Up next for SUNY chief, finding consensus on a teacher-ed overhaul

Nancy Zimpher has tackled a lot in her four-decade career, but she’s the first to admit she has no business flying a plane.

Yet there she was, strapped into a pilot’s seat in the cockpit at an aviation center at SUNY Farmingdale. To her disbelief, she even got the plane up in the air.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t bring it down,” said Zimpher, who has served as chancellor of the State University of New York since 2009.

Thankfully, Zimpher’s calamitous experience happened on a flight simulator that SUNY Farmingdale’s student-pilots use. But Zimpher likened it to a common practice in education: teachers entering the profession without the experience they need to handle the difficulties of a real classroom. Now, Zimpher is trying to change that, with help from a group of stakeholders who don’t always work well together.

The chancellor’s new “TeachNY” advisory council, which includes a number of researchers, the state teachers union, Teach for America, and the city’s top instructional leaders, Anna Commitante and Phil Weinberg, has been meeting this school year and is expected to settle on new policies for SUNY by June. Their work will be closely watched, as teacher colleges face pressure from federal officials to prove their graduates are successful at advancing student learning and from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wants to close programs with low pass rates on certification exams.

Zimpher, who spent three decades as a professor and dean of teacher education at Ohio State University, sat down with Chalkbeat last week to describe the challenge. She said she was comfortable with increased accountability, but a first priority is finding ways to get colleges and public schools to work together to put more aspiring teachers to work in real classrooms.

“No airline pilot is going to the cockpit without hours of simulated training,” Zimpher said. “But we do not think this way.”

On what ails teacher preparation

Zimpher: I think it’s fair to say that teacher education is, for some, like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s an easy target. It doesn’t have good policy. It’s underfunded compared to other professions. It doesn’t have the structure to do clinical preparation well.

We know from our hospitals that there’s a contractual relationship between the college of medicine and the hospitals where you want your doctors-in-training to get their clinical practice. We don’t have any of that infrastructure in teacher education.

And yet we have a lot of expectations about performance that seem to be driving everything, but nothing really helping us improve the quality of our teaching cadre. Everyone from hair stylists to neurosurgeons have a codified respect for clinical training.

Why public schools don’t want to help teachers in training

Let’s start here: There’s no policy that says, “K-12, you have to take these teachers in training.” It’s all done on a very informal request process. So that leaves colleges knocking on doors and asking, may I please send my teacher candidates to train in your school?

There’s no district incentive for an expert teacher to take on this additional responsibility. For the last 25 years, we’ve been paying a cooperating teacher something like $150 a semester to take a practicing teacher. It’s ridiculous.

Then, enter high-stakes testing. What we see happening is that high-stakes testing has made it difficult for a teacher to say, ‘I can take the risk to have a rookie in my classroom, when I am being the only one here being held accountable for the performance of my students.’

On what kinds of questions SUNY may soon be asking applicants

One very interesting indicator that Michael Allen put on the table today was ‘teaching promise’. This is more intuitive: Do you like kids? Do you respect that children can learn? What is your mindset around whether birth and economic environment or gender limit what you can learn?

So wouldn’t it be good if we had an instrument that would sort of give you a psychological profile of people we want in our teacher preparation programs, what their degree of commitment is?

On Cuomo’s education reform proposals

Since we prepare so many teachers, it’s for us to translate the governor’s message and make it a positive one. So I can’t really control the politics of the situation, but what we can control is the quality of our programs that help us recruit students that really want to come from high quality programs.

I think I’d rather have the governor interested than not. And with that interest comes some regulation that’s controversial and some of it’s hard to meet. But boy, we need to be a player in making things better and I’m OK with that.

On Teach for America

They have a much more abbreviated period of preparation and they have a challenging track record relative to retention. So [TFA] is training — over and over and over again — and not reaping the benefit of a long tenure for those teachers. I think there have been efforts on the part of Teach for America to reach out to higher education and see if we can’t work more effectively together. And I would support that.

I think there’s no benefit in producing teachers who aren’t ready for the classroom and rotate out too quickly. Those are our children they’re practicing on, and I think sometimes we think they’re somebody else’s children. No, they’re our children, and we want to send them the best possible teacher we can.

On using value-added test score growth to measure teacher prep programs

I’ve been convinced by the value-added approach, but I think we’ve not done well at all on the instrumentality. The theory is good. The practice is ailing.