Primary Sources

Tisch's dissertation gives clues into teacher training overhaul

Not long before Merryl Tisch became head of the state’s public schools, she was a student herself, at Teachers College. There she wrote a doctoral dissertation on what would become her pet issue, teacher training.

The dissertation offers a window into Tisch’s oft-cited critique of teacher preparation — one that is far more robust and detailed than the stock line she uses in speeches.

Publicly, Tisch and education commissioner David Steiner have offered a barebones roadmap for changing how teachers are prepared. Last month, the Board of Regents approved an expansion of the number of alternative teacher certification programs in the state, opening the door for non-university programs to certify teachers.

Steiner has often spoken of increasing classroom-based training, and Tisch told me in an interview that the Board would seek programs “with a track record of success.” But the Board hasn’t been more specific about what they will look for in these programs, or how many they seek to approve, or what exactly a training program completed without the aid of a college or university will look like.

Tisch’s paper, published in 2005, provides a case study of one model of an alternative certification program: the partnership between the city, the New York City Teaching Fellows and Mercy College.

In an interview, Tisch downplayed the importance of her study, though she noted that it marked an early stage of her concern with how to bring more science and math teachers, trained in real-world fields, into classrooms.

But Tisch’s analysis of the the pros and cons — mostly the cons — of having outside organizations partner with universities to certify teachers may give clues to what elements of alternative certification Tisch could replicate, and which elements she may want to jettison altogether.

Currently, alternatively certified teachers enter the classroom immediately while simultaneously studying in a more traditional academic setting. The cohort Tisch followed would teach all day and then travel to Mercy College’s Bronx campus on Saturdays and at night.

In Tisch’s study, tensions grew between the fellows and the teachers college. Fellows told Tisch that when they arrived on Mercy College’s campus for the first time, they didn’t know where to go and went to the main office of the education graduate school for help. There, they were told that they were not students in the Graduate School of Education and were sent away.

The fellows also said they were not well integrated into the staffs of the schools where they taught. And teachers told Tisch that what they learned in class didn’t match with what they were doing in classroom.

Likewise, the program seemed to be a mixed blessing for Mercy College. The college welcomed the program as a way to boost the struggling quality and reputation of their teacher education program, Tisch reports, and it saw an influx of students.

But the Department of Education assigned students to Mercy without the college’s input, and Mercy was told little about each student beyond their names before they arrived on campus. Mercy administrators also decided to set up the Teaching Fellows program separately from the School of Education, and education faculty members told Tisch they resented being excluded from the process of developing curriculum. The college also resented that their contract with the DOE was not as lucrative as the department originally promised.

Despite the problems, Tisch argues the program was largely successful because of the staff’s ability to rebound from their stumbles. Ironically, Tisch says Mercy’s status as a small and struggling teachers college helped the Teaching Fellows program succeed there. Mercy had less leverage with the DOE and the school district than more well-established teachers colleges and so accommodated the department’s vision for what teacher training should look like.

“Mercy became the place where the Department of Ed could take charge of the Fellows program,” one former DOE official told Tisch. At Mercy, the official said, “the department could just about re-establish their right to certify teachers which they have not had since the Board of Examiners was disbanded.”

Partly for that reason, the DOE quadrupled the number of fellows enrolled in the Mercy College arm of the Teaching Fellows program after its first year.

In recent years, the number of fellows sent to Mercy has dwindled, as the Teaching Fellows program has sent more new teachers to programs at Pace University, Hunter College and the City University of New York, said DOE spokeswoman Ann Forte. This school year, Mercy College did not begin training any fellows, though Forte noted that the overall Teaching Fellows cohort is significantly smaller now than it was when Tisch published her dissertation in 2005.

Tisch completed her dissertation working with Arthur Levine, the former dean of Teachers College and a well-known critic of traditional teacher education. She concludes her study with a list of recommendations for policy-makers, including, presumably, herself (she was on the Board of Regents at the time of the study, although she had not yet been elected Vice Chancellor or Chancellor).

Some of her recommendations now sound familiar in the context of the Regents’ current proposals — for example, promoting competition among certification programs and increasing the number of certification programs that are targeted to bring in teachers from the science, math and engineering programs. Other proposals, like rethinking the practice of immediately placing alternatively trained teachers in the most challenging school districts, sound more radical.

Steiner said last month that a request for proposals outlining the specific qualities the state wants in training programs will be released before the end of the year.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.