teacher prep 2.0

One year on the ground in Memphis, Relay builds niche by getting aspiring teachers in the classroom early

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
A teacher-in-training at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Memphis.

Sitting at a knee-high table surrounded by seven kindergarteners in a Memphis classroom, Sharon Johnson launches into a call-and-response chant to help her students explore the joy of phonetics.

“I’ve got a word,” she sings.

“What’s your word?” they respond.

“The word is cop!” she sings.

Captivated, the children quickly begin holding up fingers to show the number of sounds they hear. Around the table, multiple sets of three tiny fingers shoot in the air.

Johnson continues with all the ease of an experienced teacher. Except that she’s not.

She recently completed her first year as a teacher-in-training, getting hands-on classroom experience at Freedom Preparatory Academy as part of her two-year training program through New York-based Relay Graduate School of Education.

Relay just completed its first year of operation in Memphis, where it’s among a handful of programs that have sprung up in recent years to provide alternative routes to teaching in response to the city’s need for more educators. Such independent programs have gained considerable momentum and legitimacy with the support of philanthropists and the authorization of higher education governance bodies such as the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

“We knew there was a need in Memphis; we knew there were roughly 25,000 students in priority schools” that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent, explains Michelle Armstrong, dean of Relay Tennessee and lead instructor for the Memphis campus.

Relay is different from traditional university programs in that it emphasizes hands-on practice as much as theory. It has charter school roots, having been founded in 2007 in New York City by the leaders of three charter school networks, including KIPP. Relay is now in nine states and has 12 campuses that include Nashville, Chicago, Denver, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, with efforts underway to expand to California.


Relay Graduate School of Education in Memphis from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Relay’s first-year students, known as teaching assistants, are introduced to life in the classroom while also preparing to take teacher certification exams. Second-year students work full time as teachers in charge of their own classrooms, often at charter schools, while completing a master’s degree and earning a teaching license.

“They’re using this year as sort of a gradual ‘on-ramp’ into teaching,” explained Armstrong about the gradual increase in teaching responsibilities during their first year. “The hope is that first-year students will come back and work toward their master’s.”

Johnson is an example of the kind of students attracted to the nontraditional teaching program.

“I did my research, and the main reason I chose Relay is because everything they do is hands-on. They model the most effective teaching methods,” said Johnson, who already has a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in secondary education from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Research and criticism

But that approach has drawn criticism from the teacher-preparation establishment, which has itself been criticized for failing to provide would-be teachers with enough real-life experience.

Earlier this month, the Colorado-based National Education Policy Center published a brief concluding that research has yet to show that increasingly popular independent teacher training programs like Relay are better than the traditional route.

Relay officials agree that the research is inconclusive. Part of the reason, scholars say, is that individual teacher training programs vary widely in what they require of their trainees.

“No one really knows what is the best way,” said Mayme Hostetter, Relay’s national dean. “But we see this as one very good way to have folks enter the profession — and we’ve gotten positive feedback from the residents themselves, as well as from the schools we’ve worked with.”

To earn their master’s degrees, teachers must meet student learning goals that their students will achieve a year’s worth of reading growth. In fact, Hostetter said, Relay’s own data shows that elementary students taught by its residents experience an average of 1.3 years’ worth of reading growth per year.

“Those aren’t data we’re holding up to the world saying, ‘Incontrovertible truth! We are better than anywhere else,’” Hostetter said. However, she said Relay does see them as a positive sign.

"... The main reason I chose Relay is because everything they do is hands-on. They model the most effective teaching methods."Sharon Johnson

But Ken Zeichner, a professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education, argues that alternative teacher training programs rely too heavily on test scores. He’s also critical of Relay for promoting the use of highly controlling pedagogical and classroom management techniques in schools serving students of color and low-income communities. Such programs, he argues, focus on preparing teachers to teach “other people’s children,” not those teaching economically advantaged children.

“From my perspective, by only looking at test scores, we’re creating a second-class education for poor children in this country that (is) just about test scores,” Zeichner said in an interview.

Zeichner writes that teacher preparation programs, including university-based programs, should be judged by a mix of factors, including standardized test scores and how their graduates increase students’ social and emotional skills, creativity and problem-solving abilities.

Hostetter agrees. “Those goals are incredibly noble and what we’re working toward,” she said. For now, she said Relay focuses on teaching residents how to build relationships with students, create a strong classroom culture, manage a classroom and teach academic lessons.

As for Relay’s teaching techniques, Hostetter said she doesn’t understand Zeichner’s criticism. “It’s pretty straightforward,” she said.

Learning by doing

Johnson modeled Relay’s classroom approach in her work last year at Freedom Prep. Under her leadership, her energetic 5-years-old were attentive and still — behaviors that she attributes to Relay’s teaching techniques and the school’s culture.

“We try to meet them on their level,” Johnson explains, citing lessons that are paced and efforts to call on as many students as possible. There are “wiggle breaks” too, to help the youngsters during focused periods of teaching and learning.

Johnson learned the teaching techniques during a weekly Relay class called “deliberate practice.”

Michelle Armstrong (standing), dean of Relay Tennessee, checks in with her students at a weekly class.
Michelle Armstrong (standing), dean of Relay Tennessee, checks in with her students at a weekly class.

“I need everyone’s back straight and feet flat on the floor,” Armstrong tells 16 aspiring educators as she strolls from table to table while weaving in gentle reminders about posture.

Armstrong is trying to teach behaviors — such as sitting up straight, listening, and “tracking” the speaker with their eyes — using techniques that she hopes her students will mimic when they are lead teachers.

Johnson says those techniques have equipped her to transition to the front of the classroom.

“I just feel prepared,” she said of the experience. “Like, this is a hard job, but getting to see what works immediately, it just gives me confidence.”

Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Melanie Asmar contributed to this report.

teacher prep

Tennessee’s mediocre teacher training programs prompt ‘interventions’ with university presidents

PHOTO: Austin Peay
Austin Peay State University in Clarksville is among four Tennessee schools that have undergone "interventions" with state officials over the quality of their teacher training programs.

Armed with sobering data about the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee, state officials are holding meetings with top brass at universities where they say programs have grown out of touch with the needs of K-12 classrooms.

About 40 programs in Tennessee feed the state’s teacher pipeline with about 4,000 new teachers annually. The largest are based at colleges and universities.

But those same traditional programs generally aren’t attracting enough high-quality candidates or producing enough effective or diverse teachers. Not a single public university in Tennessee scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. And the outlook isn’t expected to improve much under the 2017 report card being released early next month, officials say.

“This data is sobering. It tells us that higher education must do better,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “I worry our higher education faculty in colleges of education get disconnected from what a K-12 classroom looks like.”

Krause outlined the challenges to state lawmakers during a presentation on Tuesday with Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Their first “intervention meetings” were with the presidents and education deans at four universities: Austin Peay, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tennessee-Martin, and Tennessee Tech. Similar meetings are scheduled this spring with leadership of private colleges and universities across the state.

Krause described the first meetings as “very productive” — and illuminating. “In many cases, the presidents just didn’t know” about their programs’ shortcomings, he said.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, making the quality of teacher preparation programs a front-burner issue in Tennessee.  A 2016 report said only a handful of the state’s programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on Tennessee’s TVAAS measure. The State Board’s new grading system also highlighted weaknesses based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education.

Reading instruction is another big challenge. In a state where only a third of students are considered proficient in reading, new teachers are arriving in classrooms ill-prepared to instruct students on Tennessee’s new reading standards. The state is working with higher education institutions so their faculty can take the same professional development on literacy that working teachers are taking.

But for the most part, the State Board has limited levers for improving the quality of teacher prep. The biggest hammer comes every seven years when each program undergoes a comprehensive review for licensure. (In 2014, the state raised its standards and revised its measures for effectiveness to include data such as placement, retention and employer satisfaction.)

Chancellor Keith Carver

Tennessee-Martin Chancellor Keith Carver said his school took its last state report card to heart. As a result of its overall score of 2 out of a possible 4, the university hired an assessment coordinator to help guide decisions based on data. “It’s a really good baseline for improving,” he said of the report card. “We’ve got some work to do in our diversity profile.”

Tennessee’s teacher candidates are overwhelmingly white and female. Of those who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

“Colleges of education will not stumble into diversity. There has to be a very intentional effort,” Krause said.

View the full presentation from Tuesday’s legislative hearing below.

Evaluating Evaluations

Tennessee teachers are warming to evaluations as a tool to improve their work, survey says

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
A Memphis teacher engages with his students at Cherokee Elementary School.

When Tennessee launched a massive overhaul of its education system in 2011, the biggest outcry came from educators upset about the new process for evaluating their work.

Most questioned the fairness and accuracy of capturing good teaching on a scale of 1 to 5. Others called the process burdensome and bewildering. Making student test score data a lynchpin of the change prompted even more concern.

But after six years of rating teachers and refining its process, Tennessee is getting a warmer response from educators about their teacher evaluations.

The state’s latest educator survey, released on Wednesday, shows that 74 percent of teachers found evaluations helpful last year in improving their teaching, almost double from 2012. First-year teachers were especially positive, with 85 percent giving the process good marks.

The results are encouraging for state, district and school leaders who have sought to make the evaluation process a tool to promote better teaching, rather than just a personnel-related checklist for both principals and teachers.

“This shows a huge positive shift in teachers’ perception of the evaluation system and its impact,” said Jason Grissom, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University who helped design the survey and collect the data.

“Educators are viewing evaluations as less about judgment of their performance and more about identifying the areas where they can improve. And schools are figuring out how to provide targeted support and professional learning opportunities.”

Still, a fourth of the state’s teachers say the evaluation isn’t helping them improve — and that’s not just from educators who received low scores.

Teachers who found the evaluation most useful also reported receiving specific feedback from administrators, along with classroom materials, access to staff expertise, and adequate time to collaborate and prepare.

The race to transform teaching

Spurred by a half-billion-dollar influx of funding through the federal Race to the Top competition, Tennessee has been a national leader in transforming its teacher evaluations. Its system combines student growth from test scores, classroom observations by administrators and, for teachers in non-tested grades and subjects, school- and district-wide measurements of growth on other kinds of assessments and student work.

And as state tests — and new evaluation systems that rely on them — have faced pushback across the country, Tennessee has mostly stuck with its strategy. (The state did temporarily reduce the weight of test scores in the transition to a new standardized test.)

But the road to the new, tougher evaluation model has been bumpy.

Critics blame the process, especially the student achievement component, for an exodus of teachers from the profession. Teachers complained that feedback from classroom observations was initially fuzzy, and its misalignment with student growth results has led to ongoing changes in training and coaching for evaluators.

“Teachers have never been opposed to being evaluated. They just want a system that accurately identifies the areas in which they are excelling and the areas where they could improve,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union.

Leaders of the Professional Educators of Tennessee say there’s still lots of room for improvement.

“We hear from our members that evaluators are better trained today and provide better feedback,” the group said in a statement. “We must continually look at the element of support provided by districts to teachers.”

Lagging professional development opportunities are a key shortcoming identified in the educator survey. A third of teachers report not receiving any feedback on their classroom evaluations, and half of the state’s teachers reported that they take part in training once a month that’s a waste of time. They say it’s usually prescribed by their school or district.

That statistic troubles Grissom.

“Part of the purpose of evaluations is to create growth opportunities,” he said. “Professional learning is the big lever that schools and districts can pull to move the needle on instruction.”

A statewide snapshot

Conducted last spring, the survey is Tennessee’s most comprehensive tool for gathering feedback from its educators.

Responses were up by more than 5,000 educators this year, representing 56 percent of the state’s teachers and 60 percent of its administrators. District and school-level data is available if their response rate was 45 percent or more.

You can find the state’s report about the survey here.