Teaching teachers

Yearlong residencies for teachers are the hot new thing in teacher prep. But do they work?

For years, education advocates, policymakers and scholars have been trying to put an end to the underprepared novice teacher. The hope has been to find a training model that is just right, pairing theoretical knowledge and practical skills necessary for the messy reality of the classroom.

Now some think they’ve found an approach that works: teacher residencies.

Writing in the New York Times, three staff members of Bank Street College argued for this idea, comparing it to how doctors are trained.

“Aspiring teachers need well-designed and well-supported preparation,” wrote Shael Polakow-Suransky, Josh Thomases, and Karen DeMoss. “Year-long co-teaching residencies, where candidates work alongside an accomplished teacher while studying child development and teaching methods, offer a promising path.”

Indeed, there is consistent research showing that teachers trained through residencies are more likely to stay in the profession, potentially reducing churn in schools and costs of finding and training new teachers.

“When it’s done well, it’s kind of a solution to the teacher shortage problem that has plagued urban districts,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank that recently put out a report praising the residency model.

But preliminary new research focusing on Denver’s residency program showed that teachers trained through the program were less effective at improving student achievement in math than other novice teachers in Denver.

This echoes the findings of a study on the Boston Teacher Residency, a prominent example of the approach. In that case, residency-trained teachers also were less effective in math in their first years in the classroom — though they improved fairly quickly.

Together, the positive impacts on teacher retention and the more tepid effectiveness results might still suggest that residencies are worthwhile. But some see the enthusiasm getting ahead of the evidence, particularly in light of the steep price tag of such models.

“I am amazed by how much enthusiasm this idea seems to be generating, despite the fact that we don’t have much evidence to support it,” said Marty West, a Harvard professor who studied the Boston program.

A teacher residency has several key components, according to proponents.

Darling-Hammond’s group identifies several characteristics: a full year of student teaching under an experienced, effective mentor; a partnership between a school district and university so that practice and theory are closely linked; continuing mentorship after candidates become full-fledged teachers; and payment of student teachers during the residency year in return for a three- to four-year teaching commitment.

The final aspect is part of what makes the program appealing as well as costly.

“As I think about the common elements of residency program, there’s a lot that seems very promising — if also, potentially, very expensive,” West said.

Under a traditional university training model, students pay tuition; under the residency model they get paid, albeit modestly. The Boston Teacher Residency, for instance, is free for those who teach in Boston for three years, and offers candidates a $12,600 stipend as well as health insurance for their residency year. (In that program, teachers do have to pay tuition to UMass Boston to receive a master’s degree as part of the program.)

The upside is that those who go through residencies seem to remain teachers in their school districts for longer. In Denver, for instance, residents were 16 percentage points more likely than other novice teachers to return to the district. A national study of 12 teacher residency programs also showed higher retention rates.

This, Darling-Hammond hypothesizes, is explained by the quality of residence programs.

“I think that amount of student teaching and the mentor teacher being a true expert probably has a lot to do with the retention rate being strong,” she said. “You’re getting everything a beginning teacher should get.”

Although research on what makes teacher training effective has generally not come to clear conclusions, there is evidence for the idea that giving teachers practice in a real classroom is important.

But when it comes to the initial effectiveness of residency-trained teachers — at least as measured by the impact on students’ standardized English and math test scores — the evidence is mixed, and in some cases even negative.

West and colleagues found that teachers who go through the Boston Teacher Residency program were initially less effective at improving student achievement in math and no better in English, compared to other beginning teachers.

To West, these findings were counterintuitive.

“I was excited about the opportunity to evaluate the Boston Teacher Residency because I was optimistic,” he said. “I was surprised by our finding that residents were less effective than other new hires, at least initially.”

Darling-Hammond points out — and West agrees — that the teaching corps is likely to be particularly strong in Boston, where there is a robust higher education sector, so that it might be especially difficult for one program to prove particularly effective.

The Denver study, though, produced similar results: negative impacts on former residents’ students in math and essentially no effect in reading.

But there were bright spots in both evaluations. The teachers in Boston improved swiftly over time to the point that those teaching for five years were more effective than other experienced teachers. Combined with the lower turnover rates, the study estimates that the program had a modestly beneficial effect on student achievement over the long run.

And in Denver, the researchers also examined teachers’ classroom ratings, assigned by trained observers. There, former residents came out ahead of other teachers.

Other research on residency programs is thin but paints a more positive picture. A report on the New Visions Hunter College teacher residency in New York City showed that their teachers outperformed other novices in five high school exam areas, but underperformed in three others. A recent state analysis of 40 teachers trained through the Memphis Teacher Residency found they had above-average impacts on student test scores.

West says he is still optimistic about the residency model. The key question, he says, is whether the costs of the program outweigh the benefits — but no such comprehensive analysis has been done.

Darling-Hammond notes that some programs have tried to save costs by, for instance, using residents as substitutes one day a week or having them take the place of teacher aides. She also emphasizes the impact, financial and otherwise, of residencies on reducing teacher attrition.

“If you think about the costs of replacing teachers … this ends up being a cost-effective investment,” she said.

resentment and hurt

‘We are all educators:’ How the teachers strike opened at a rift at one Denver middle school network that will take time to close

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Students at Kepner Beacon Middle School work on an assignment.

For the first time since this week’s Denver teacher strike exposed divisions in their ranks, the 100 grownups who make the Beacon middle school network run gathered in the same room.

Teachers, some still wearing red for the union cause, came with breakfast burritos to share. Upbeat soul music pumped through the speakers, an attempt to set a positive tone.  

Speaking to the group assembled Friday for a long-scheduled planning day in the cafeteria of Grant Beacon Middle School, Alex Magaña acknowledged the awkwardness and hurt feelings that have taken a toll on a school community that prides itself on a strong culture.  

The network’s two schools — Grant Beacon in east Denver and Kepner Beacon in southwest Denver — aim to provide a high-quality education to some of the city’s neediest students. A day after most teachers returned to work after the three-day strike, Denver students had a day off Friday, giving school leaders the opportunity to begin repairing any damage done.

“It’s never been administration-versus-teachers, district-versus-teachers, in the culture we have created here,” said Magaña, executive principal of the two schools. “We have a lot of good leadership, a lot of input from teachers. But this caught everyone kind of surprise.”

By “this,” Magaña means the tension that developed on the two campuses during the strike over teacher pay that put Denver in an unfamiliar national glare. The 93,000-student district is better known for its unique brand of at times controversial education reform — of which the Beacon network is part — than labor strife and division in the educator ranks.

Against the backdrop of the strike, Magaña realized words matter. Everyone in the building, he thought, not just teachers, ought to be considered educators and referred to as such. That was the role everyone was thrust into — administrators, deans, and district central office staff who through no choice of their own had to cover for absent teachers. Magaña, too. He taught math.

When teachers, administrators, and staff arrived for Friday morning’s meeting, they congregated at tables with colored pencils and “reflection forms.” Everyone was asked to write down answers to two questions: What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about your colleagues?

“I also brought out the obvious — the elephant in the room,” Magaña said. “There are hurt feelings. There is resentment from teachers to staff to students to parents. That is something we can’t pretend isn’t there, and we put it out there and acknowledge it to move forward.”

Go to the vast majority of public schools in this country and classrooms look largely the same. Not so in Denver Public Schools, which is deep into its second decade of offering a menu of choices at traditional district-run, charter, and hybrid “innovation” schools.

From this approach sprung Grant Beacon Middle School, which opened on the east side of Denver in 2011. The school seeks to build students’ character and promote personalized learning — essentially, using data and technology to tailor instruction to individual students.

Grant Beacon is an innovation school, meaning it doesn’t need to follow all aspects of state law or the teachers union contract.

Using one of its more controversial school improvement strategies, the Denver district began phasing out struggling Kepner Middle School in 2014 and moved to put two schools in the same building: a new Beacon school and an outpost of the STRIVE charter network.  

The Denver district allows charter schools to use extra space in its school buildings essentially at cost, creating shared campuses with district-run schools. It’s an arrangement that would be unfathomable in most U.S. cities where districts and charter schools are in perpetual conflict.

Both schools on the shared campus were “green,” the second-highest ranking, on the district’s most recent school ratings report last fall.

The teacher strike, however, exposed the stark differences between the two Beacon campuses.

Both schools serve a high proportion of low-income students. At Grant Beacon, 80 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty — slightly above the district average. But things are far more challenging at Kepner, where 96 percent of students fit that definition. The school is a refuge where students can be fed and be safe from trauma.

The differences in student attendance and teacher strike participation at the two schools were stark. About half of Grant Beacon students showed up for school during the strike, and six in 10 teachers joined the strike. Four miles and a world away at Kepner Beacon, 90 percent of students showed up for school — and all but a few teachers were out on strike.

At Kepner Beacon, the network’s “all-for-one, one-for-all” culture of togetherness helped unite its relatively young corps of teachers in a shared resolve to go on strike.

That and high student attendance meant Kepner Beacon faced far greater challenges to keep operating, perhaps as much as any of the city’s 147 district-run schools during the strike.

Linsey Cobb had an emotionally wrenching weekend ahead of the strike’s start. She was torn. A special education teacher and the special education team leader at Kepner Beacon, she stood with teachers fighting for a system they believed would pay them a better, fairer wage.

But the third-year teacher decided to report to work as usual Monday morning, feeling too strong of a pull to fulfill her responsibilities supporting the neediest students — those with individualized lesson plans, the complex and sometimes confounding binding documents for students with special needs.

Cobb was not fully prepared by what she experienced on that morning.

“Even though I am very close with my students, I felt incredibly isolated,” she said. “I got the weirdest feeling. I got a lot of, ‘Miss, why aren’t you striking? Don’t you believe what teachers are fighting for?’ I was like, ‘I do!’ I had a little bit of an internal struggle.”

Cobb’s Monday ended early enough for her to attend the big teachers union rally at the Capitol. She said she was touched by the camaraderie. She caught up with old friends from her days with the Denver Teachers Residency, an important training ground of the city’s teaching corps.

Taking all of that into consideration, Cobb joined her colleagues picketing the next day Teachers shared donuts and coffee. Parents brought them hand-warmers in the 20-degree chill.

One teacher sat in her car with the engine running recording a video message to her students, telling them where she was and spelling out the day’s lesson plan before she joined everyone else on the picket line.

Though the district spent $136,000 to prepare makeshift lesson plans for the strike, Beacon teachers prepared their own and uploaded them to the network’s cloud-based system.

On Friday, Cobb was back with all of her colleagues — striking teachers, those who never left the classroom, and staff and administrators who experienced the life of a teacher for three days.

“It’s about trust,” Magaña said. “Some of it was cracked a little it. There was no contention in the room (Friday). It was really coming in with openness and willingness by everyone to say, ‘It’s done, and we did the right thing for ourselves. Now it’s time to come closer together.’”

“Normalcy will happen,” added Cobb, the special education teacher. “But it might take a bit.”

bonus

Aurora school district numbers shows some positive results from hard-to-staff bonus

Students work on algebra problems in a college-level course at Hinkley High School in Aurora.

When the Aurora school district offered some teachers and service providers a bonus for accepting or returning to hard-to-staff positions, the district saw less turnover in those jobs and had more of them filled by the start of the school year.

But the results weren’t consistent across schools, and there were differences in how teachers and other support staff responded to the bonus. Some schools still saw big increases in turnover. And the district still couldn’t fill all positions by the start of the school year.

In a report that district staff will present to the Aurora school board Tuesday, survey responses show the bonus was most influential for new special service providers, such as nurses, occupational therapists, or speech language pathologists. But only 33 percent of new teachers coming into the district said the bonus made an impact on their decision.

Aurora administrators refused to talk about the findings ahead of the board meeting. When the district first announced the bonuses, Superintendent Rico Munn said he had hoped the pilot bonus system would help the district attract more candidates, fill more vacancies, and retain more employees. The union objected to the bonuses. The union and the district begin negotiations next month on how to spend $10 million that voters approved to raise teacher pay.

An arbitrator ruled that the district should have negotiated the terms of the bonuses with the union first, but the school board refused to uphold the finding. District officials had indicated that the results of the pilot incentives would play a role in what changes they propose going forward, and it’s not clear where the school board, a majority of whom were elected with union support, will come down.

On a state and national level, incentives for teachers are being questioned after Denver teachers went on strike, in part over a disagreement about how effective incentives can be and whether that money is better spent on base pay. Ultimately, the tentative agreement that ended the strike on Thursday maintained a number of bonuses, including $2,000 for educators in hard-to-staff positions.

In the Aurora pilot program, the district offered a bonus for special education, secondary math and secondary science teachers at 20 targeted schools. If staff in those positions committed to returning to their job for this year, they could get $3,000. If they returned, but did not give an early commitment, the bonus would be $2,500.

The same rules applied for other positions such as psychologists, nurses, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists, but those employees were eligible at all district schools. New employees in those positions could get $2,500.

To pay for the bonuses, the district had set aside $1.8 million from an unexpected increase in revenue due in part to rising property values. The district only ended up spending about $1.1 million.

Among 229 eligible teachers, 133 returned to their jobs, committing early, and another 29 returned without making an early commitment, meaning about 70 percent of teachers were retained and received the bonus.

Of the 20 schools at which teachers of math, science, and special education received incentives, turnover went down at 13 schools, up at another five, and stayed the same at two.

Among 184 staff members in the other hard-to-staff positions districtwide, 141 returned to their jobs, or 77 percent, all of them committing early and receiving the higher bonus.

The report doesn’t compare those numbers with previous years’.

Ramie Randles, a math teacher, was at Aurora West Collegiate Prep last year and received the bonus. But, she says, she had already decided to return to the same job this school year even before she learned about the bonus.

“To be honest with you it’s nice to get a little extra, but it’s a very small amount that’s not going to sway me one way or another,” Randles said.

In the second quarter of the school year, she left her job at Aurora West and is now teaching math at North Middle School.

The bonus is offered at both schools, but it wasn’t a factor, she said.

“I just feel like I want to feel valued in a job,” Randles said. “If I’m feeling like I’m happy that affects not just me, it affects my students. It affects my coworkers.”

According to the district, 98.26 percent of those who received a bonus remain in the same position as of this week.

Fill rates, which represent how many of the district’s positions are filled by the start of the school year, show an increase, although often small, among all positions except for school psychologists.

Fill rates over time: Did Aurora have more positions filled at the start of this school year than in the past?

Position 16-17 17-18 18-19
Secondary math teachers at 20 schools 91.5% 92.6% 93.4%
Secondary science teachers at 20 schools 93.5% 93.8% 94.8%
Special education teachers at 20 schools 92.6% 89.4% 90.24%
Nurses, district-wide 87.3% 94.6% 98%
Occupational therapists, district-wide 95.4% 80% 96.1%
Psychologists, district-wide 94.4% 96% 95.4%
Speech language pathologists, district-wide 75% 81.4% 85.4%

Another goal of the pilot was to help the district save money by decreasing the use of contract agencies to fill important positions.

The report found that compared with last year, fewer positions were filled through contract agencies.

The Aurora district “was one of the few districts in the metro area that did not provide some form of differentiated pay or incentive for hard-to-fill subject areas,” according to the district. As examples, the report cites Cherry Creek, Denver, and Douglas school districts.

Bruce Wilcox, president of Aurora’s teachers union, said the union has “no interest in pay like Denver does.”

He is against the bonus because he disagrees with setting up different pay for people doing the same jobs in different schools, and because he doubts it will have a long- term effect.

“For some, maybe money was enough to lure them in, but will it be enough to lure them in over a period of time?” Wilcox asked. “Money’s nice and every teacher needs it, let’s be honest, but is it enough to make you continue to work if the leadership and culture aren’t there?”

Tuesday, Aurora staff will also present the school board with an update on overall strategies to improve teacher recruitment and retention. Among those strategies: the development of new training for principals, including on how to motivate and retain high-performing employees.

Another report on the pilot incentives will be prepared this fall with final numbers of how many teachers stayed.

Find turnover rates for the pilot, by school, in the district’s report below. Note: The colors in the second column represent a comparison over the prior year with green showing that it is a lower rate than in the past.