teacher prep rally

Up next for SUNY chief, finding consensus on a teacher-ed overhaul

Nancy Zimpher has tackled a lot in her four-decade career, but she’s the first to admit she has no business flying a plane.

Yet there she was, strapped into a pilot’s seat in the cockpit at an aviation center at SUNY Farmingdale. To her disbelief, she even got the plane up in the air.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t bring it down,” said Zimpher, who has served as chancellor of the State University of New York since 2009.

Thankfully, Zimpher’s calamitous experience happened on a flight simulator that SUNY Farmingdale’s student-pilots use. But Zimpher likened it to a common practice in education: teachers entering the profession without the experience they need to handle the difficulties of a real classroom. Now, Zimpher is trying to change that, with help from a group of stakeholders who don’t always work well together.

The chancellor’s new “TeachNY” advisory council, which includes a number of researchers, the state teachers union, Teach for America, and the city’s top instructional leaders, Anna Commitante and Phil Weinberg, has been meeting this school year and is expected to settle on new policies for SUNY by June. Their work will be closely watched, as teacher colleges face pressure from federal officials to prove their graduates are successful at advancing student learning and from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wants to close programs with low pass rates on certification exams.

Zimpher, who spent three decades as a professor and dean of teacher education at Ohio State University, sat down with Chalkbeat last week to describe the challenge. She said she was comfortable with increased accountability, but a first priority is finding ways to get colleges and public schools to work together to put more aspiring teachers to work in real classrooms.

“No airline pilot is going to the cockpit without hours of simulated training,” Zimpher said. “But we do not think this way.”

On what ails teacher preparation

Zimpher: I think it’s fair to say that teacher education is, for some, like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s an easy target. It doesn’t have good policy. It’s underfunded compared to other professions. It doesn’t have the structure to do clinical preparation well.

We know from our hospitals that there’s a contractual relationship between the college of medicine and the hospitals where you want your doctors-in-training to get their clinical practice. We don’t have any of that infrastructure in teacher education.

And yet we have a lot of expectations about performance that seem to be driving everything, but nothing really helping us improve the quality of our teaching cadre. Everyone from hair stylists to neurosurgeons have a codified respect for clinical training.

Why public schools don’t want to help teachers in training

Let’s start here: There’s no policy that says, “K-12, you have to take these teachers in training.” It’s all done on a very informal request process. So that leaves colleges knocking on doors and asking, may I please send my teacher candidates to train in your school?

There’s no district incentive for an expert teacher to take on this additional responsibility. For the last 25 years, we’ve been paying a cooperating teacher something like $150 a semester to take a practicing teacher. It’s ridiculous.

Then, enter high-stakes testing. What we see happening is that high-stakes testing has made it difficult for a teacher to say, ‘I can take the risk to have a rookie in my classroom, when I am being the only one here being held accountable for the performance of my students.’

On what kinds of questions SUNY may soon be asking applicants

One very interesting indicator that Michael Allen put on the table today was ‘teaching promise’. This is more intuitive: Do you like kids? Do you respect that children can learn? What is your mindset around whether birth and economic environment or gender limit what you can learn?

So wouldn’t it be good if we had an instrument that would sort of give you a psychological profile of people we want in our teacher preparation programs, what their degree of commitment is?

On Cuomo’s education reform proposals

Since we prepare so many teachers, it’s for us to translate the governor’s message and make it a positive one. So I can’t really control the politics of the situation, but what we can control is the quality of our programs that help us recruit students that really want to come from high quality programs.

I think I’d rather have the governor interested than not. And with that interest comes some regulation that’s controversial and some of it’s hard to meet. But boy, we need to be a player in making things better and I’m OK with that.

On Teach for America

They have a much more abbreviated period of preparation and they have a challenging track record relative to retention. So [TFA] is training — over and over and over again — and not reaping the benefit of a long tenure for those teachers. I think there have been efforts on the part of Teach for America to reach out to higher education and see if we can’t work more effectively together. And I would support that.

I think there’s no benefit in producing teachers who aren’t ready for the classroom and rotate out too quickly. Those are our children they’re practicing on, and I think sometimes we think they’re somebody else’s children. No, they’re our children, and we want to send them the best possible teacher we can.

On using value-added test score growth to measure teacher prep programs

I’ve been convinced by the value-added approach, but I think we’ve not done well at all on the instrumentality. The theory is good. The practice is ailing.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.