We like the snide here at buzz. After all, there is a lot to be wry about when it comes to what’s still wrong in American education.
But let’s face it, we can also get a bit misty-eyed over the many people whose hard work is making things better for the learners who need it most. So pardon us if we admit we’re a bit verklempt over this tale of teachers turning around a large, low-performing school.
Doing it not because of an external policy or a new funding stream, but just because they knew they and their students could do better.
BROCKTON, Mass. — A decade ago, Brockton High School was a case study in failure. Teachers and administrators often voiced the unofficial school motto in hallway chitchat: students have a right to fail if they want. And many of them did — only a quarter of the students passed statewide exams. One in three dropped out.
Then Susan Szachowicz and a handful of fellow teachers decided to take action. They persuaded administrators to let them organize a schoolwide campaign that involved reading and writing lessons into every class in all subjects, including gym.
Their efforts paid off quickly. In 2001 testing, more students passed the state tests after failing the year before than at any other school in Massachusetts. The gains continued. This year and last, Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools. And its turnaround is getting new attention in a report, “How High Schools Become Exemplary,” published last month by Ronald F. Ferguson, an economist at Harvard who researches the minority achievement gap.
Here’s what Bob-channeling-the-voice-from-the-frontlines had to say:
Pre-service programs, especially at public institutions, still perform a critical role in keeping an open pipeline into the teaching profession. Montclair by and large attracts working-class students. Many of the kids in Montclair’s program are first-generation to attend college. Many are bilingual, and they or their parents are immigrants. These are exactly the kinds of folks we need in classrooms, to reflect the and thus connect with the K-12 students of today and tomorrow. And the kind of young people being trained at schools like Montclair are not likely to have entry into the profession through hypercompetitive alternative programs such as Teach for America.
So what can we be doing to provide better training to this important population of pre-service teachers?
Pre-service programs need to articulate an explicit model for excellent teaching, with real validity as the driver for the model. That model should provide a framework that is applied across all preservice classes in the program—so that pre-service teachers have a consistent, coherent understanding of what it is they are learning to be and do. This approach will allow pre-service teachers to identify how each aspect of their coursework and practicums are building toward that model of excellence.
Another much-needed approach in pre-service programs: creating opportunities for early clinical experience—particularly in the first two years of the undergraduate program. Why so early? First of all, to be blunt, so education students see why they need to pay attention in their classes—to put the end in focus from the earliest point at which they are moving toward that end. Early clinical experience can give pre-service teachers a chance to think about what they’re good at, and what they’re not good at, when that knowledge can shape their training and their trajectory.
Given how resource-intensive clinical experience can be, developing and implementing smart uses of technology to facilitate clinical observations could significantly enhance preservice training, especially in deepening learning from mentor teachers and across peer learning communities of pre-service teachers.
Of course, pre-service training needs to extended by in-service professional development. Especially given the economic reality that many of our newly minted teachers may not land full-time classroom positions for a year or two or more. Certainly, aligning pre-service training with in-service professional development can make both the before-and-after more meaningful and useful for teachers. And ultimately for the kids they teach.
Thanks to Bob for sharing his thoughts–or his guesses at his spouse’s thoughts–with us.
And despite its limitations, it underscores just how little we know about how what happens in teacher preparation programs translates to classroom practice and student outcomes. Which makes this a map worth noting as we try to chart a course to better teacher preparation.
Reason #1: According to Ken Futernick, while calling for dismissal of incompetent teachers makes a nice soundbite, the reality is that incompetence–in the sense of gross negligence, willful irresponsibility or just innate inability–isn’t the reason so many teachers aren’t teaching well enough.
(Chew on this, statistic fans: While horror stories about New York City’s rubber rooms were bouncing around the media, the truth was that while only 1/20 of 1% of New York City teachers were kept out of classrooms because of gross inadequacies in their teaching, 32% of all core academic courses in the district were being taught by out-of-field teachers. And 36% of New York City teachers leave within three years–underscoring that it’s not so much a problem of trying to get rid of teachers as a problem of trying to keep them.)
So what do we do about those not officially competent but not exactly incompetent teachers? Right now, hardly anything. Despite the substantial resources–including many philanthropic dollars–spent on teacher professional development, most schools and districts lack a system for identifying what’s wrong in particular classrooms and targeting supports to ensure those teachers improve.
But wait, as the Ginsu knife people might say, there’s more! The misnomer about incompetence and the importance of avoiding costly churn from large numbers of teachers leaving the profession, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, is only one reason not to fire incompetent teachers. And we promised you two. And we do not intend to break that promise.
Reason #2: Firing teachers doesn’t automatically lead to hiring better ones. Because we don’t necessarily have enough better ones to choose from.
Specifically, we need teachers who are prepared to succeed–teachers who have the training in the subject areas they’ll be teaching. Teachers who have hands-on understanding of classroom management skills. Teachers who have deep expertise in language acquisition, whatever area they’re teaching, given the likelihood they’ll be working with English Language Learners. Teachers who . . . well, in short what we need is teachers who are not necessarily coming out of the training and certification programs we now have.
So in addition to supporting better assessment and targeted professional development for in-service teachers, the philanthropic community should turn its much-needed attention to transforming pre-service training. Because we need to ensure that today’s education students or alternative-certification candidates don’t become tomorrow’s not-yet-competent-though-already-in-the-classroom teachers.
Or, as he puts it, I teach high school math. I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it but is forced by law to buy it.
So how does he make the sale? And how are the practices he’s using in his classroom transforming how his students–and students and teachers around the world–are experiencing math as something to do, not just something to study?
And how can we get more classes to approach math this way?
Teachers make a huge difference in student outcomes. So how do we make great teachers?
It’s a simple enough question. And yet we still lack good consensus on the answer.
Jack O’Connell, California’s state superintendent for public instruction, and Margaret Gaston, president and executive director of the Center for Future of Teaching and Learning, are concerned about enrollment declines in teacher preparation programs: down in 2006-07 by 25,000 from what they were in 2001-02. They note that California is facing projected increases in school age populations in coming years, just as a wave of teacher retirements–affecting 100,000 positions, one third of the entire teacher workforce–hits. Their solution: lift enrollment caps on teacher prep programs throughout the California State University system, and provide colleges and universities throughout the states with incentives to prepare more teachers.
A compelling argument . . . unless you happen to believe the exact inverse: that the future of education lies not in expanding university’s teacher prep programs, but in by-passing them. That’s what the New York State Board of Regents has done, by voting to allow Teach for America and other alternative pathway programs to create their own master’s degree programs. After all, note proponents, these programs are attracting new candidates to the teaching profession–and getting them into the classroom faster. And they’re doing it with a primary focus on classroom teaching skills, which after all, is what teachers need. Isn’t it?
Again–surprise, surprise–depends who you ask. Is starting new teacher candidates in their own classrooms and expecting them to learn as they go really ensuring the best experience for the kids in those classes? Are teaching practicums the only valuable route to preparing teachers–absent any focus on educational research, which is increasingly reveal important information about how children learn? Are teaching candidates being asked to choose in terms of what program will best prepare them for a career in the classroom, or in terms of the economic reality of earning a salary immediately through an alternative pathway versus incurring the cost of attending a “traditional” teacher certification program, where they have the luxury of learning before they start doing?
As if the apples to oranges comparisons (whether they be alternative pathways versus traditional ed schools, or the California superintendent versus the New York Board of Regents) weren’t confusing enough, consider the recent findings from an international study of middle school math teacher preparation funded by The Boeing Company, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the GE Foundation.
“Our future teachers are getting weak training mathematically and are not prepared to teach the demanding curriculum needed for U.S. students to compete internationally. Non-standardized teaching preparation of middle school teachers has major implications with respect to what future teachers have, in terms of opportunities both to learn mathematics and how to teach it,” the study’s lead author notes. His recommendation? “Teaching certification programs must be standardized at the state level.” A great suggestion–so long as it extends to both traditional post-secondary programs and alternative pathway programs.
Because ultimately, neither increasing enrollment in traditional teacher prep programs nor opening up alternative pathways into the profession guarantees we’ll have great teachers in every classroom–unless we hone in on what makes a great teacher. Or, better yet, what makes hundreds of thousands of them.