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.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at state.board@cde.state.co.us.