teacher prep 2.0

New teacher training favored by charters comes to Denver as critics sound off

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A Relay resident practices giving directions to her peers, who pretend to be students.

The aspiring Denver teacher stood in front a cluster of four gray school desks where three of his peers were seated in blue plastic chairs, pretending to be students.

“One, two, three — all eyes on me,” he said.

“One, two — eyes on you,” they chanted in unison.

The next words out of his mouth came rapid-fire — not quite as fast as the guy at the end of commercials who says the offer is void where prohibited, but almost.

“John’s tracking me, Eric is tracking me, Tara has her voice off,” he said. “When I say ‘one,’ we’ll stand up and quietly push our chairs in. When I say ‘two,’ we’ll track the doorway. When I say ‘three,’ we’ll walk silently to the doorway. John, what are we doing when I say ‘one?’”

The role-playing exercise was a key part of the Friday afternoon practice session for the prospective teachers, who are participants in a new — and somewhat controversial — teacher residency program run by the New York-based Relay Graduate School of Education.

Relay opened an office in Denver this past spring on the second floor of Trevista at Horace Mann, an elementary school in the northwest part of the city with space to spare in its blond-brick art deco building. About 60 aspiring teachers began the two-year residency program over the summer. Relay runs the same program in nine other locations across the country, including Memphis, Nashville and Chicago.

The first year, each resident spends four and a half days in a real classroom working alongside an experienced teacher who acts as a mentor. In keeping with Relay’s charter school roots — it was founded by the leaders of three charter school networks, including KIPP — many of the Denver schools where residents teach are charters, including DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep.

The residents also take classes online and at night, and meet once a week on Friday afternoons for what Relay calls “deliberate practice.” The following year, the intention is for them to work full-time as teachers in charge of their own classrooms while simultaneously completing a master’s degree and earning a teaching license.

The model, nicknamed “Teacher Prep 2.0,” is different from traditional university programs in that it emphasizes practice as much as — and some would say more than — it does theory.

“The goal is to give them that theoretical baseline but never stop there — to always move to application and then to move to practicing it with your colleagues,” said Therese Zosel-Harper, a former social studies teacher and the dean of Relay Denver.

Criticism and a lack of research

But that approach has drawn criticism from the teacher-preparation establishment, which has itself been criticized for failing to provide would-be teachers with enough real-life experience.

Just last week, the Boulder-based National Education Policy Center published a brief (view it below) written by a university professor concluding that research has yet to show that increasingly popular independent teacher training programs like Relay are better than the traditional route.

Relay officials agree that the research is inconclusive. Part of the reason, scholars say, is that individual teacher training programs vary widely in what they require of their trainees.

“No one really knows what is the best way,” said Mayme Hostetter, Relay’s national dean. “But we see this as one very good way to have folks enter the profession — and we’ve gotten positive feedback from the residents themselves, as well as from the schools we’ve worked with.”

Relay measures its success in other ways, too. To earn their master’s degrees, teachers must meet student learning goals — for instance, that their students will achieve a year’s worth of reading growth. In fact, Hostetter said, Relay’s own data shows that elementary students taught by its residents gain an average of 1.3 years’ worth of reading growth per year.

“Those aren’t data we’re holding up to the world saying, ‘Incontrovertible truth! We are better than anywhere else,’” Hostetter said. However, she said Relay does see them as a positive sign.

But Ken Zeichner, a professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education, argues that’s not enough. In the brief released last week, he writes that test scores are “a limited measure of success” — and one relied upon too heavily by Teacher Prep 2.0 programs. Such programs, he argues, focus on preparing teachers to teach “other people’s children,” meaning those living in high-poverty neighborhoods.

“From my perspective, by only looking at test scores, we’re creating a second-class education for poor children in this country that (is) just about test scores,” Zeichner said in an interview.

Instead, he writes that teacher preparation programs, including university-based programs, should be judged by a mix of factors, including standardized test scores and how their graduates increase students’ social and emotional skills, creativity and problem-solving abilities.

Hostetter agrees. “Those goals are incredibly noble and what we’re working toward,” she said. As of now, she said Relay focuses on teaching residents how to build relationships with students, create a strong classroom culture, manage a classroom and teach academic lessons.

In the end, Zeichner echoes previous scholars’ analyses in concluding that more research is needed to identify the characteristics of high-quality teacher education programs.

“I’m not against innovation,” he said. But, he added, “I believe you can have innovation and high quality. What I see is this obsessive push for innovation without focus on the quality.”

Learning by doing

Denver Public Schools doesn’t have an official relationship with the Relay teacher residency program, although DPS has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars sending its principals and principal supervisors to a separate leadership training program run by Relay.

In fact, the district has its own teacher training program, the Denver Teacher Residency, in which aspiring teachers work for a year in a classroom alongside a mentor teacher while earning a master’s degree from the University of Denver.

Instead, the Relay teacher residency program works with individual schools to train their prospective teachers. Many of the schools previously ran their own in-house programs before helping to recruit Relay to open an office in Denver this year.

“We believe deeply in the power of practice and the idea that teaching is really a performing art, so it makes sense to train teachers more like athletes,” said James Cryan, the founder and CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, which runs two charter elementary schools in Denver this year and a preschool program in Aurora.

“We were looking for a program that is more practice-based and focused on the foundational skills needed to be effective in a classroom in front of our scholars.”

Eleven of Rocky Mountain Prep’s “teaching fellows” — each school calls its teacher residents something different — are going through the Relay teacher residency program this year. The program typically costs participants $6,500 for two years, Relay officials said.

Even just a few weeks into the school year, Cryan said he sees positive signs.

“What I’m seeing in classrooms is teachers who are confident early in the year and who are getting into the swing of things quickly,” he said. “We’re excited by a promising start.”

DSST, a network of 12 Denver charter middle and high schools, has 18 “apprentice teachers” in the Relay program. Before teaming up with Relay, DSST had its own residency program — and Nicole Fulbright, the network’s director of curriculum and assessment, said it’s seen evidence the model works. New teachers who went through it scored slightly higher on their evaluations than new teachers who didn’t, she said, though she cautioned that the sample size was small.

DSST hopes Relay will allow it to grow its apprenticeship program, Fulbright said.

“We … have seen that they offer very high-quality development to teachers that gives them the theory but also the actual practice with skills they’ll need to be successful,” she said.

That’s what the residents were doing at that recent Friday afternoon practice session. The assignment? Imagine you’re substitute-teaching kids you’ve never met, some of whom would rather squirm or whisper than listen. How would you give clear directions?

One by one, the prospective teachers spent a minute delivering instructions — praising obedient students and correcting those off task — at breakneck pace. It’s a classroom management style used in many charter schools and increasingly in traditional district schools too.

Some, including Zeichner, have criticized the style, which they say is primarily used in schools that serve poor students of color, as “highly controlling.” Teachers who use it expect students to sit up straight, listen and “track” whomever is speaking with their eyes.

Hostetter said she doesn’t understand that criticism. “It’s pretty straightforward,” she said.

After the residents delivered instructions, they spent another minute getting instant feedback from their peers. Then they did it again and again and again, building up a sort of muscle memory their instructors hope will help when they’re in front of real students.

“A lot of this stuff is learned by doing,” said Leon Hayes, a former security guard and math tutor who is now a kindergarten teaching fellow at Rocky Mountain Prep.

Erika Hellfritz, a math tutor who is also serving as a teaching resident at Hamilton Middle School and wants to be a social studies teacher, agreed. “I love the residency model versus sitting in a lecture,” she said. “I love that we get both: the theory and the real tangible practice.

“The feedback I receive here is what I remember most when I’m back in the classroom.”

Read the full National Education Policy Center brief below.

another round

New York wants to overhaul its teacher evaluations — again. Here’s a guide to the brewing battle.

PHOTO: Kyle Taubken

State policymakers recently dipped their toes into one of New York’s most politically charged education issues: teacher evaluations.

At a meeting this month, state education department officials outlined plans to revamp the unpopular teacher-rating system, which was essentially put on hold more than two years ago. Shortly after, the state teachers union called for faster action setting the stage for a new round of evaluation debates.

To help explain the brewing debate, Chalkbeat has created a guide to the current evaluations, how they came to be, and what might be in store for them.

Here’s what you need to know:

How do New York’s teacher evaluations work now?

Teachers are evaluated based on two components: students’ academic improvement and principals’ observation of their teaching.

Every district creates its own state-approved evaluation plan that spells out how they will measure student learning. In 2015, state policymakers temporarily banned the use of grades 3-8 math and English state tests in evaluations.

In New York City, teams of educators at each school pick from a menu of assessments called “Measures of Student Learning.” Among the options are developed essay-based tasks and “running records,” where students are assessed as they read increasingly difficult texts. They can also choose to include the results of science tests or high-school graduation exams. (Certain teachers — such as those who teach physical education — are evaluated based partly on their students’ scores in other subjects.)

Teachers receive one score based on how much students improved academically, and another based on principals’ ratings. The combined scores are translated into one of four ratings, ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective.”

Teacher evaluations must still be a factor in tenure decisions and three “ineffective” ratings can trigger a teacher’s firing.

What are the outcomes of the current system?

Nearly 97 percent of New York City teachers earned the top two ratings of either “effective” or “highly effective” in the 2016-17 school year, according to preliminary numbers presented by the city teachers union president at a meeting in October. That is an increase from the previous year when 93 percent of teachers earned one of those ratings.

How did we get here?

Until 2010, teachers were rated either “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory,” and individual districts and principals were given latitude to determine how those ratings were assigned.

But in order to win a federal “Race to the Top” grant that year, New York adopted a new evaluation system that factored in students’ standardized test scores — a move strongly opposed by many teachers, who consider the tests an unreliable measure of their performance. The new system was based on a 100-point scale that allotted 20 points to state tests, 20 points to local tests, and 60 points to principal observations.

The battle lines were redrawn again in 2015, when state lawmakers led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to make it tougher for teachers to earn high ratings. The new system allowed for as much as half of a teacher’s rating to be based on test scores.

But that plan was never fully implemented. Following a wave of protests in which one in five New York families boycotted the state tests, officials backed away from several controversial education policies.

In late 2015, the state’s Board of Regents approved a four-year freeze on the most contentious aspect of the teacher evaluation law: the use of students’ scores on the grades 3-8 math and English tests. They later allowed districts to avoid having independent observers rate teachers — another unpopular provision in the original law.

Why is the state looking to overhaul the system now?

Over the past few years, state policymakers have revised New York’s learning standards and the annual exams that students take. Now, they are turning to the evaluation system.

The moratorium on the use of certain test scores in teacher evaluations expires after next school year, so the clock is ticking for state education officials to come up with a new system. They have said they hope to have a new system ready for the 2019-2020 school year — but they also floated the idea of extending the moratorium in order to give themselves more time.

What could change?

Everything is up for debate.

First, state policymakers must decide whether to create a single statewide evaluation system or let local school districts craft their own, as the state teachers union is urging.

Second, they must decide what to put in the evaluations. Should they include test scores, principal observations, or other measures? If they allow tests, they must determine which kinds to use and how much to weigh student scores.

However, they may run up against some obstacles. Besides the relatively short timeline, major changes to the evaluation system could require state lawmakers to revise the underlying legislation. And any new student-learning measures they hope to use could prove costly to develop.

Who are the key players and what do they want?

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has made it clear she wants to oversee a careful redesign process that will involve teachers and could lead to a revamped, statewide evaluation system. “This isn’t going to be a fast process,” Elia said during a legislative hearing at the end of January.

State teachers union officials have called for a much quicker process that results in local school districts crafting their own evaluations — a move that could eliminate the use of test scores. “First and foremost, the teachers that we represent believe that the time to fix [teacher evaluation] is this year,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers, after the state outlined its plan earlier this month. Since then, union officials have said they want to work collaboratively with the education department.

Gov. Cuomo has shied away from this issue after pushing for the deeply unpopular 2015 law that tried to toughen evaluations and inflamed the teachers unions. And he does not appear eager to revisit the issue this year as he seeks reelection. His spokeswoman, Abbey Fashouer, told Chalkbeat: “We will revisit the issue at the appropriate time,” and noted that the moratorium will remain in effect until the 2019-20 school year.

State lawmakers have not indicated that overhauling the teacher-evaluation law this year is a top priority.

During a city teachers union event in December, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he was not sure the state could get to a “final idea” by the end of this year — but that he wanted to “start the dialogue.” The senate majority leader, John Flanagan, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I have not heard any movement on teacher evaluations this year,” said Patricia Fahy, a Democratic assemblymember who represents Albany, in an interview this week. “Normally something about that would be bubbling up already.”

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”