Future of Teaching

How to attract and keep teachers in Indianapolis? Build them a village.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Teachers and community members gather to hear about plans for a new "teacher village" in development on the city's near-east side.

While he was out biking in his southeast side neighborhood, Joe Mount came across a troubling scene: Two boys were throwing small rocks at a young girl.

He immediately recognized her from the honors English class he had taught at Emma Donnan Middle School. He quickly intervened.

He said he wouldn’t have been there to settle the squabble if he weren’t living nearby, three blocks away in a neighborhood right off Garfield Park. Mount, 24, who was born and raised in Indianapolis, asked to be placed in the city during his stint with Teach for America and knew he wanted to live close to Donnan.

“You get a sense of ownership and involvement with your students that you wouldn’t get if you lived 20 minutes south,” Mount said.

For years, Indianapolis and cities across the country have grappled with how to attract new teachers to the classroom and encourage them to stay. Offering early career educators — particularly those in inner cities — housing that they can afford on their teacher salaries and near their schools could solve two problems: bolster relationships between teachers and students and quell persistent teaching shortages.

To address those challenges, several Indianapolis community groups unveiled a proposal to create a “teacher village” in the center city at an open house Tuesday night. The partnership among the city of Indianapolis; Near East Area Renewal, a nonprofit community developer; and Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that helps people prepare to buy homes, would result in 20 or more homes in the 800 to 900 block of North Rural Street, a part of town known as St. Clair Place. The homes would be priced starting around $130,000, but several would be available as rentals.

NEAR anticipates the first homes would be available in May 2018. And although rules around the project’s funding say they must be open to any potential buyer, NEAR wants to market the homes heavily to teachers in Indianapolis Public Schools and inner-city charter schools.

John Franklin Hay, executive director for NEAR, said the project coincides with a larger effort to revitalize the near-east side, where crime and poverty rates are high. But redevelopment is changing the area, with new and rehabbed homes popping up within blocks of abandoned houses.

“We were challenged by Indianapolis Public Schools and Teach Plus and by the city of Indianapolis about a year and a half ago to begin developing a teacher village,” Hay said. “Our intention from the very beginning … was to develop housing and do our revitalizing of St. Clair Place. It would be a mixed-income neighborhood that would be more diverse than when we started.”

The near-east side is home to more than a dozen public and private schools, including 10 in IPS. Teach Plus Indiana, part of a national organization that trains teachers to advocate for policy, researched problems teachers face when trying to find housing. Typically, they found, the houses near their schools are far too expensive even though downtown housing is booming in the city — since 2010, 50 new complexes have been built, and most charge $1,300 per month or more. According to a March 2017 article in Forbes, average rent in Indianapolis is $806.

“The majority of residents within these complexes make $80,000 per year or higher,” the policy brief states. “Given that Indianapolis Public Schools starting salary is half of that, few teachers, if any, can afford to live within the Center Township. Of the teachers who do choose to live within the limits of Circle City, they must sacrifice either safety or savings.”

The problem is not unique to Indianapolis. A report out of New York University cites research showing students benefit from building closer relationships with teachers, particularly those in high-poverty urban schools. Those effects can come later in life, but they also can be as immediate as math achievement over the course of a school year. Living in the community they teach, argues Etta Hollins, a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor, leads to a much deeper understanding of students and the support they need.

Nor is the desire to live and work in the same community unique to teachers. Cities across the country have taken a variety of measures — from restricting where civil servants can live to building housing specifically for police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers and other municipal employees — to place their workforce closer to their jobs.

Other cities across the country, including Philadelphia and Baltimore, have seen success with such models for teachers — for instance, the Philadelphia teacher village was fully rented out six months before it was finished, and district-subsidized housing in Santa Clara, California, has a 30-person waiting list, the Teach Plus policy brief states.

The open house attracted about 30 interested educators. They offered ideas about what amenities were important to them in their homes and a neighborhood, including being close to grocery stores, restaurants and fitness centers as well as having parking, outdoor lighting and storage space.

Many also emphasized safety, which NEAR said it is already addressing. Often, high-poverty urban centers where schools are located have more crime than surrounding suburbs. Every teacher village home would come with a security system, and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has installed surveillance in the area.

The teachers also added that some kind of incentive from their schools or district — whether that’s down-payment assistance, longer-term contracts or salary bonuses — would also encourage them to seek out permanent housing in the teacher village.

While some teachers might prefer separating their personal and professional communities, teachers like Mount said he considered himself lucky to be able to live near where he worked. His school, Donnan Middle School, is 43 percent white and 37 percent black and is located in a fairly high-poverty area southeast of the city.

Once he relocated, he said, he regularly walked his dog around his neighborhood, occasionally stopping to chat with students he ran into at a local convenience store where they bought snacks after school. He also stopped driving to work each day, preferring instead to bike.

“The kids immediately picked up on that,” he said, laughing. “That’s something weird and novel … you start getting a reputation in other grades just with that.”

Mount said moving to the neighborhood surrounding his school changed so much about how he interacted with his students, and he’s grateful he lucked into an affordable option. He said he hopes other teachers can have that same opportunity someday.

“It was incredibly important to be able to point to the street behind the school and say, ‘I live on that street. I know what’s going on,’” he said. “I lived in that area, I was their neighbor … it was everything.”

teacher prep

Three of Tennessee’s largest teacher training programs improve on state report card

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Three of Tennessee’s 10 largest teacher training programs increased their scores on a state report card that seeks to capture how well new teachers are being prepared for the classroom based on state goals.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville became the first public university to achieve a top score under the State Board of Education’s new grading system, now in its second year. And Middle Tennessee State University and East Tennessee State University also improved their scores.

But most of Tennessee’s 39 programs scored the same in 2017 as in 2016. Those included the University of Memphis and Austin Peay State University.

And more than 40 percent landed in the bottom tiers, including the state’s largest, Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, along with other sizable ones like the University of Tennessee’s programs in Chattanooga and Martin.

The report card, released on Thursday, is designed to give a snapshot of the effectiveness of the state’s teacher preparation programs, a front-burner issue in Tennessee since a 2016 report said that most of them aren’t adequately equipping teachers to be effective in the classroom. Teacher quality is important because years of research show that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.

State officials say the top-tier score by UT-Knoxville is significant — not only because it’s a public school but because it was the state’s sixth largest training program in 2017. “As one of the state’s flagship public institutions, UTK is setting the bar for how to effectively train teachers at scale,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the State Board. She cited the school’s “model internship program” and “close partnerships with local districts.”

In the previous year’s report card, the top scores only went to small nontraditional programs like Memphis Teacher Residency and Teach For America and private universities such as Lipscomb in Nashville and Union in Jackson.

That demographic recently prompted a call to action by Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. He told state lawmakers last month that it’s time to put traditional programs at public institutions under a microscope, especially since those colleges and universities produce 90 percent of the state’s new teachers.

“Sometimes an undue amount of discussion happens around alternative new teacher programs like Teach For America or the New Teacher Project …,” he said. “If we’re going to move the needle (on teacher training), it’s going to happen at the campus of a college or university.”

Tennessee has graded programs that train teachers since 2009 but redesigned its report card in 2016 to provide a clearer picture of their effectiveness for stakeholders ranging from aspiring teachers to hiring principals. The criteria includes a program’s ability to recruit a strong, racially diverse group of teachers-in-training; produce teachers for high-need areas such as special education and secondary math and science; and its candidates’ placement and retention in Tennessee public schools. Another metric is how effective those teachers are in classrooms based on their evaluations, including state test scores that show student growth.

Not everybody is satisfied with the report card’s design, though.

“It’s a real challenge to capture in one report the complexity of preparing our candidates to be teachers, especially when you’re comparing very different programs across the state,” said Lisa Zagumny, dean of the College of Education at Tennessee Tech, which increased its points in 2017 but not enough to improve its overall score.

She said Tech got dinged over student growth scores, but that only a third of its graduates went on to teach in tested subjects. “And yet our observation scores are very high,” added Associate Dean Julie Baker. “We know we’re doing something right because our candidates who go on to teach are being scored very high by their principals.”

Racial diversity is another challenge for Tech, which is located in the Upper Cumberland region. “The diversity we serve is rural, first-generation college students who are typically lower socioeconomically,” said Zagumny.

Tennessee is seeking to recruit a more racially diverse teacher force because of research showing the impact of having teachers who represent the student population they are serving. Of candidates who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent were people of color, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

Morrison said this year’s report card includes a new “highlights page” in an effort to allow programs to share a narrative about the work they’re doing. 

You can search for schools below, find the new 2017 scores, and compare them with the previous year. A 1 is the lowest performance category and a 4 is the highest. You can sort the list based on performance and size. This is the state’s first report card based on three years of data.

SED VS. NYSUT

With changes coming to New York’s teacher evaluations, union and state officials prepare to clash

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

New York’s education policymakers got a lesson Monday in how treacherous it will to be revamp the state’s highly controversial teacher-evaluation system.

Just minutes after the state education commissioner laid out a detailed plan for coming up with a redesigned system by fall of 2019, a state teachers-union official rebuffed it. Arguing that teachers cannot wait another year for fixes to a rating system they say is fatally flawed, the union will ask lawmakers to change the underlying evaluation law this year, the official said.

In fact, she said, the union won’t even ask its members to take a department survey meant to gather feedback on the current system, which rates teachers based on classroom observations and other measures of what students are learning.

“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, in a conversation with reporters after the state outlined its plan. “Now is the time — we’ve been talking about this for years.”

Even as state policymakers face political opposition from the teachers union — which has long opposed using state test scores to judge teachers, as was required by a 2015 state law — they are likely to run into practical challenges as well.

Any effort to come up with statewide alternative assessments to use in evaluations could prove too costly at a time of fiscal uncertainty for the state. And major changes to the system could require reopening the evaluation law, which sparked a fierce backlash when it was passed. So far, lawmakers have not indicated that doing so is a priority, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo may want to avoid such drama during an election year.

“We have lived in a very toxic landscape,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said Monday during the Regents’ monthly meeting, where state officials laid out their redesign plan. “I think that we have to be so mindful and so strategic and so intentional in our plan.”

The 2015 law — which Cuomo aggressively pushed for after calling the previous evaluation system “baloney” — weakened the role of local districts and teachers unions in crafting teacher ratings, instead shifting more authority to the state. That opened the door for ratings that relied much more heavily on student test scores — a move fiercely opposed by the unions, which worked to fuel the state’s massive parent-led boycott of the state exams.

In response to the backlash, the Board of Regents placed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations until 2019. Instead, districts must find different measures of teacher effectiveness.

But now, the teachers union wants to repeal the state law entirely, and return evaluations back to local districts. Doing so would allow educators to help design systems that take into account unique conditions in each district — and to likely greatly reduce or eliminate the role of test scores in teacher ratings.

“We believe local control is the key,” DiBrango said. “What will work in one school district will not work in another.”

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia did not rule out returning control of evaluations back to districts. But the lengthy redesign plan she laid Monday seemed aimed at improving the statewide system.

The state will form two redesign workgroups, state officials said. One will concentrate on the components of evaluations, including whether there should be classroom observations, tests, or other ways to judge teachers — and how much weight to give each part. The other group will focus on how student learning is measured, which may include developing new tests.

The education department will also continue to collect feedback from teachers through a survey, which 9,000 educators have already completed. However, DiBrango said the union will not encourage any additional teachers to take the survey in part because they were not consulted about the survey questions, which she said leads teachers into choosing among predetermined ways to evaluate them.

“We have not encouraged our teachers to necessarily take the survey if they don’t want to,” DiBrango said. “They have free will, so certainly some will take it and some will choose not to.”

As the union and the education department pursue their competing plans, the legislature could prove to be a serious roadblock.

Cuomo and state lawmakers have indicated that their top focus this legislative session is beating back funding cuts from Washington — not revisiting a deeply controversial law that is technically on hold until the moratorium ends next year.

On Monday, Elia suggested that her department may be able to make certain adjustments to the evaluation system without changing the law. Still, any major changes would likely require a new law. However, the department’s plan to present its redesign proposal by spring 2019 would give lawmakers little time to debate the proposed changes before the end of their legislative session.

Even if department officials could get lawmakers on board, a new evaluation system — with new tests — could prove too costly to adopt.

Officials recently said they would not join a federal program to create alternative state assessments because it would cost too much. On Monday, Elia said any new tests tied to teacher evaluations wouldn’t necessarily have to be given to as many students as the annual state exams, so they may be less costly.

Still, Regent Judith Chin, who chairs the board’s workgroup that focuses on standards and assessments, questioned whether the state could feasibly create a whole new set of tests to use for teacher ratings that would be ready for the 2019 school year.

“Is it realistic that we could build that capacity in a short period of time?” Chin asked.