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.

PSA

Have you thought about teaching? Colorado teachers union sells the profession in new videos

PHOTO: Colorado Education Association

There are a lot of factors contributing to a shortage of teachers in Colorado and around the nation. One of them — with potentially long-term consequences — is that far fewer people are enrolling in or graduating from teacher preparation programs. A recent poll found that more than half of respondents, citing low pay and lack of respect, would not want their children to become teachers.

Earlier this year, one middle school teacher told Chalkbeat the state should invest in public service announcements to promote the profession.

“We could use some resources in Colorado to highlight how attractive teaching is, for the intangibles,” said Mary Hulac, who teaches English in the Greeley-Evans district. “I tell my students every day, this is the best job.

“You learn every day as a teacher. I’m a language arts teacher. When we talk about themes, and I hear a story through another student’s perspective, it’s always exciting and new.”

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has brought some resources to help get that message out with a series of videos aimed at “up-and-coming professionals deciding on a career.” A spokesman declined to say how much the union was putting into the ad buy.

The theme of the ads is: “Change a life. Change the world.”

“Nowhere but in the education profession can a person have such a profound impact on the lives of students,” association President Amie Baca-Oehlert said in a press release. “We want to show that teaching is a wonderful and noble profession.”

As the union notes, “Opportunities to teach in Colorado are abundant.”

One of the ads features 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year Christina Randle.

“Are you ready to be a positive role model for kids and have a direct impact on the future?” Randle asks.

Another features an education student who was inspired by her own teachers and a 20-year veteran talking about how much she loves her job.

How would you sell the teaching profession to someone considering their career options? Let us know at co.tips@chalkbeat.org.

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”