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. 

hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, on Wednesday. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However,  teachers attending the monthly meeting  disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology.