teaching the teachers

Teacher training programs contemplate how to adapt to teacher evaluations

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Kate Schimel
Teachers in training at CSU-Pueblo discuss where they'd score on the new teacher evaluations. Jenny Arzberger runs trainings statewide.

Even though Mary Young is just in the final weeks of her training to become a new teacher, she’s already become an expert in Colorado’s complex stack of standards for good teaching that will one day be used to decide whether she should stay in the classroom.

On a late spring afternoon, she pored over the standards — which rolled out to schools around the state this year — and speculated on where she’d rank on each piece.

In some areas, like building a strong classroom culture, Young said expected to excel. But she also realized she had little to no experience practicing other areas of expectation, like incorporating technology in the classroom.

“I have no idea if I will be good at it,” she said.

And the guide that lays out all of the standards, which runs to 20 pages, is daunting for a new teacher.

“How do you balance all of these?” she asked.

But Young is already ahead of the game in getting ready for her first evaluation. Her training program, Stanley Teacher Preparation Program, is one of just two in the state selected to be part of a pilot program figuring out how to train teaching candidates on the new evaluation system.

For teacher preparation programs, the incentive to graduate students who will do well under the new evaluation system is strong: eventually, the state’s teacher trainers will be graded based on how well their students do in their first years of teaching.

But the pilot has revealed just how far programs have to go to prepare teaching candidates for the new system and has illuminated a system still in flux as officials gradually introduce a complex series of laws governing teaching practices.

“They’re not going to be done by the time I’m done with my job,” said Jennifer Arzberger, who supports the grant-funded pilot program, which is entering its second and final year and was formed as a collaboration between the two state offices overseeing Colorado’s higher education and K-12 systems.

Teacher preparation programs also have a dilemma: school districts, which have to teach according to the new evaluation standards, want their incoming teachers trained on those. But the higher education system still holds the programs accountable to teaching the old standards, so prep programs must meet those expectations as well.

Moreover, teacher prep programs often work closely with individual school districts, many of which have developed their own variations on the state’s evaluation system to meet the requirements of the law. But programs must prepare new teachers for classrooms anywhere in the state.

And the implementation of the new standards has raised a number of practical questions for teacher trainers, including ones as simple as exactly how advanced young teaching candidates should be when they first enter the profession.

No answers, yet

One of the biggest problems for teacher training programs is that there is still no clear consensus on how skilled teachers should be, within the framework of the new evaluation system, when they graduate and enter classrooms for the first time on their own.

Young and her fellow students received training on how they would be evaluated and assessed themselves on the standards. But when Stanley instructors prepared to evaluate Young and others on the standards, it became obvious that no one knew where they should score if the program was doing its job. Should they be proficient on every standard? Or are some areas impossible for students who don’t run their own classroom to demonstrate mastery of?

Stanley, which puts teaching candidates to work immediately in a classroom under a mentor, polled their mentor teachers on where students should fall early in their careers. The program leaders also broke down the standards by what candidates are taught in the program.

“In most cases, they are going to be around basic, proficient or partially proficient,” said Sue Sava, who heads the Stanley program. Few recent graduates will rank in the top tiers on the evaluation.

Right now, those designations carry no consequences for teaching candidates. But eventually, under legislation likely to come forward next year, teacher candidates’ rankings on the evaluations could be tied to whether or not they receive their teaching licenses.

That’s a move Sava isn’t so sure about.

“Does state model rubric even make sense for teachers [in training]?” Sava said. Using it as a training tool works well, but to demonstrate mastery, she said, a candidate would really have to have their own classroom.

Other remaining questions are as basic as exactly which variation on the state’s system programs should use to train their students, since many of the largest districts have designed their own evaluation systems.

Both Stanley and the other participating program, University of Colorado-Denver’s Urban Community Teaching Education Program, collaborate closely with districts to place teachers-in-training in classrooms and prepare them for the needs of the specific districts. But most smaller districts use the state’s model system, whose language and structure can differ significantly from Denver’s LEAP evaluation tool and other district-designed systems.

While these questions and others linger, Arzberger hopes their work will help inform other teacher preparation programs statewide as they grapple with the new system.

Caught in the middle

As Sava and her team spend the next year totally redesigning Stanley’s preparation program to align with the standards of the evaluations, they will have to confront the side effects of a set of teacher accountability policies that have been stitched together piecemeal.

While their teachers will be evaluated on one set of standards after they graduate and enter the classroom, the teacher training programs themselves are still held accountable for teaching an old set of standards. And to make things more complex, teacher preparation programs will soon be ranked based on how well their candidates perform on evaluations during their first three years of teaching.

Sava believes that the old guidelines, known as “performance-based” standards and dating back to 1991, are antiquated and burdensome. The strain the old standards place on programs like Stanley takes physical form in a document called Big Bertha — a stack of papers several inches thick that contains all of the compliance information on just one of the standards, literacy instruction.

“[The new standards] are much more concise,” said Sava.

And she thinks they do a better job of pushing teachers to get better. “They do a good job of articulating this is what highly effective teaching looks like.”

Stanley is currently attempting to comply with both sets of standards, but Sava hopes to abandon the old standards entirely and discard Big Bertha. But that would require new legislation.

“We hope that’s going to happen,” said Sava. In the meantime, Sava said she has been encouraged to continue their work with the new standards.

“All they’ve known”

While programs are grappling with how to comply with the policies, the teachers they train are facing them fresh. New teachers like Young won’t have to deal with the transition many veterans have.

It’s a fact Young is acutely aware of. Her mother is also a teacher in Denver Public Schools. This year, Young received more training on the standards than her mother did.

“I feel better knowing what’s going to be expected and that [Stanley] is a safe place where I can ask questions,” said Young. While she finds some aspects of the standards daunting, that’s more hopeful than her mother’s response: “How are we supposed to do this?”

According to Arzberger, the teachers in training on whom so much of the difficulties center may emerge relatively untouched.

“It’s all they’ve known,” Arzberger said.

Human Resources

A minimum salary for Colorado teachers? State officials may ask lawmakers to consider it.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

As part of a broad plan to increase the volume of high-quality teachers in Colorado, state officials are considering asking lawmakers to take the bold step of establishing a minimum teacher salary requirement tied to the cost of living.

Officials from the state departments of education and higher education are finalizing a list of recommendations to address challenges to Colorado’s teacher workforce. Pressing for the legislation on teacher salaries is one of dozens of recommendations included in a draft report.

The report, assembled at the request of the legislature, also proposes a marketing campaign and scholarships to attract new teachers to rural areas.

Representatives from the Colorado Department of Education said they would not discuss the recommendations until they’re final. However, the department earlier this month briefed the State Board of Education on their proposed recommendations in advance of the Dec. 1 deadline for it to be finalized.

The impending report — based on thousands of responses from educators, students and other Colorado residents in online surveys and town halls across the state — is a sort of first step for the state legislature to tackle a problem years in the making. Since 2010, Colorado has seen a 24 percent drop in the number of college students graduating from the state’s traditional teacher colleges. There’s also been a 23 percent drop in enrollment in those programs.

Residency programs, which place graduate students in a classroom for a full year with an experienced teacher, and other alternative licensure programs have seen a 40 percent increase in enrollment. But those programs produce far fewer teachers and can’t keep up with demand.

Colorado faces a shortage of teachers in certain subjects, regions and schools, and circumstances vary. Math and science teachers are in short supply: Only 192 college students in 2016 graduated with credentials to teach those subjects. The same year, 751 students left with a degree to teach elementary school.

And rural schools have had an especially hard time finding and keeping teachers.

Here’s a look at what the state departments are considering recommending, based on the presentation from education department officials to the state board:

Provide more and better training to new — and veteran — teachers.

Colorado schools are already required to offer some sort of induction program for new teachers. This training, which lasts between two and three years, is supposed to supplement what they learned during college.

For the last two years, the state education department has been pushing school districts to update their programs. The recommendations in the report could kick things up a notch.

The education departments are asking for updated induction requirements to be written into statute and more money to be provided to districts to pay for the training.

The draft report also calls for more more sustained training for veteran teachers, including competitive grant programs.

An additional suggestion is to create a program to train teachers expressly to teach in rural classrooms.

Increase teacher compensation and benefits.

This will be a hard pill to swallow. According to the presentation to the state board, the education departments want to call on lawmakers to set a minimum salary for teachers based on the school district’s cost of living.

The presentation to the board lacked specifics on how lawmakers and school districts could accomplish this. One board member, Colorado Springs Republican Steve Durham, called it a “mistake” to include such a recommendation.

Keeping up with the rising cost of living is a challenge. A new report shows new teachers in the state’s three largest school districts couldn’t afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

“We hope the report itself is going to talk a lot the cost of living — that’s what we heard from our stakeholders across the field,” Colleen O’Neil, the education department’s executive director of educator talent told the state board. “They literally were not able to meet the cost of living because their salaries did not compensate them fairly enough to find housing.”

Other suggestions the report might highlight to improve teacher compensation include loan forgiveness, housing incentives and creating a differentiated pay scale for teachers — something teachers unions staunchly oppose.

Help schools better plan for hiring and send teachers where they’re needed.

One short-term solution the state is considering recommending is allocating more resources to help schools plan for teacher turnover. This includes providing incentives for teachers to notify school leaders about their plans to leave the classroom earlier.

The education departments are also suggesting the state increase the number of programs that can help teachers get licensed in more than one subject at a time. Other ideas include offering scholarships to potential teachers to complete licensing requirements for content areas that are lacking viable candidates — likely math and science — and providing transportation and technology stipends for rural teachers.

Make the teaching profession more attractive.

Teachers “feel they’re not treated like professionals,” O’Neil told the board. So the education departments want the legislature to allow them to partner with private entities to launch a marketing campaign to lift the profile of teaching as a career in the state.

The education departments also hope the legislature considers creating more opportunities for middle and high school students to consider teaching as a viable career path. This could include reinvigorating the state’s Educators Rising program, a program for high school students interested in teaching.

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.