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.

First Person

I’m a fifth-year Chicago teacher, and the challenges aren’t letting up. Now what?

PHOTO: Getty

When I started as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I remember hearing that half of teachers in urban school districts leave them in their first five years. When I went through rough patches I would wonder, was I going to make it?

I did make it, completing my fifth year of teaching last spring. But I can’t help but feel like something still isn’t right.

I feel like this should be the time when I am starting to really develop my expertise, feel secure in my skills and abilities, and build the self-confidence that I am effective in my craft. Instead, I  feel lucky just to be surviving day to day and week to week.

I thought that by now I would be in a groove with planning and preparation. I thought that my Sundays might actually be relaxing. Instead, I find myself filled with the “Sunday scaries,” scrambling to get materials created, adjust lesson plans, and polish final drafts of IEPs. I never feel “caught up,” and can’t say I have ever known what that feels like.

Even though my class sizes are not the largest in the district, they are filled with students who — although so talented, resilient, and special — have such a wide variety of needs and deficits that I don’t feel I can adequately address given all of the constraints I face. There simply are not enough resources and time to do everything I need to do to give my students the best that they deserve. This weighs on me, leading to overwhelming feelings of guilt and helplessness that are often paralyzing.

In short, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted, and I know many of my fellow teachers are too.

I’ve been thinking about this reality more since I joined a number of colleagues at an educator mental health-focused event in October. We dug into our own struggles and and then worked on ways to manage our stress. We named our biggest day-to-day stressors and then explored different ways to practice self-care — such as journaling, meditation, or picking up an instrument — to balance out the feelings of high anxiety and pressure we feel at work. I left with a number of resources to seek out on my own as well as a sense of renewal. But the onus was on me to find solutions moving forward.

Now, Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up. And while I work on managing the stress of this job, it’s also on policymakers — including our next mayor — to address the stressors themselves.

Large class sizes, the limited time we are allotted to plan and prepare for the school day, insufficient paid time-off policies, and ever-tighter budgets we are asked to stretch to meet our students’ needs are all the result of policies that could be changed.

I can’t practice enough self-care to replace the structural changes needed to make our profession more sustainable.

But school leaders, the mayor, and state policymakers, could make a difference. More independent and collaboration time in teachers’ days would help give us time to chip away at expanding to-do lists. Real teacher-leader roles would give teachers power and voice in school decisions. Schools destigmatizing “mental health” days and organizing activities to help teachers de-stress would help, too.

Dissenters may point to the fact that in many other jobs you’re expected to manage your work-life balance and handle stress on your own. But teaching isn’t like every other job: the stakes are especially high, and we have less control of our time and are more isolated in our work. Students benefit from teachers with experience, and every time a capable teacher leaves Chicago’s schools because they were overwhelmed, students lose out.

For my part, I pledge to be aware of my mental health needs and plan to be intentional about my self-care this school year. I hope Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teachers Union, and our city and state elected leaders will commit to helping me and my colleagues not only to survive, but to thrive in our jobs.

As mayoral candidates continue to flesh out their education plans, they need to acknowledge that our mental health and well-being is critical to our success as teacher. How are they planning to help us access resources like counseling services? Prioritizing how to best care for educators will help us continue to provide the best care possible for students.

Teachers are already doing exceptional work given the many constraints they face. Imagine what more we could do for our students if we were better equipped ourselves.

Dayna Heller is a special education teacher at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. She is an active member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher-led policy organization.

tick tock

Denver district, teachers union make some progress as contract deadline looms, but still far apart

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Denver teachers listen to an update on bargaining during the second to last day of negotiations before the ProComp contract expires.

Something unusual happened near the end of bargaining Thursday between the Denver teachers union and school administrators: The district offered a change to its proposal, and some teachers gathered in the audience snapped their fingers in approval.

The two sides are still far apart in terms of reaching an agreement on Denver Public Schools’ ProComp system, which offers teachers bonuses on top of their base salary for things like teaching in a high-poverty school or earning a strong evaluation. The deadline for a deal is Friday, with teachers set to vote on either strike or ratification Saturday and Tuesday. The district’s and the union’s proposals still reflect different ideas about how teachers should earn more compensation — and have very different price tags.

But Thursday’s session was a far cry from the intense frustration that marked Tuesday’s bargaining session. On that day, district officials departed the bargaining table to “process” after the union refused to make a counteroffer to the most recent district proposal. Teachers filled the room after school and waited in hot, cramped conditions for a response that never came.

Thursday’s session opened with tense verbal sparring, but by the afternoon, the union had made changes to its proposal that reduced the cost by an estimated $2.5 million. District officials said they would spend the night and early Friday morning analyzing the proposal and seeing where else they might be able to move.

The district did offer a small concession Thursday that some teachers seemed to appreciate: increasing tuition reimbursement 50 percent, to $6,000. Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said research shows this type of incentive is a strong tool for recruiting and keeping teachers, especially teachers of color. The money for this will come from reducing the bonus that teachers get for teaching in a so-called “distinguished” school.

More often, Denver teachers have reacted with boos to offers that the district saw as significant steps toward the union position.

Beyond small steps like the tuition reimbursement, Cordova said she was “very open to considering” aspects of the union proposal, a sentiment that seemed to clear the way for more back-and-forth.

“The district has moved and DCTA was willing to change their proposal,” said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School who attended the bargaining session. “We both showed willingness to compromise, and that’s positive.”

Dana Berge, a member of the union bargaining team, said the district is “beginning to listen to us, but they are not listening to us in terms of the values in our proposal.”

Both proposals keep some bonuses, at much more modest levels, and put more money into base pay. And both proposals lay out a schedule for how Denver teachers can earn more money, both by “steps,” or number of years of service, and by “lanes,” or additional educational achievement.

The union proposal has more lanes and allows Denver teachers to start moving up by earning additional college credit or by taking the kind of professional development that teachers need to do anyway. Teachers take such training to maintain their teaching licenses — or because they see a need, for example, to learn more about helping students with trauma. The union’s counteroffer Thursday removed one of the lanes, bringing down the total cost.

The district’s first lane change comes with a master’s degree, completing 10 years of service, earning an advanced license, or earning national board certification.

Berge said the union proposal more closely mimics those in other districts and will keep “highly dedicated, highly trained, highly experienced teachers” in Denver and reduce the problem of losing more experienced teachers to better-off suburban districts while less experienced teachers concentrate in the highest-needs schools.

She argued that a more stable salary structure would do more to keep teachers in high-poverty schools than the bonuses given under the current system.

The union proposal will cost a lot more than the district proposal. Cordova said the district is in the process of identifying “deep, deep cuts” to administrative positions to redirect money to classrooms, but even those won’t provide all the money needed to close the gap between the two sides.

During the long period in which each side was working separately on its proposals, a group of religious and community leaders from the Industrial Areas Foundation arrived to offer support to teachers and then a direct message to Cordova. They criticized her for framing the disagreement as one about values.

“Please don’t dare insinuate that you care more about the children in hard-to-serve, high-poverty schools than we do,” said Susan Cooper, a retired teacher and member of the organization. “We value solidarity, not a divide and conquer approach. We value stability, which we don’t have because we can’t keep teachers in Denver.”

Billy Williams of the Denver chapter of the NAACP said parents and community members would support the teachers “if they are forced to strike.”

Cordova said it was never her intent to suggest one side held the moral high ground.

“We can have similar goals, similar values, and different ideas about how to get those done,” she said. “Good people can disagree and still care about our kids.”

The two sides expect to resume bargaining at 10 a.m. Friday.