Teaching teachers

‘Personalized learning’ comes to teacher training, bringing big ambitions and big questions

PHOTO: Woodrow Wilson Academy
Alex Trunnell collaborates with two other teaching "design fellows" at the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning.

Imagine you’re a new teacher. You overhear two students disparaging Black Lives Matter protests, and know that other students heard it, too. You’re worried the comments will damage your classroom culture.

“What are you going to do in the exact moment? What do you do in the next month to make sure your classroom is a safe environment?”

Asking those questions is Rupal Jain of the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, a soon-to-launch graduate school of education with a new approach to teaching teachers. The Academy’s goal is not just to challenge them with scenarios like that one, but to ensure they master them, with prospective teachers moving at their own pace and graduating when they demonstrate more than 40 specific skills.

The future of education will “move away from focusing on what you’re being taught to what you’ve actually learned,” said Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College and the head of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the organization behind the Academy. “We thought, let’s create an institution that does it and can model it.”

The Academy, which will focus on preparing math and science teachers, is taking shape in partnership with MIT and with the support of major education funders. It recently netted a $3 million donation from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the organization tasked with doling out the Facebook founder’s billions.

It amounts to a combination of two major efforts in American education: long-running attempts to improve teacher training to soften the on-the-job learning curve, and the newer effort to “personalize” education using technology and other means.

It’s unclear if it will work: “Competency-based” teacher education has a thin track record, and though research has been done on the teaching fellowships the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has run for the last decade, the foundation has not released it. But the Academy has the funding, prestige, and handle on the zeitgeist to suggest that its approach will influence teacher education in the years ahead.

What is the Academy?

Walk into the Academy headquarters today — an office in a nondescript building on MIT’s campus in Cambridge — and you’ll see evidence of furious brainstorming: Post-its, scribbled notes on whiteboards, a big concept map that staff members call their compass.

That work is a result of a partnership announced in 2015 between the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and MIT, which has attached an elite name to the endeavor and whose researchers are helping construct the curriculum.

The next two years were spent fundraising and sketching out how the program might work. Woodrow Wilson has raised $22 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Bezos Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation of New York, among several other funders, and plans to raise $10 million more. (Chalkbeat is also supported by Gates and Carnegie.)

This year, 10 “design fellows,” mostly recent college graduates, are helping develop the program by serving as enthusiastic guinea pigs and idea generators.

The idea of building something new appealed to Alex Trunnell, who recently graduated from Vassar with a degree in physics and astronomy. Recently, she spent time trying to design ways to prepare teachers to ensure a classroom runs smoothly.

“How do you avoid any kind of hardship that isn’t grappling with the content?” she asked. “We realized that there is no right way to do those things. We can’t teach you the one right way to set up your classroom because it doesn’t exist.”

Instead, the Academy is creating a sort of teaching “gym” for aspiring teachers to practice, with activities and 3D software for designing a classroom space, for example.

The design fellows also visit schools once a week and work directly with students during after-school programs. And they’re using a simulation program known as “Mursion” for practicing classroom scenarios.

The inaugural class of of around 25 teacher candidates will start this fall. The Academy plans to ramp up to admit 50, then 75, and then 100 students by the 2021-22 school year.

But its goal is much larger in scope than producing new teachers. It’s to serve as a proving ground for a novel way of teaching teachers.

PHOTO: Woodrow Wilson Academy
Alex Trunnell, a teaching “design fellow” at the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning.

The model’s challenges

To work, the Academy will need to successfully assess the skills it expects prospective teachers to master. That’s a tall order, particularly before teachers actually have their own classrooms.

Staff at the Academy say they plan to measure those skills repeatedly and in a number of ways, including written exams, virtual simulations of classrooms, and real-life student teaching situations. Still, certain context-specific skills, like being able to develop strong relationships with students, will always be challenging to gauge.

“We don’t have assessments yet that really assess the quality of those kinds of practices,” said Pam Grossman, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania school of education and a member of the Academy’s advisory board.

Another hurdle may be the funding model. Rather than charging based on the number of courses taken, the Academy plans to charge a set fee of $25,000 per student (with discounts based on student need) no matter how long it takes for someone to complete the program. The Academy will have to sell prospective students on that uncertainty — and keep students on track for its own financial sustainability.

“Every time I talk to my parents about this program it really freaks them out. It’s a hard thing to get your mind around, this idea that I don’t know when I’ll finish up,” said Trunnell. (She and the other design fellows will be able to enroll for free once the program launches later this year.) “For me, it’s actually really nice, because it’s this idea that I’m going to be done when I’m prepared and ready to be a good teacher.”

No research on Woodrow Wilson’s other teaching program

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation has been involved in teacher preparation for years, but its track record is unclear.

Its teaching fellowship, which launched in 2007, has partnered with universities in a number of states to train math and science teachers. Like the Academy, the fellowship aspired to “transform teacher education while preparing future leaders in the teaching profession,” according to its website.

We don’t know how well that effort worked, though. Despite contracting with the American Institutes for Research to study its fellowship, Woodrow Wilson has not released any external research about its fellowship programs.

A person with direct knowledge of a draft of a study of the fellowship in Michigan said it found that, on average, the Woodrow Wilson “fellows’ performance is about equal with the performance of comparable non-fellow teachers.”

The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the findings are subject to a confidentiality agreement. (A spokesperson for Woodrow Wilson confirmed the existence of a nondisclosure agreement with AIR.)

Levine said he’s waiting for longer-term results from multiple states, and promised to release the research at some point in the future. Levine says that the Academy will also open itself up to careful study.

“What we’re waiting for is to bring this to a completion,” he said of the fellowship research. “I want real results before I start boasting or criticizing ourselves for them.” (The Foundation has, in two reports, though, claimed some success based on that research without releasing the full studies.)

The lack of publicly available information about the foundation’s long-running programs raises questions about the organization’s commitment to transparency.

Grossman, the University of Pennsylvania dean, said that, more broadly, it’s crucial to have careful studies on what is and isn’t working as teacher training programs try new things.

“We really need to be generating the research that adds to the knowledge base about what’s effective in teacher education,” she said. “And that means making the results of these studies public.”

If you build it, will others adopt it?

Let’s imagine that everything goes right with the Academy: it designs and executes its program well, it recruits full classes of new students each year, and it releases rigorous research showing that its graduates are successful in the classroom.

In that case, it will still be preparing just a hundred or so new teachers each year — even as public schools look to hire roughly 250,000 teachers annually and employ more than three million total teachers. To realize its goal, the Academy needs to be able to diffuse its approach widely.

Levine says that’s what they’re planning to do. “Everything we create is going to be open source,” he said. “The goal here is for this not be thought of as a competitor with traditional teacher ed providers — our goal is for this to be thought of as a resource center.”

That means some of Woodrow Wilson’s success will depend on whether the rest of the teacher prep world is interested in the Academy’s work and whether larger schools of education can put its simulations, games, and curriculum materials into use.

Ken Zeichner, a professor at the University of Washington who has been critical of some of the new teacher prep programs like Relay, said a lack of resources and expertise to implement a new approach had been the downfall of competency-based teacher education in the 1970s.

“These innovations are created, and you have all these universities that have not had the capacity to be able to implement the innovations that are being created,” he said.

There’s also the question of whether Levine — who has criticized existing teacher education programs for some time — is the right ambassador.

Levine says he’s not worried. “I may have been a critic, but I’m a critic who basically loves them,” he said. “There’s no example of us walking into an ed school and people saying, ‘Oh my God, you’re that monster!’”

Grossman says the Academy is more likely to be successful if it does not position itself as having all the answers. “Not, ‘We’re going to develop this and you can all learn from us,’ but ‘We’re in this together. We’re all trying to do some things to improve the quality of teacher education,’” she said.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at state.board@cde.state.co.us.