Teaching teachers

Yearlong residencies for teachers are the hot new thing in teacher prep. But do they work?

For years, education advocates, policymakers and scholars have been trying to put an end to the underprepared novice teacher. The hope has been to find a training model that is just right, pairing theoretical knowledge and practical skills necessary for the messy reality of the classroom.

Now some think they’ve found an approach that works: teacher residencies.

Writing in the New York Times, three staff members of Bank Street College argued for this idea, comparing it to how doctors are trained.

“Aspiring teachers need well-designed and well-supported preparation,” wrote Shael Polakow-Suransky, Josh Thomases, and Karen DeMoss. “Year-long co-teaching residencies, where candidates work alongside an accomplished teacher while studying child development and teaching methods, offer a promising path.”

Indeed, there is consistent research showing that teachers trained through residencies are more likely to stay in the profession, potentially reducing churn in schools and costs of finding and training new teachers.

“When it’s done well, it’s kind of a solution to the teacher shortage problem that has plagued urban districts,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank that recently put out a report praising the residency model.

But preliminary new research focusing on Denver’s residency program showed that teachers trained through the program were less effective at improving student achievement in math than other novice teachers in Denver.

This echoes the findings of a study on the Boston Teacher Residency, a prominent example of the approach. In that case, residency-trained teachers also were less effective in math in their first years in the classroom — though they improved fairly quickly.

Together, the positive impacts on teacher retention and the more tepid effectiveness results might still suggest that residencies are worthwhile. But some see the enthusiasm getting ahead of the evidence, particularly in light of the steep price tag of such models.

“I am amazed by how much enthusiasm this idea seems to be generating, despite the fact that we don’t have much evidence to support it,” said Marty West, a Harvard professor who studied the Boston program.

A teacher residency has several key components, according to proponents.

Darling-Hammond’s group identifies several characteristics: a full year of student teaching under an experienced, effective mentor; a partnership between a school district and university so that practice and theory are closely linked; continuing mentorship after candidates become full-fledged teachers; and payment of student teachers during the residency year in return for a three- to four-year teaching commitment.

The final aspect is part of what makes the program appealing as well as costly.

“As I think about the common elements of residency program, there’s a lot that seems very promising — if also, potentially, very expensive,” West said.

Under a traditional university training model, students pay tuition; under the residency model they get paid, albeit modestly. The Boston Teacher Residency, for instance, is free for those who teach in Boston for three years, and offers candidates a $12,600 stipend as well as health insurance for their residency year. (In that program, teachers do have to pay tuition to UMass Boston to receive a master’s degree as part of the program.)

The upside is that those who go through residencies seem to remain teachers in their school districts for longer. In Denver, for instance, residents were 16 percentage points more likely than other novice teachers to return to the district. A national study of 12 teacher residency programs also showed higher retention rates.

This, Darling-Hammond hypothesizes, is explained by the quality of residence programs.

“I think that amount of student teaching and the mentor teacher being a true expert probably has a lot to do with the retention rate being strong,” she said. “You’re getting everything a beginning teacher should get.”

Although research on what makes teacher training effective has generally not come to clear conclusions, there is evidence for the idea that giving teachers practice in a real classroom is important.

But when it comes to the initial effectiveness of residency-trained teachers — at least as measured by the impact on students’ standardized English and math test scores — the evidence is mixed, and in some cases even negative.

West and colleagues found that teachers who go through the Boston Teacher Residency program were initially less effective at improving student achievement in math and no better in English, compared to other beginning teachers.

To West, these findings were counterintuitive.

“I was excited about the opportunity to evaluate the Boston Teacher Residency because I was optimistic,” he said. “I was surprised by our finding that residents were less effective than other new hires, at least initially.”

Darling-Hammond points out — and West agrees — that the teaching corps is likely to be particularly strong in Boston, where there is a robust higher education sector, so that it might be especially difficult for one program to prove particularly effective.

The Denver study, though, produced similar results: negative impacts on former residents’ students in math and essentially no effect in reading.

But there were bright spots in both evaluations. The teachers in Boston improved swiftly over time to the point that those teaching for five years were more effective than other experienced teachers. Combined with the lower turnover rates, the study estimates that the program had a modestly beneficial effect on student achievement over the long run.

And in Denver, the researchers also examined teachers’ classroom ratings, assigned by trained observers. There, former residents came out ahead of other teachers.

Other research on residency programs is thin but paints a more positive picture. A report on the New Visions Hunter College teacher residency in New York City showed that their teachers outperformed other novices in five high school exam areas, but underperformed in three others. A recent state analysis of 40 teachers trained through the Memphis Teacher Residency found they had above-average impacts on student test scores.

West says he is still optimistic about the residency model. The key question, he says, is whether the costs of the program outweigh the benefits — but no such comprehensive analysis has been done.

Darling-Hammond notes that some programs have tried to save costs by, for instance, using residents as substitutes one day a week or having them take the place of teacher aides. She also emphasizes the impact, financial and otherwise, of residencies on reducing teacher attrition.

“If you think about the costs of replacing teachers … this ends up being a cost-effective investment,” she said.

Teaching teachers

Some New York charter schools could soon be allowed to certify their own teachers. What could that look like?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

One charter school teacher training program gives first-year teachers a part-time workload and allows them to learn alongside mentor teachers.

Another has summer workshops that include home visits with students’ families.

A third network often starts the year with a week of workshops at a Westchester hotel, has a staff member devoted to professional development, and brings in consultants for math, writing and reading instruction.

These are a handful of training programs at charters that may soon substitute for the formal state certification process, which requires obtaining a master’s degree and passing certification exams. Under regulations proposed by SUNY last week, some charter schools would largely be able to design their own alternative certification programs that would be valid at other SUNY-authorized schools. And charter leaders say those programs will be heavy on practical experience and embedded within the schools’ existing teacher improvement efforts.

The proposed change is intended to relieve hiring pressure on charters, which are currently required to have no more than 15 uncertified teachers — and to free teachers from burdensome certification requirements.

Teachers unions and top state officials were quick to criticize the idea, arguing that putting less trained teachers in classrooms hurts students. To many charter school leaders, though, the training they already offer inside their schools is more relevant than what education schools provide.

“Come to me with a degree in astronomy,” said Jeff Litt, superintendent of Icahn Charter Schools. “If you spend a year with me, I’m going to turn you into a successful teacher.”

The proposed change would require SUNY-authorized schools to apply for permission to run their own certification programs. Those programs must include at least 30 hours of instruction, 100 hours of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher and the completion of certain State Education Department workshops — all of which is far less than a typical prospective teacher would need to complete before becoming certified through the regular process.

Charter leaders like Litt say there is little evidence to support the idea that certified teachers are better at improving student performance than uncertified teachers. In fact, some studies do show certified teachers can be more effective than uncertified teachers, but the differences are relatively modest.

Even if the state’s current certification is no silver bullet, said Jonah Rockoff, an education researcher at Columbia University, the lingering question is: Can charter schools come up with something better?

“Great teachers have many complex skills, so the key is how charters will train these new hires,” Rockoff said in an email. “A master’s degree is no guarantee, but that doesn’t mean everybody can teach.”

A lot of schools say they already have come up with something better — and the state’s certification process is either an unnecessary nuisance or, worse, an impediment to progress.

At Democracy Prep Public Schools new teachers are required to attend four weeks of training during the summer, said CEO Katie Duffy. Once teachers start working, there is an instructional coach on staff to give feedback to teachers, which might involve videotaping and reviewing lessons with new teachers, she said. One day each week, students are dismissed early and the staff participates in professional development workshops.

In the midst of that process — which Duffy considers the real driver of success — new teachers currently have to find time to take graduate-school courses.

“First of all, you don’t have the time to go back to school and you sure don’t have the money,” Duffy said. (Some networks, including Democracy Prep, do pay for continuing education.)

Steven Wilson, founder and executive director of Ascend Charter Schools, feels the same way. At Ascend, Wilson said, they try not to give any first-year teachers the full responsibility of leading a classroom. Instead, they allow new teachers to learn the ropes under a mentor and help the new teacher gradually increase their workload over the course of the school year.

And some, including Wilson, believe the existing certification process can be harmful. Education schools, he said, are “awash with deeply harmful jargon and practices.” He said Ascend has to unteach some of the practices teachers learn in education school and the requirement to go back to school discourages some prospective teachers from entering the practice.

“The requirement to do this is a turnoff to the very people the profession needs most,” Wilson said. “Are you going to take a year of your life and go to a third-rate education school? No, you’re going to go to a profession where you don’t have to do that.”

One of the arguments in favor of alternative certification is that it makes charter schools more welcoming to professionals who have a background in something else — like history or engineering, for instance — but now want to teach.

“We’re always looking to attract those individuals into our network,” said Janelle Bradshaw, superintendent at Public Prep, noting that under the current rules these professionals often do not have the requisite credits. “Then, what we do is provide you with the tools and the resources to become a strong and effective teacher.”

But Dirck Roosevelt, a visiting associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says professional success doesn’t always translate into the ability to lead a classroom. “To know mathematics sufficiently to design a bridge or to supervise the construction of a bridge is not remotely the same thing as to know it in such a way that you will know what your sophomore algebra student is going to find difficult,” he said.

If these regulations pass, charters’ training will be subject to oversight, Joseph Belluck, charter school committee chair on the SUNY board, said last week.

Reached Wednesday, SUNY did not provide details about what the oversight might entail but hinted that it could be linked to student performance.

“Should any SUNY charter have the opportunity to establish a SUNY charter school teacher certification program, the strength of such a program will directly link to how well students perform,” said Susie Miller Carello, executive director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute.

Certified or not, charter networks say, they want prospective teachers to thrive in the classroom — and already work to ensure that.

“We, as a public school, have the responsibility to put great teachers in front of kids, regardless of certification status,” said Ian Rowe, CEO of Public Prep. “We bear that responsibility even if 100 percent of our teachers were certified. From that perspective, I don’t see a difference.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to explain that Democracy Prep pays for the cost of professional development and certification. 

mend it or end it?

Why a long-time critic of teacher professional development is arguing against Trump’s push to cut federal funds for it

Teacher at a professional development session.

Someone looking to make a case for cutting funding for professional development would do well to cite the work of TNTP. The organization’s 2015 report titled “The Mirage” argued that districts were spending billions to help teachers improve — with little return on investment.

So it’s somewhat surprising that Dan Weisberg, the president of TNTP — an education reform-oriented organization previously called The New Teacher Project — was on Capitol Hill this week pushing back against the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to Title II funding, a large share of which goes to teacher professional development.

“We at TNTP are professional development skeptics, but I would say that we are seeing and doing work across the country [indicating] that the trend is positive in terms of work being more disciplined,” Weisberg told Chalkbeat.

Weisberg said the cuts “would be really unfortunate and have bad impacts on educators and kids.”

In one key way, Weisberg’s position is not surprising: his organization contracts with districts to provide services and is sometimes paid through Title II funds. (Weisberg notes that this accounts for a very small fraction of TNTP’s budget.)

That may mean his objections fall on deaf ears within the Trump administration, which has indicated skepticism of an education establishment it sees as benefitting from the current system. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also argued that school spending is unlikely to benefit students.

Still, TNTP’s position indicates the breadth of opposition to the budget slashes, which have faced fierce skepticism from a number of education groups and from lawmakers. The cuts are seen as unlikely to be enacted in full.

The Trump budget proposal eliminates a $2.4 billion program known as Title II, Part A or Supporting Effective Instruction, which the administration has described as duplicative and ineffective. In 2014-15, nearly half of that money went to professional development.

Weisberg — along with a number of education reform groups and the superintendents of the Tulsa and Baltimore school systems — made the case to Congressional staff that it was important to “mend not end” investment in teacher training.

“Our argument to folks on the Hill was that Congress actually made some positive changes that brought more discipline to the spending of these federal funds,” he said. “Zeroing it out now or substantially cutting it is really pulling the rug out from some good policy work Congress has done.”

Weisberg also said he has had informal, “off-the-record” conversations with the Department of Education staff suggesting that they are also not enthusiastic about the cuts.

“They were given some very tough decisions to make in the budget process,” he said. “Let me put it this way: I don’t think you’re going to hear vociferous objections from the Department of Education if Congress decides to fund those programs.”

TNTP and others have long argued that there isn’t much strong evidence of the effectiveness of professional training for teachers, though a number of recent analyses offer more clues as to what makes professional support for teachers work.

One recent overview of research suggests that individualized coaching helps teachers improve and increases student test scores. Two new studies on mentoring of new teachers suggest that it can increase student test scores and teacher retention.