teacher leaders

Indiana teachers say they need more classroom practice before starting their jobs

PHOTO: Matt Detrich / Indianapolis Star
Teacher Eddie Rangel at IPS Key Learning Community School.

Too many teachers are entering classrooms without the right training to meet kids needs, say a group of 24 educators who’ve taken a deep look at their profession.

The educators are fellows from the Indianapolis chapter of Teach Plus, a national organization that trains teachers to be policy advocates in seven states. They’ve spent the last year exploring how better training and support could help keep teachers in their profession longer and planned to present their findings at an event tonight where they present their research projects.

Among their recommendations:

  • Teachers need to spend more time in a classroom before they begin in their jobs;
  • They need more practice working with students who have special needs and those who for whom English is not their first language; and,
  • They need mentorship from senior teachers once they start in a classroom.

The focus on how to keep teachers in the classroom comes as some Indiana school districts report difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers. The shortage led state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to appointed a committee that last year recommended teachers get more time actually teaching in schools before earning their teacher certifications. The legislature also passed a bill to support teacher mentors in 2016.

The Teach Plus fellows say they’ve looked into ways to implement their recommendations including new federal rules that could make it easier for Indiana districts to get government funding for teacher mentors or for a residency program that allows teachers a longer time in the classroom before they finish their education.

Another idea that wouldn’t necessarily require extra funding would be for districts and colleges to partner to let prospective teachers work as substitutes in schools that have difficulty filling temporary positions. That way, teaching students get the practice they need and schools can have more qualified substitutes without having to pay more.

“After I graduated I didn’t teach right away, I substitute-taught for six months to figure out what schools I liked and what I didn’t like,” said one second-year teacher interviewed for the research project. “Until you’re in the situation you don’t know how you’ll handle it. Substitute teaching made me resilient and gave me on-the-job training I didn’t get in my teacher prep at school. I would advocate for making that a requirement for graduating.”

Many of the educators interviewed by the Teach Plus fellows said additional training in special education is important for all teachers — not just those who work exclusively with children who have special needs.

Many teachers said they didn’t feel adequately prepared to handle this once they took their jobs, and those who did felt overburdened by the requests they often got from colleagues who needed help with a special-needs student.

Ultimately, the researchers said it’s important that legislators and other education officials get involved to help address some of these gaps.

“We routinely lose promising novice teachers because they enter the classroom underprepared,” the report said. “As a state, we cannot continue this trend. Teacher recommendations to improve the preparation process must be foremost in policymakers’ minds.”

teachers with borders

Schools near state lines perform worse — and rules discouraging teachers from moving may be to blame

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Want a leg up in school? Don’t attend one near a state border.

That’s the surprising finding of a new study published in the Economics of Education Review. The likely culprit: certification and pension rules that discourage teachers from moving between states, limiting the labor pool on each side of the border.

The peer-reviewed paper focuses on test scores at public middle schools near a state boundary. Eighth-graders attending those schools, the researchers find, perform consistently worse in math than students at non-boundary schools. (The results are negative in reading, too, but smaller and not always statistically significant.)

One reason the findings ought to catch the attention of policymakers across the country: the data comes from 33 states, including big ones like Florida, New York, and Texas.

“We estimate that roughly 670,000 students are enrolled in middle schools nationally that are [considered] ‘intensely affected’ by a state boundary in our study,” the researchers write.

Of course, schools and students are not randomly assigned to be near state boundaries, so the study can’t definitively conclude that boundaries are the cause of lower performance. But the researchers — Dongwoo Kim, Cory Koedel, Shawn Ni, and Michael Podgursky, all of the University of Missouri — control for a number of student characteristics that might affect performance.

And while the study can’t pinpoint why a boundary seems to hurt test scores, the researchers have a theory: “state-specific pension and licensing policies” that discourage teachers from moving between states, likely forcing border schools to draw from a more limited pool of potential teachers.

In some places, those pension rules mean a substantial loss of retirement wealth if teachers move states mid-career. Complicated licensure rules that in some cases require experienced teachers to take certification exams or obtain additional degrees can also make that kind of switch practically difficult. Other research has found that teachers rarely move across state lines, even if they live near a boundary.

Why might that harm performance of schools near state lines?

Say a school in New York City has two science teachers and no math teachers, while a school right across the river in New Jersey has two math teachers and no science teachers. If each school needs exactly one teacher per subject, the solution is easy in theory: the New York City school gets a math teacher and loses a science one, and vice versa for the New Jersey school. But if certification or pension rules prevent that from happening, both schools lose out — and student achievement might suffer.

States aren’t typically eager to change those policies, though, for several reasons.

For one, states that require prospective teachers to clear a high bar to become certified may worry that making it too easy for an out-of-state teacher to receive a license could reduce teacher quality. A study from North Carolina provides some evidence for this argument, showing that teachers trained elsewhere were less effective than teachers trained in-state, though the difference was very small.

Another argument is that limiting teachers’ ability to bring pension money along with them when they move helps states hold on to their educators — even if they are in turn harmed when they can’t recruit teachers from elsewhere.

The latest study suggests that the net impact of those restrictions are negative. Still, the effects on students are quite small, implying that changes to pension and certification policies are unlikely to lead to large improvements in student performance.

But, the study points out, policies that eliminate the harm from attending school near a state line could help hundreds of thousands of students.

“Although the boundary effects are small on a per-student basis, they are spread across a very large population,” the researchers write.

race in the classroom

‘Do you see me?’ Success Academy theater teacher gives fourth-graders a voice on police violence

Success Academy student Gregory Hannah, one of the performers

In the days and weeks after last July’s police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, teachers across New York grappled with how to talk about race and police violence. But for Sentell Harper, a theater teacher at Success Academy Bronx 2, those conversations had started long before.

CNN recently interviewed Harper about a spoken-word piece he created for his fourth-grade students to perform about what it means to be black and male in America. Harper, who just finished his fourth year teaching at Success, said that after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, he wanted to check in with his students.

“I got my group of boys together, and I said, ‘Today, we’re going to talk about race,'” Harper told CNN. “And they had so much to say. They started telling me stories about their fathers and their brothers, and about dealing with racism — things that I never knew that these young boys went through.”

Inspired by their stories, he created a performance called “Alternative Names for Black Boys,” drawing on poems by Danez Smith, Tupac Shakur and Langston Hughes.

Wearing gray hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin, who was killed while wearing one, the boys take turns naming black men and boys who have been killed: Freddie, Michael, Philando, Tamir. The list goes on.

Despite the sensitive nature of the subject matter, Harper says honesty is essential for him as a teacher. “Our kids are aware of race and want to talk about it,” he wrote in a post on Success Academy’s website. “As a black male myself, I knew I wanted to foster conversation between my students and within the school community.”

Click below to watch the performance.