Teaching teachers

Some New York charter schools could soon be allowed to certify their own teachers. What could that look like?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

One charter school teacher training program gives first-year teachers a part-time workload and allows them to learn alongside mentor teachers.

Another has summer workshops that include home visits with students’ families.

A third network often starts the year with a week of workshops at a Westchester hotel, has a staff member devoted to professional development, and brings in consultants for math, writing and reading instruction.

These are a handful of training programs at charters that may soon substitute for the formal state certification process, which requires obtaining a master’s degree and passing certification exams. Under regulations proposed by SUNY last week, some charter schools would largely be able to design their own alternative certification programs that would be valid at other SUNY-authorized schools. And charter leaders say those programs will be heavy on practical experience and embedded within the schools’ existing teacher improvement efforts.

The proposed change is intended to relieve hiring pressure on charters, which are currently required to have no more than 15 uncertified teachers — and to free teachers from burdensome certification requirements.

Teachers unions and top state officials were quick to criticize the idea, arguing that putting less trained teachers in classrooms hurts students. To many charter school leaders, though, the training they already offer inside their schools is more relevant than what education schools provide.

“Come to me with a degree in astronomy,” said Jeff Litt, superintendent of Icahn Charter Schools. “If you spend a year with me, I’m going to turn you into a successful teacher.”

The proposed change would require SUNY-authorized schools to apply for permission to run their own certification programs. Those programs must include at least 30 hours of instruction, 100 hours of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher and the completion of certain State Education Department workshops — all of which is far less than a typical prospective teacher would need to complete before becoming certified through the regular process.

Charter leaders like Litt say there is little evidence to support the idea that certified teachers are better at improving student performance than uncertified teachers. In fact, some studies do show certified teachers can be more effective than uncertified teachers, but the differences are relatively modest.

Even if the state’s current certification is no silver bullet, said Jonah Rockoff, an education researcher at Columbia University, the lingering question is: Can charter schools come up with something better?

“Great teachers have many complex skills, so the key is how charters will train these new hires,” Rockoff said in an email. “A master’s degree is no guarantee, but that doesn’t mean everybody can teach.”

A lot of schools say they already have come up with something better — and the state’s certification process is either an unnecessary nuisance or, worse, an impediment to progress.

At Democracy Prep Public Schools new teachers are required to attend four weeks of training during the summer, said CEO Katie Duffy. Once teachers start working, there is an instructional coach on staff to give feedback to teachers, which might involve videotaping and reviewing lessons with new teachers, she said. One day each week, students are dismissed early and the staff participates in professional development workshops.

In the midst of that process — which Duffy considers the real driver of success — new teachers currently have to find time to take graduate-school courses.

“First of all, you don’t have the time to go back to school and you sure don’t have the money,” Duffy said. (Some networks, including Democracy Prep, do pay for continuing education.)

Steven Wilson, founder and executive director of Ascend Charter Schools, feels the same way. At Ascend, Wilson said, they try not to give any first-year teachers the full responsibility of leading a classroom. Instead, they allow new teachers to learn the ropes under a mentor and help the new teacher gradually increase their workload over the course of the school year.

And some, including Wilson, believe the existing certification process can be harmful. Education schools, he said, are “awash with deeply harmful jargon and practices.” He said Ascend has to unteach some of the practices teachers learn in education school and the requirement to go back to school discourages some prospective teachers from entering the practice.

“The requirement to do this is a turnoff to the very people the profession needs most,” Wilson said. “Are you going to take a year of your life and go to a third-rate education school? No, you’re going to go to a profession where you don’t have to do that.”

One of the arguments in favor of alternative certification is that it makes charter schools more welcoming to professionals who have a background in something else — like history or engineering, for instance — but now want to teach.

“We’re always looking to attract those individuals into our network,” said Janelle Bradshaw, superintendent at Public Prep, noting that under the current rules these professionals often do not have the requisite credits. “Then, what we do is provide you with the tools and the resources to become a strong and effective teacher.”

But Dirck Roosevelt, a visiting associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says professional success doesn’t always translate into the ability to lead a classroom. “To know mathematics sufficiently to design a bridge or to supervise the construction of a bridge is not remotely the same thing as to know it in such a way that you will know what your sophomore algebra student is going to find difficult,” he said.

If these regulations pass, charters’ training will be subject to oversight, Joseph Belluck, charter school committee chair on the SUNY board, said last week.

Reached Wednesday, SUNY did not provide details about what the oversight might entail but hinted that it could be linked to student performance.

“Should any SUNY charter have the opportunity to establish a SUNY charter school teacher certification program, the strength of such a program will directly link to how well students perform,” said Susie Miller Carello, executive director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute.

Certified or not, charter networks say, they want prospective teachers to thrive in the classroom — and already work to ensure that.

“We, as a public school, have the responsibility to put great teachers in front of kids, regardless of certification status,” said Ian Rowe, CEO of Public Prep. “We bear that responsibility even if 100 percent of our teachers were certified. From that perspective, I don’t see a difference.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to explain that Democracy Prep pays for the cost of professional development and certification. 

boosting literacy

A new Memphis nonprofit sees training teachers in dyslexia therapy as key to closing literacy gap for all

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis Delta Preparatory charter school is one of four schools working with ALLMemphis to develop stronger literacy curriculum.

A new nonprofit organization says educators must be better trained to recognize and teach students with learning disorders like dyslexia if they are to raise reading proficiency throughout Memphis.

Michelle Gaines and Krista L. Johnson founded ALLMemphis in June to boost overall reading comprehension and fill a gap they see in local classrooms — the lack of training for teachers in approaches proven to help students with dyslexia, a disorder from which many Memphis students are likely struggling.

The pair now work, for free, with about 500 students in four Memphis elementary charter schools and have trained 29 educators.

About one in five children in Tennessee are dyslexic, but until last year, early screenings weren’t required in local schools. Students with dyslexia have difficulty recognizing words and sounds and spelling, but can learn how to read with a specific multisensory approach that combines touch, sound and sight.

But even when the disorder is caught early, schools often don’t have the proper training or tools to address it. Gaines and Johnson say their organization can change that and even benefit students who aren’t dyslexic.

Specifically, ALLMemphis trains teachers in the Orton-Gillingham multi-sensory approach to reading that is common in dyslexia therapy but is rarely a part of public school curriculum in Tennessee.

“This approach is the gold standard when it comes to dyslexia therapy, but we believe it can benefit children’s reading ability regardless whether or not they are dyslexic,” Johnson said. “Our mission is to impact the third-grade reading crisis, and we believe this can do it.” 

PHOTO: Darius Williams
Krista L. Johnson

The latest data shows that two out of three Memphis third-graders aren’t reading on grade level. Shelby County Schools officials have set a goal of to have 90 percent of students reading on grade level by 2025.

ALLMemphis trained teachers and coaches in Orton-Gillingham over the summer and works with the educators throughout the year. Gaines and Johnson also work with individual students in the classrooms. The organization will be tracking student data throughout the year, and the initial results are encouraging.

While working for the Bodine School in Memphis, a private school that serves students with dyslexia, Gaines and Johnson piloted their teacher-training model at KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary for the last two years. They left Bodine to form ALLMemphis in June and brought on Megan Weinstein shortly after to oversee data evaluation.

Johnson said ALLMemphis will work with their current four schools for the next three years, with hopes of adding new schools every year. Eventually, the plan is to charge schools a minimal fee.

Gaines said the initial data after two years showed that KIPP students who worked with ALLMemphis showed more growth overall on MAP score data than their peers, especially in first and fourth grades.

PHOTO: Darius Williams
Michelle Gaines

“What’s so exciting is that the data shows this can work in an urban, whole-class setting,” Gaines said. “We know that as we grow, we want to continue offering supports that are relevant to teachers. We write and give teachers lesson plans and we work with coaches on assessments. The point is for our program to be an asset, not a burden.”

Catherine Norman, a teacher at KIPP Collegiate, said the training changed the way she thought about literacy and armed her with strong lesson plans, too.

“What I appreciate most about Orton-Gillingham is that it incorporates lots of different learning styles in one lesson,” Norman said. “The training is really expensive when a teacher does it on their own, but the fact they (ALLMemphis) have trained every K-3 teacher at our school is crazy in a good way. It makes me really excited because it provides a lot of opportunities that our kids wouldn’t get otherwise.”  

Schools currently working with ALLMemphis are KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary, Collegiate Elementary and Preparatory Elementary and Memphis Delta Preparatory.

teacher trap

America’s teachers don’t move out of state much. That could be bad for students.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Certification rules can make moving to a new state a serious hassle for teachers.

That might explain a recent finding: Teachers are significantly less likely to move between states than others with similar jobs — and past research suggests that students suffer as a result.

The study, which uses national data from 2005 to 2015 and was released this week through the National Bureau of Economic Research, appears to be the first to document how frequently teachers move states compared to those in other occupations.

Teaching stands out: Relative to jobs requiring a similar level of education, teachers were 45 percent less likely to move to different state, but only 5 percent less likely to move a long distance within a given state. This suggests that teachers aren’t averse to moving — there are just strong incentives to not cross state lines.

That “may limit the ability of workers to move to take advantage of job opportunities,” the researchers write. That’s consistent with research on the Oregon–Washington border, where teachers were more likely to move long distances in their own state than shorter distances across the state line.

Winning permission to teach in a new state sometimes requires re-taking coursework and taking new certification exams. There may be good reasons for that — for instance, states that are particularly attractive to teachers may want to maintain especially high standards but it’s also a complicated process to navigate.

“Web-surfing became my life, through hard-to-navigate state department of education websites and portals that looked like something I had created back in my college sophomore computer science class in 1998,” wrote one teacher in a recent piece for Education Week, describing her efforts to meet new requirements after moving from Florida to Massachusetts.

This matters because the rules may keep teachers who move from re-entering the classroom altogether. A national survey found that among people who had left teaching but were considering re-entering the classroom, 40 percent identified “state certification reciprocity” as a key factor in their consideration.

That, in turn, affects students. One analysis has found that schools near state borders perform consistently worse on standardized tests — perhaps because certification and other rules limit the pool of potential teachers. Research has also shown that teachers perform best when they find a good “fit” with a school, and certification rules may make that harder.

Certification rules are not the only factor in play. Teachers’ decisions may also be influenced by retirement plans that aren’t easily portable and rules that would require them to give up seniority and tenure protections when they move.

It doesn’t have to work this way. The study finds that people in other professions, like medicine, are freer to move and have certifications that easily transfer between states. But the idea of a national “bar exam” for educators hasn’t ever gained traction.

A handful of states have agreed to accept one another’s certifications, and a provision in ESSA would allow federal money to go toward the efforts.

As for the teacher, Megan Allen, who struggled with Massachusetts’ rules — and had 10 years of experience and a National Board certification? She left public education as a result. “I didn’t feel like I was valued for any of the expertise that I had earned, worked hard for, and proved,” she wrote.