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. 

Training teachers

More literacy coaches to bolster Tennessee’s drive to boost student reading

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

More than half of its school districts signed on last year when Tennessee created a network of literacy coaches to help classroom teachers improve their students’ reading.

Now entering the program’s second year, another 16 districts are joining up. That means two-thirds of Tennessee districts will have instructional supports in place aimed at addressing the state’s lackluster reading levels.

Tennessee has a reading problem. Less than half of its students in grades 3-8 were considered proficient in 2015, the last year for which test scores are available. In Memphis, the numbers are even more stunning. Less than a third of Shelby County Schools’ third-graders are reading on grade level.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the statewide launch of Read to be Ready in 2016.

The state wants to get 75 percent of third-graders proficient by 2025. (New scores coming out this fall will help track progress.)

The coaching network is a major component of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready drive, launched in 2016 by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. The focus is helping teachers improve literacy instruction for the state’s youngest students.

So far, some 200 coaches have worked directly with more than 3,000 teachers in 83 districts, including all four urban districts. This fall, 99 out of the state’s 146 school systems will participate.

About 92 percent of classroom teachers report that coaching is improving their teaching, even as many coaches say they are stretched too thin, according to a state report released Wednesday. Inadequate planning time for teachers is another barrier to success, the report notes.

To join the coaching network, districts must commit to funding a reading coach who will support about 15 teachers. New districts signing up this year are:

  • Scott County Schools
  • Smith County School System
  • Pickett County Schools
  • Jackson County Schools
  • Macon County Schools
  • Clay County Schools
  • Sumner County Schools
  • Dyer County Schools
  • Wayne County Schools
  • Bedford County Schools
  • Benton County Schools
  • Alamo City School
  • Polk County Schools
  • Kingsport City Schools
  • Oak Ridge Schools
  • Dayton City School

A complete list of participating districts can be found here.

Getting there

With new contract, first-year teachers in Detroit could soon make more than peers in Grosse Pointe and other suburbs

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
First-year teachers in Detroit could soon earn more than their peers in neighboring districts. The gray bar in this chart shows where starting salaries were in Detroit last year. The green one shows how the contract could change that.

For years, Detroit’s main school district has paid some of the lowest starting teacher salaries in the region but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says that’s about to change.

The teachers contract approved by the Detroit school board Tuesday night doesn’t include enough of a pay increase to bring city teachers back to where they were in 2011 when a state-appointed emergency manager ordered a 10 percent pay cut.

But data compiled by the Detroit district show that the new agreement, which will boost teacher wages by more than 7 percent, would pay enough that starting teachers could soon earn more than their peers in Dearborn, Grosse Pointe and other nearby districts.

“It doesn’t begin to address the injustice [of pay cuts and frozen wages] but this is a first step,” Vitti told the board as it met at Osborn High School Tuesday.

The new contract was approved last month by members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union. Now that the school board has signed off, the contract will go to a state financial review board for final approval.

Vitti, who hopes the higher salaries will make it easier for the district to fill more than 400 vacant teaching positions, showed the board a series of charts and graphs that illustrated some effects of the new contract.

Among the charts he flashed on a screen was one that compared starting teacher salaries in Detroit to other districts, before and after the new contract. Another slide showed how salaries would change for teachers at every level of the pay scale. A third warned that the city’s main district could be careening toward a “cliff” if it doesn’t recruit enough young teachers to replace the district’s predominantly senior educators as they begin to retire.

See the charts — and additional details about the contract — below. The last page spells out other steps Vitti says he plans to take to address the teacher shortage.