as one very good way to have folks enter the profession — and we’ve gotten positive feedback from the residents themselves, as well as from the schools we’ve worked with.”

Relay measures its success in other ways, too. To earn their master’s degrees, teachers must meet student learning goals — for instance, that their students will achieve a year’s worth of reading growth. In fact, Hostetter said, Relay’s own data shows that elementary students taught by its residents gain an average of 1.3 years’ worth of reading growth per year.

“Those aren’t data we’re holding up to the world saying, ‘Incontrovertible truth! We are better than anywhere else,’” Hostetter said. However, she said Relay does see them as a positive sign.

But Ken Zeichner, a professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education, argues that’s not enough. In the brief released last week, he writes that test scores are “a limited measure of success” — and one relied upon too heavily by Teacher Prep 2.0 programs. Such programs, he argues, focus on preparing teachers to teach “other people’s children,” meaning those living in high-poverty neighborhoods.

“From my perspective, by only looking at test scores, we’re creating a second-class education for poor children in this country that (is) just about test scores,” Zeichner said in an interview.

Instead, he writes that teacher preparation programs, including university-based programs, should be judged by a mix of factors, including standardized test scores and how their graduates increase students’ social and emotional skills, creativity and problem-solving abilities.

Hostetter agrees. “Those goals are incredibly noble and what we’re working toward,” she said. As of now, she said Relay focuses on teaching residents how to build relationships with students, create a strong classroom culture, manage a classroom and teach academic lessons.

In the end, Zeichner echoes previous scholars’ analyses in concluding that more research is needed to identify the characteristics of high-quality teacher education programs.

“I’m not against innovation,” he said. But, he added, “I believe you can have innovation and high quality. What I see is this obsessive push for innovation without focus on the quality.”

Learning by doing

Denver Public Schools doesn’t have an official relationship with the Relay teacher residency program, although DPS has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars sending its principals and principal supervisors to a separate leadership training program run by Relay.

In fact, the district has its own teacher training program, the Denver Teacher Residency, in which aspiring teachers work for a year in a classroom alongside a mentor teacher while earning a master’s degree from the University of Denver.

Instead, the Relay teacher residency program works with individual schools to train their prospective teachers. Many of the schools previously ran their own in-house programs before helping to recruit Relay to open an office in Denver this year.

“We believe deeply in the power of practice and the idea that teaching is really a performing art, so it makes sense to train teachers more like athletes,” said James Cryan, the founder and CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, which runs two charter elementary schools in Denver this year and a preschool program in Aurora.

“We were looking for a program that is more practice-based and focused on the foundational skills needed to be effective in a classroom in front of our scholars.”

Eleven of Rocky Mountain Prep’s “teaching fellows” — each school calls its teacher residents something different — are going through the Relay teacher residency program this year. The program typically costs participants $6,500 for two years, Relay officials said.

Even just a few weeks into the school year, Cryan said he sees positive signs.

“What I’m seeing in classrooms is teachers who are confident early in the year and who are getting into the swing of things quickly,” he said. “We’re excited by a promising start.”

DSST, a network of 12 Denver charter middle and high schools, has 18 “apprentice teachers” in the Relay program. Before teaming up with Relay, DSST had its own residency program — and Nicole Fulbright, the network’s director of curriculum and assessment, said it’s seen evidence the model works. New teachers who went through it scored slightly higher on their evaluations than new teachers who didn’t, she said, though she cautioned that the sample size was small.

DSST hopes Relay will allow it to grow its apprenticeship program, Fulbright said.

“We … have seen that they offer very high-quality development to teachers that gives them the theory but also the actual practice with skills they’ll need to be successful,” she said.

That’s what the residents were doing at that recent Friday afternoon practice session. The assignment? Imagine you’re substitute-teaching kids you’ve never met, some of whom would rather squirm or whisper than listen. How would you give clear directions?

One by one, the prospective teachers spent a minute delivering instructions — praising obedient students and correcting those off task — at breakneck pace. It’s a classroom management style used in many charter schools and increasingly in traditional district schools too.

Some, including Zeichner, have criticized the style, which they say is primarily used in schools that serve poor students of color, as “highly controlling.” Teachers who use it expect students to sit up straight, listen and “track” whomever is speaking with their eyes.

Hostetter said she doesn’t understand that criticism. “It’s pretty straightforward,” she said.

After the residents delivered instructions, they spent another minute getting instant feedback from their peers. Then they did it again and again and again, building up a sort of muscle memory their instructors hope will help when they’re in front of real students.

“A lot of this stuff is learned by doing,” said Leon Hayes, a former security guard and math tutor who is now a kindergarten teaching fellow at Rocky Mountain Prep.

Erika Hellfritz, a math tutor who is also serving as a teaching resident at Hamilton Middle School and wants to be a social studies teacher, agreed. “I love the residency model versus sitting in a lecture,” she said. “I love that we get both: the theory and the real tangible practice.

“The feedback I receive here is what I remember most when I’m back in the classroom.”

Read the full National Education Policy Center brief below.

Parent-to-Para

How the Adams 14 school district is empowering parents to join the classroom

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A parent volunteer works with two kindergarteners on reading as part of a pilot program at Dupont Elementary School that is training parents to become paraprofessionals.

Raeann Javier would like to know what she can do to help her second-grader read better. Sometimes, sitting with her daughter, the best she could offer was, “You know how to do this.”

Javier, a single mother, also would love to land another job to earn more for her family.

A pilot program launched by Adams 14 School District in Commerce City may help her with both.

The school district is trying to build more knowledgeable, active parents through classes and volunteer time working with young students struggling to read. For those who are interested, the program also provides parents a path to become paraprofessionals, or teacher’s aides.

The initiative is one way the nearly 8,000-student suburban district — facing state intervention this year after years of poor academic performance — is trying to turn things around.

District surveys found parents were looking for ways to become more supportive.

Javier, one of 17 mothers in the program, said she already feels like she has become a more patient parent less than a month in. She also is interested in becoming a paraprofessional to supplement the income she earns as an at-home nurse.

“It’s a little bit tough. I make it work,” Javier said. “But this would really, really help.”

Other parents taking part in the pilot program already were volunteers at their kids’ schools.

“They usually just did the normal things like helping with copying or sorting papers,” said Jesse Martinez, Adams 14’s director for family and community engagement. “But we really wanted to change that dynamic. We wanted to pull in our parents to tap their potential and bring them in to support their children.”

One of the parent volunteers, Susana Torres, was an elementary school teacher for 10 years before coming to the United States. Now with three children in district schools, Torres jumped at the opportunity to get back into a classroom.

“This is my thing,” Torres said. “I love the program.”

Torres also helps other Spanish-speaking moms who are part of the program. She said that even though they don’t have the teaching background she does, the program has made it easy for all of them to learn to help kids. “All you need is a passion to make change,” she said.

Pat Almeida, the principal of Dupont Elementary, where the program is being piloted, said the goal is also to help more students become proficient in reading before third grade — especially those who are not far behind but just need a boost to get to grade level.

“We’re able to give them more repetition so they can apply that to their reading,” Almeida said. “If they’re able to have more repetition, their progress is going to be accelerated.”

Dupont Elementary is among the Adams 14 schools that is struggling, though the school isn’t yet facing sanctions like the district as a whole is this year.

District officials have been working on setting up reforms all year to present to the state as a suggestion for their corrective action, including getting help from an outside company for developing curriculum and testing. Increasing parental engagement through this and other new efforts, like having teachers visit families at home, are part of the work to improve the district.

The parent-to-para program is being funded with money from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation (Rose also supports Chalkbeat) and Climb Higher Colorado, a coalition of advocacy groups that support strong academic standards and tests.

At Dupont, while the parent volunteers work with almost 75 students that they pull out of class for about an hour, teachers can spend the time in class working with students who need the most help.

An instructional coach supervises the moms to work with groups of two to six students and helps them plan lessons each day for kids.

During one lesson this week, parents were helping kindergarteners learn how to differentiate between capital and lowercase letters and how to sound out words. Some students were still having trouble identifying letters, while one boy was writing words so quickly he was standing up, moving around and at one point fell.

The volunteers said it’s rewarding to see the kids catching on.

“Knowing that just a little bit of our time can help them is a good feeling,” said volunteer Adelaida Guerrero. “It’s an excellent opportunity for them and for us.”

For Maria Rodriguez, the program has unexpectedly given her another benefit — bringing her closer to her teenage daughters. She said she joined the program because when a bilingual program for her two oldest daughters was removed seven years ago, she had stopped being able to help them on their school work.

When Rodriguez heard about the program, she thought she could prepare to help her younger children, a second and third grader, before they too required more help than she could offer.

“It’s brilliant,”Rodriguez said. “I’ve been helping them work on their vowels.”

Within the last week, the two older girls came to Rodriguez complaining that she hadn’t ever worked to help them in the same way, and asking to join in during the at-home lessons. Over time, the girls had kept their ability to speak Spanish, but never learned how to write it. Now they were asking to learn alongside their younger siblings.

“They have that apathy of adolescence that makes them not always want to get close to us as parents,” Rodriguez said, tearing up as she recalled the moment. “I honestly felt really good.”

the write way

What’s missing from the conversation about the state’s ditched literacy test for teachers?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The Board of Regents applauds James Tallon at his last meeting, moments after officially voting to eliminate a literacy test for prospective teachers.

In a major change to teacher certification, New York officials decided prospective teachers will no longer have to pass an “academic literacy” test in order to enter classrooms.

It didn’t take long for media outlets to jump on the news, raising concerns that teachers who struggle to read and write could now be able to enter New York’s classrooms.

State officials say that argument is misguided. Since aspiring teachers must earn a college degree, and pass three other certification exams, they argue, illiterate applicants will not make the cut in the first place. The exam also is inherently flawed, they say, and kept a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic teachers out of schools.

But experts say that narrow debate about literacy misses a broader conversation. They argue that the test was never meant to protect against a flood of teachers unable to read and write. It was, however, intended to help ensure high teacher quality, they say, and the question is whether the current certification process furthers that goal.

The Academic Literacy Skills Test, which the state implemented a few years ago, was part of a larger movement to elevate the quality of the teaching profession. Officials thought at the time that a more rigorous test of reading and writing should be part of that mix.

But literacy tests for teachers got their start in a different era, said Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading national education researcher who now runs an education policy think tank. They were originally implemented in the 1980s when there were fewer hurdles to entering the teaching profession, she said.

“That might have made sense at that time in those places,” Darling-Hammond said, but added there is little evidence today that literacy tests are a good way to screen for effective teachers. There’s also no widespread concern, she said, that illiterate teachers are entering the profession.

“I think at this point, there is not strong evidence about that,” she said.

Ken Lindblom, dean of the School of Professional Development at Stony Brook University, who has taught prospective teachers, agreed that the focus on literacy is misplaced.

“It’s simply not the case that we have all these teachers … and they’re illiterate and we need to stop,” Lindblom said. “This is a false conundrum that we have invented.”

Dylan Roth, who is studying to become a teacher in a graduate program at Queens College, said he felt “insulted” by news coverage suggesting an epidemic of teacher illiteracy. “They speak of the ALST as if it were the line in the sand keeping horridly illiterate and unqualified teachers out of the classroom,” he said. “Yet besides brief mentions of teachers unions [in the articles], there is no virtually no input from teachers themselves who have gone through the process of certification,” he said.

Roth pointed out that the test’s fee (more than $100) poses a burden for aspiring teachers already paying for seminars, textbooks, tuition and more. Meanwhile, he said, the test is unnecessary when similar questions could simply be added to one of the three other certification tests, a proposal the state has offered.

Still, some say this conversation is about more than just a test — it’s about how the state can build a superior teacher workforce. Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust-NY pointed to a 2007 study that found recruiting teachers with stronger certification status or SAT scores could improve student achievement.

“Research shows that having teachers with stronger academic skills makes a meaningful difference in student outcomes, and that is why we believed that maintaining the ALST … is important for equity,” Rosenblum said.

Daniel Weisberg, CEO at TNTP, an organization focused on creating more effective teachers, says the best way to attract high-quality teachers isn’t a tough literacy test. He thinks the emphasis should be on more teacher observation instead.

But he said, over the years, he has seen some prospective educators who want to become teachers even though they lack basic reading and writing skills. In order to avoid certifying those teachers, state officials could create a more narrow test of basic skills, he said.

“What you need is a surgical tool, not a chainsaw,” Weisberg said. “With a lot of these certification exams right now … they end up being a chainsaw, not a surgical tool.”

State Education Department officials plan to add a long reading and writing requirement to the Educating All Students Test, a change that is still being reviewed. They could not yet say whether a student who failed a new literacy portion of another exam could still become a teacher. According to a state education official, the test is expected to include the new literacy portions by January 2018.

The other certification tests already involve reading and writing. The edTPA, a performance-based assessment that asks students to videotape a lesson, requires them to write about their teaching practice. The exams require writing, but the edTPA handbook says the rubrics “do not address the quality of your writing,” and does not penalize test-takers for grammar and spelling errors, though it suggests the ability to effectively communicate is critical.

The other exams include content questions and some questions that require written responses. Supporters of eliminating the literacy test argue that even though prospective teachers are not given a writing score, literacy is embedded in the exams.

The edTPA “requires teacher candidates to organize their arguments, to logically sequence claims,” said Jamie Dangler, vice president for academics at United University Professions, which represents SUNY employees and who co-chaired the state’s edTPA task force. “That’s how you assess literacy. It’s the ability to write, but it’s more then that.”

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promote rigorous standards, isn’t convinced. Literacy is crucial to teaching and should be assessed separately, he said. And while the state may include more literacy questions in a different exam, it’s a mistake to eliminate the test without having a fully developed alternative, he said.

“I don’t know enough about the specifics of the test but I take the [State Education] Department and the Regents’ word for it that they think there was a flawed test,” Sigmund said. “So fine, if there are problems with the test, fix the test.”