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.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”