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.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Indiana lawmakers and education advocates are making raises for teachers a priority for the upcoming legislative session.

As top lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — prepare to craft the next two-year state budget, they have been in talks about how money could be set aside for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks.

“The governor’s office and both Republican caucuses are seriously looking at this as an issue,” said Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. “If we’re focused on really making (teaching) more of a profession, you can’t do it by grants here, grants there. People need to see the opportunity.”

While Indiana’s teacher pay has not fallen as dramatically as it has in other states, salaries are down from 2009 when adjusted for inflation. The average teacher salary in 2018 was $54,846, down about 4.5 percentage points from nine years earlier, according to data from the National Education Association teachers union. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research ranks Indiana 18th highest in the nation for teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living.

Teacher pay has been central to education policy debates in 2018 across the nation, with teachers in several cities staging walkouts and protests to urge officials in their states to increase funding for classrooms. Indiana teachers have not gone on strike, but the national uproar around funding and teacher compensation has been felt among Hoosier educators — especially as schools across the state struggle to hire enough qualified teachers. In Indianapolis Public Schools, raising teacher pay was the driving motivation behind asking voters to approve a tax increase of $220 million over eight years.

“I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who said they’re fully staffed in special education,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “But if you get them and you can’t keep them because they can’t pay bills, and they have no hope of having a family or getting a house … they’re going to look elsewhere.”

It’s too early to know how lawmakers would approach raises logistically for the state’s more than 71,000 public school teachers or how much they’re willing to support, but there does seem to be some initial consensus that the increases should go to base salaries, not just stipends as previous efforts have involved.

“We need to look at how do we make a significant impact to the base for all teachers,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from northwest Indiana. “That’s where we’re going now, to figure out what’s a sustainable method to fund this — not just for one or two years, but ongoing.”

In previous years, the state has set aside a few million dollars at a time for teacher bonuses or stipends for teaching advanced courses or subjects in shortage areas, such as science, math, and special education. The state’s pool for merit pay raises this year for teachers rated effective and highly effective is $30 million, amounting to typically small bumps for teachers.

But a noticeable raise for every teacher in the state would cost many millions of dollars, a considerable undertaking at a time when state revenue has been shrinking and competition among lawmakers and agencies to get a slice of state funding is high.

It’s also unclear if the money for raises would be figured into the state’s school funding formula or as a separate line item. It could be especially complicated because in Indiana, there are no common teacher pay guidelines. Each district or charter school creates its own pay scale, which often involves union negotiations as well.

Lawmakers and advocates alike say they expect this to be a top issue for the legislature. Still, any proposal to increase teacher pay would be competing with other issues — chief among them increasing funding for the Department of Child Services. Earlier this year, the resignation of the agency’s director set off a major review of its staffing and caseload, stretched further by the number of children needing services because of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

Teacher salaries could also square off against other education issues, such as school safety improvements and initiatives to increase class offerings in science and math.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, district officials have been stressing the need to increase teacher pay — a key lever to convincing voters to pass a property tax increase to raise an additional $220 million for the district over eight years. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he’s also been having conversations with lawmakers about potential ways that the state could address the problem.

“They appreciate the need to address the teacher shortage, and they understand it’s an issue not only impacting Indianapolis Public Schools but it’s also an issue that’s statewide,” Ferebee told Chalkbeat two weeks ago.

Teacher hiring has continued to be a struggle for districts across the state, a survey from an Indiana State University professor said. Of the 220 districts surveyed, 91 percent said they’d had trouble filling jobs, with special education, science, and math being the hardest to fill.

According to state data, Indiana issued licenses to 4,285 new teachers in 2018, down slightly from 5,016 in 2017 and 4,566 in 2016. A survey conducted by the Indiana Department of Education reported 88 percent of educators who responded were unsatisfied with their pay, and it was the reason most frequently given for leaving the teaching profession.

“Based on conversations with some lawmakers, based on what’s going on across the country, I think our lawmakers have seen there’s reform fatigue,” Meredith said. “Let the dust settle and figure out how we come back and demonstrate respect for teachers.”

In other states where lawmakers have approved statewide teacher pay raises, the process has differed. Oklahoma raised the salary floor for all teachers, with an average increase of $6,100 per year. The state budgeted more than $425 million for the salary increases, which are to be covered by new higher taxes on cigarettes, cigars, and gas. In West Virginia, a nine-day strike ultimately led lawmakers to increase pay for all public employees by 5 percent.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has not yet weighed in on whether he would support a statewide teacher raise, but Behning said he’d been in conversations with the governor’s office. Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.