Chapter 3: Reinforcing Teacher Quality
Great teaching can look deceptively easy. Nadirah Sulayman, for instance, is relaxed and friendly as ninth-grade English students enter her class at a Mastery charter school in West Philadelphia. There is no hint of tension over the breadth of material she is about to cover. Yet during the next 50 minutes she takes her students on a dizzying whirl of reading comprehension skills: a quick assessment of a previous assignment, an introductory tour of a new book, a few minutes of silent reading, some group work, and a chance to test their mettle on a difficult passage (more on that later).
She picks her battles with an eye on the larger goal. A student mumbling a question to a seatmate about something in a book is fine—it’s part of figuring out the text—whereas another student answering a question with her hand in front of her mouth is given a swift reminder: “Hand!” She creates an atmosphere that is both orderly and expansive.
She moves through the whole room to figure out what students are thinking. “I’ve learned the power of circulation,” she says, remembering the first classes she faced as a Teach For America corps member ten years earlier. “I used to think the teacher had to be up front.” Part of what kept her stuck up there is that “I was still leading so much of the lesson.” In her decade of teaching she’s learned to make students rely on her less, and use their brains more.
Toward the end of the class, Sulayman passes out a copy of Liam O’Flaherty’s classic short story of civil strife in 1920s Ireland, The Sniper. It’s part of an exercise she calls “structured struggle.” The students read the first few paragraphs. They start annotating—tricky words they don’t recognize, what they think is happening, what is unclear. She pairs the students up and they compare notes on the opening:
The long June twilight faded into night. Dublin lay enveloped in darkness but for the dim light of the moon that shone through fleecy clouds, casting a pale light as of approaching dawn over the streets and the dark waters of the Liffey. Around the beleaguered Four Courts the heavy guns roared. Here and there through the city, machine guns and rifles broke the silence of the night, spasmodically, like dogs barking on lone farms. Republicans and Free Staters were waging civil war.
The children in this class were born long after the IRA had fallen out of the news headlines. “Republican” is a word they know, but incorrectly as it is used here. And Dublin? As Sulayman circles the class she deduces that a reasonable proportion of the student pairs think Dublin is a person, perhaps the name of the sniper. That might make the story a placeless dystopian tale, which is a fascinating idea, though not what O’Flaherty intended.
Sulayman is perfectly fine with debating wrong ideas. From what she observes while walking around the class she chooses three interpretations of what’s going on. Then she has students argue over them. The goal? Developing strategies for figuring out something you are unfamiliar with, and learning to weigh whether an idea is right or wrong without someone telling you.
Sulayman learned early on to put examples of student work up on the board. In the beginning, she reports, she’d put up the good examples. “Now I put up erroneous work,” she says, because everyone can learn from the mistakes. As a side benefit, it helps students to see that everyone makes mistakes. She once wrote an essay on the fly, up on the projector, fixing words and changing sentences while the class watched in order to demonstrate that writing doesn’t emerge in perfect form, that knowledge and communication are constructed in messy ways.
Before this campus became part of the well-regarded Mastery network, which specializes in turning around dysfunctional schools (with strong support from philanthropists), fights raged frequently. Students urinated in squirt guns and sprayed administrators. “It was a really unsafe, unproductive institution,” says Sulayman.
She herself grew up nearby, but one neighborhood over, where she was able to get a better education. Then she went to Morgan State University. She has been happy to work in a functional school in her home town. But her interest is not in just making school safe. She wants to raise standards.
“English in school has been so much dumbed down over time,” she says. “I’m glad we’re moving back in the direction of things being tougher.” She wants these students to go to college, and knows that when they get there no one will hold their hands as they face difficult work. Figuring out how to learn, how to struggle, how to know when you’re wrong, how not to quit—if she can teach her students these things they will be able to succeed on many levels.
Recruiting teachers outside the old channels
Schools need many more teachers like Sulayman. But the cultivation of new teachers today is in many ways a haphazard process. There are few entities devoted to systematically surveying talent, identifying people who’d be great instructors, attracting them, poaching them from competing career tracks if necessary, and then training them to mastery.
Contrast this selection process with, say, basketball, where scouts hover and a tall kid with good aim will be told constantly that he’d make a fine player. Compare teacher training with law or business or engineering, where tough classes and stern qualifying exams keep professional standards high.
Or, to look more specifically at an alternate way of producing teachers, consider Finland. Finnish teachers enjoy a great deal of respect, have wide professional autonomy, and get great results on international comparisons. And in Finland, admission to teacher training programs is extremely demanding and competitive. Wanting to be a teacher is absolutely no guarantee that you’ll get to become one.
Teachers in Finland have the same profile as individuals accepted into Teach For America in this country: only top students from excellent colleges get in. Imagine if the U.S. teaching corps was all built from Teach For America-caliber raw material, and that these recruits were then trained more extensively than TFA does? That’s Finland.
The Teach For America analogy is worth thinking through. Today’s most effective alternative teacher recruitment program (and the one that trained Nadirah Sulayman), TFA is a direct product of philanthropic support, built on major and sustained donations from stalwarts like the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, the Walton Family Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and many others. Founder Wendy Kopp’s original vision was that if you started with bright people, most would learn quickly to solve whatever problems they encountered in their classrooms.
Ann Best, TFA’s senior vice president of education leadership, notes that when she went through the program in 1996, reading through a binder of key articles was the major part of her training. Since then, the program has learned that its members can do even more if they’re more fully trained (more on that later in this section). But Kopp’s basic insight was well founded. Recall that studies show teacher intelligence to be more closely correlated with the success of students than other factors.
And TFA recruits are indeed bright. Some 18 percent of recent graduating classes at Harvard have applied for the program, and only about 20-25 percent of these were accepted. From TFA’s overall application pool, the rate of acceptance is about half that. TFA also actively recruits retirees looking at encore careers, veterans transitioning out of service, and other experienced or talented populations.
These are people who were not attracted by the conventional routes into classrooms—only 15 percent of TFA corps members say they would have considered a teaching career outside of the TFA system. And there is good research demonstrating the effectiveness of TFA’s unconventional teachers. A 2013 study found that TFA corps members teaching math in secondary schools helped their students achieve 2.6 months of additional learning gains compared to the average teacher at their same school.
There are other donor-supported programs that recruit smart teachers not reached by our conventional teacher colleges. Some of these specifically cultivate candidates to fill the hardest staff roles, like math and science teachers for secondary schools (many of whom have other professional options), or special-ed instructors. The Carnegie Corporation’s “100kIn10” project, for instance, aims to bolster the ranks of U.S. math and science teachers by 100,000 individuals before 2021.
“We need mathematicians to work at hedge funds, and as medical researchers, and as engineers designing bridges,” says Talia Milgrom-Elcott, the coordinator of the program. “I’d never go head to head with any of that. But there’s no long-term play for anyone if we’re not training more kids to be capable of doing math and science. We only get that if we have more teachers.”
The campaign says it has recruited 35,000 math and science educators so far. This project is a ready-made way for funders to invest in teacher recruiting without having to build their own program. A funding commitment of $500,000 over three years is typical. Funders include Carnegie, the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Google, the Noyce Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund, and others.
Many of the regional programs participating in the 100kIn10 effort are worth considering on their own as partners in training science and math teachers. For instance, UTeach, founded at the University of Texas at Austin in 1997, helps science and math majors earn their teaching certification while they’re studying for their B.S. Now replicated at more than 30 universities across the country, UTeach ensures that technically inclined students get hands-on, practical training in schools, and do internships in nonprofits with science and math emphases. UTeach also provides support during its graduates’ first years in the classroom, and according to figures from the group, about 72 percent of its early graduates were still in the classroom five years later, an impressive retention statistic for science and math teachers.
Of course, it isn’t just in technical fields that American schools need better teachers. Finding instructors with detailed content knowledge, and then helping them acquire the practical tools needed for teaching, would elevate the quality of instruction in many fields of K-12 education. That’s one reason a number of organizations have grown up to help career changers.
TNTP (founded as “The New Teacher Project”) started out helping schools to recruit, train, and hire new teachers with a special emphasis on hard-to-fill specialties like special-ed and math. By locating, training, and certifying non-traditional candidates, its TNTP Academy has been responsible for completing nearly 3,000 tough teacher hires. These teachers have proven to be substantially more effective, on average, than other teachers in similar schools.
Since 2000, TNTP has also operated a Teaching Fellows program that seeks out accomplished professionals and recent college graduates who weren’t schooled or certified as educators but have subject knowledge and talents to help high-need students. The program is extremely selective—only 8 percent of all applicants make it to the classroom. Here again, recruits are particularly steered into the hardest-to-fill jobs: about 40 percent of TNTP Teaching Fellows go into special education, 15 percent teach science, 12 percent teach math, and 10 percent work in bilingual education. More than 32,000 unusually effective teachers have come out of the program since its creation.
The promise of training and a job placement can be a good lure to teaching programs, especially in a tepid economy. The Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) in Chicago, for instance, attracts 150 new teachers to Chicago each year with its yearlong teacher residency. Candidates earn a reasonable stipend while working under a master instructor, and upon graduation these new teachers are employed in schools in Chicago.
Many other similar small-scale programs exist for cultivating new teachers. There remains ample space, though, for funders to help draw additional talented individuals into teaching. Other cities, for instance, could benefit from a pipeline like Chicago’s AUSL.
Interest in recruiting talented mid-career professionals into the ranks of teaching has increased in recent years. Teacher certification often poses an enormous barrier to entry, though, keeping capable individuals out of the classroom. Why give up a good job to spend years in a lackluster and expensive preparation program needed for the state credential, only to come out on the other end just marginally more prepared to be an effective teacher? Alternative credentialing pathways are thus especially important for mid-career job changers.
Institutions such as the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence were developed to provide an entry-level classroom credential that could be earned online part-time by a busy professional while he or she continues to work. Contrary to criticisms from the teacher-training establishment, 2007 research by Mathematica found that ABCTE’s assessments are as rigorous as conventional assessments, if not more rigorous. The ABCTE credential offers school districts a valuable opportunity to bring new talent into schools, because while some charter schools are free to hire widely, nearly all district schools are required to find teachers with credentials. As of this writing, ABCTE is fully state approved in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah.
After recruiting teachers, you need to instruct, mold, and hone them. Most teachers today are trained at traditional schools of education. Enrollees generally major in educational theory rather than in a specific content area, and these programs have historically not been very selective. Prospective education majors had an average verbal SAT score of 486 and math score of 488 (out of 800) on one recent survey. On those same SATs, high-school students who indicated they wanted to study engineering scored 529 and 579 respectively, while architecture students scored 495 and 527. There’s some recent evidence that scores are trending up slightly for prospective teachers, but education programs have a reputation as undemanding compared to other professions.
Some of the reasons for this are financial. “The lower the standards you have, the more people you can admit,” says Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality, who has been studying schools of education for years. She also finds that “There is a very strong anti-intellectual bent on the part of education schools. You hear a lot of people say we need people who really care about kids”—rather than people who are, first and foremost, highly intelligent and hard working.
To raise teaching quality, union president Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers recently proposed a bar exam for teachers, which would presumably be taken after years of study as happens with lawyers. “The problem with that is you’re telling people who’ve spent years being educated that they can’t get into the profession they’ve just trained for,” says Walsh. “It’s much more effective to do it at the entry point.”
Much of the course work at today’s education schools is about how and why children learn, and the role of public education in society. This can be fascinating material, but it doesn’t much help a teacher walking into a class of 20 third graders know what she should do Monday morning to keep them engaged. Teacher colleges “don’t believe it is their job to train,” says Walsh. “If teachers need a tool kit to manage a classroom, that’s frowned upon. It’s frowned upon that the institution would teach an approach to reading”—as opposed to guiding teachers to develop their own philosophy of reading instruction.
Student teaching, meanwhile, tends to be limited. Few colleges provide much oversight of the feedback and technique-training that student teachers get, and few programs ensure that students will be assigned to master teachers who get results. A former principal recounts an instructor asking for a student teacher because she had so little control of her class she needed a second adult present to mitigate the chaos.
A few organizations are looking at upgrading student teaching. The Rodel Foundation of Arizona, for instance, recruits (and pays) highly effective teachers to take student teachers under their wings. They recruit master instructors who view it as part of their own professional development to train a new generation. Master teachers must agree to take on six student teachers over a three to four year period.
Because teacher-college training and student teaching is generally so ineffective, most starting teachers are not effective. For students, “the learning loss under first-year teachers is striking and measurable,” says NCTQ’s Walsh. “We’ve come to accept a system in the U.S. that says the first year is trial by fire. We don’t think that’s necessary. We think we’ve settled for far less than we could expect.”
Schools of education are hardly monolithic. The NCTQ gives high marks to Vanderbilt University and Ohio State University, to the University of Central Florida, and the University of Maryland at College Park, among others. Funders concerned about the lack of rigor and wisdom in most teacher preparation could try to reorient more teacher colleges. But redirecting an institution of higher education is notoriously difficult, and disappointed donors are legion. The Lynch Foundation, for instance, worked to establish a new program for training principals at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. The foundation became discouraged the university was identifying very conventional leaders for what they felt should be a fresh approach.
“Very candidly, we struggled to create an innovative program in a traditional university culture,” says Katie Everett, the foundation’s executive director. They wound up working instead with Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, which was more receptive to their notions of how principal training needed to be improved. (See the next chapter for more on the Lynch Leadership Academy.)
Can traditional schools of education be fixed?
While new alternative programs for recruiting, training, and certifying teachers have proliferated across the country (excellent examples are profiled below), donors can’t ignore traditional schools of education. As Sid Richardson Foundation president Pete Geren puts it, they “are important because they’re enormous. Each year, schools of education put over 200,000 individuals into the teacher pipeline—that’s 80 percent of all our new teachers.”
In 2013 the National Council on Teacher Quality published an exhaustive multi-year review of 1,130 of the nation’s teacher-prep programs. Many of the schools reviewed had never been thoroughly assessed in areas like student-selection criteria, subject-area preparation of graduates, practice-teaching experience, and classroom outcomes. The results were jarring. Only four programs out of these 1,130 earned a top rating of four stars. Fewer than 10 percent of the programs earned at least three stars. The disaggregated data tell an even starker story:
- Three quarters of U.S. teacher-prep programs accept students who rank in the bottom half of their high-school class. (The countries with top educational results only accept the top third of students into their teacher programs.)
- Only one out of every nine elementary-education programs gave teachers sufficient content expertise to successfully teach the new Common Core state standards.
- Fully 75 percent of elementary-preparation programs don’t teach the most effective, successful methods of reading instruction. Often, they encourage untested teacher candidates to develop their “own unique approach” to teaching reading.
- Only 7 percent of programs had protections in place to ensure that student teachers were placed in classrooms with effective instructors, rather than just someone who wanted the help of a student teacher.
Rigorous practice teaching in a classroom, a skill that all new instructors need from day one, is insufficient at nearly all conventional teacher programs. And schools of education are not required to track the performance of graduates and report back on the effectiveness of specific candidates, or the preparation program as a whole.
Numerous donors, some chronicled in this guidebook, have worked to improve traditional teacher preparation programs, but this is a difficult fight. Teacher-prep is a $7 billion annual business, and a financial bonanza for many of the colleges and universities that house these programs. Unlike a chemistry major, for example, where each student requires expensive investments in equipment, supplies, and instruction, the costs for adding additional candidates to teacher-training programs are low. There’s no incentive for these programs to look for new ways of doing business.
Nor do outsiders wield many carrots or sticks that can be used to improve teacher-prep. The lack of meaningful accountability allows schools of education to languish without repercussions. Few universities hold these departments to high standards, and the agencies that accredit them are staffed by individuals aligned with traditional schools of ed. Worst, the “consumers” of the output of these programs—schools and school districts—do almost nothing to demand better prepared teachers. As shown in the “Widget Effect” report cited earlier, districts have failed in their own annual assessments and internal advancement systems even to acknowledge that teacher quality varies meaningfully from individual to individual. So they have left themselves little room to insist on, or even identify, a better quality of teaching candidate.
Tragically, opportunities to be much choosier abound. Teacher colleges have been dramatically overproducing graduates in recent years. Illinois trained 9,982 new teachers in 2011, though the state estimated it only needed 1,073 new teachers. New York overshot demand for new teachers by nearly 3,700 graduates. This bounty of available teachers means districts could be much more selective in who they hire, and which preparation programs they hire from. When she was a partner at the NewSchools Venture Fund, Julie Mikuta focused on identifying the best teacher colleges, hoping to encourage “a marketplace in which new teachers who come from programs with a track record of effectiveness are ones who are able to get the jobs.” That is how top charter schools now hire, but it’s almost unheard of in school districts.
There are a few positive glimmers in this area. The Sanford Education Project at Arizona State University may be one. Philanthropist Denny Sanford put up almost $19 million over a five-year period to launch SEP in 2010 as a distinct program within the university’s teachers college. SEP was intended to be different from day one: the program didn’t wait for teacher candidates to apply to ASU, it actively sought out excellent teacher candidates from Arizona high schools.
A “major component” of the program, states former director Andrea Pursley, was “building a predictive admissions and progression model.... When we accept a student, what do we need to know about him to know that he is likely to have a dramatically positive impact on student learning in his first year of teaching? What do we need to know at the end of the freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, before student teaching, during student teaching, to be able to predict the success of that teacher as measured by student achievement gains?”
Once carefully chosen recruits entered SEP, they followed a model rooted in Teach For America’s proven practices. This included an emphasis on the use of data to assess student achievement and drive student gains. It involved constant practice at actual teaching, with feedback and improvement through videotaped lessons and expert classroom observations.
For a time, SEP represented the cutting edge of teacher preparation, by embedding in mainstream higher education the hard-won discoveries TFA had made during 20 years of struggle and improvement. Unfortunately, this program was eventually resisted by the more traditional teachers college that surrounded it at Arizona State. SEP changed leadership and discontinued some of its practices in response, and has since been renamed the Sanford Inspire Program. While TFA continues a partnership, it’s unclear if the current incarnation of this project holds as much promise as SEP. This example thus serves as both a hopeful and a cautionary tale for donors seeking to reshape conventional teacher colleges.
There are a few other rays of hope. When David Andrews, formerly the head of Ohio State’s well-regarded college of education, took the helm of Johns Hopkins University’s school of education he promised meaningful reform. One reason Andrews made the jump: the faculty at JHU did not hold tenure, a rare circumstance that he hopes will allow him to attract more entrepreneurial faculty who share his vision for moving the program toward a focus on student outcomes. TFA has a partnership with the Hopkins program, which creates programs specifically for TFA students. And unlike any other mainstream teacher college, Andrews and the Hopkins program are moving toward folding hard measures of the effectiveness of teacher candidates (the classroom progress of their students) into their progress, and even into the performance reviews of their professors. While the university has a long way to go in translating these principles into concrete steps in the degree program, these are dramatic departures from teacher-college conventions.
Teach For America as an alternative
Because most education schools have proven so resistant to change, many funders have concentrated on creating alternate ways of getting smart and dedicated instructors into classrooms—like Teach For America. TFA training for new instructors has long centered on its summer institute, but over the years additional and improved instruction has been added throughout the two-year commitment of each TFA participant. “We see the institute as one piece of a broader training and support continuum,” says TFA vice president Michael Aronson.
Before their summer training programs begin, corps members complete a high volume of independent and online exercises. Then they spend a week in the region where they’ll be teaching, learning about the local context. Next they attend the five weeks of intensive training at the institute. Each teacher undergoes additional training during her first eight weeks at her assigned school year. She participates in frequent individual coaching sessions throughout her two-year commitment. In addition, each school and district offers programming and support for new teachers. The majority of TFA corps members, according to Aronson, also pursue master’s degrees while they are in the program.
As TFA studies its most effective corps members, their summer institutes are constantly evolving. In addition to the nine regional summer institutes it operates, in 2013 TFA experimented with locally run institutes in two cities—Memphis and Jacksonville. The idea was to “further customize and tailor our training to the local context,” says Aronson. The intent is to get teachers informed on and invested in the history and culture of their particular community. The organization was pleased enough with the outcomes that it will expand this pilot to six cities in the summer of 2014.
Another change involves zeroing in on subject content. “Five years ago, very few corps members were trained in the specific content areas they’d be teaching in the fall,” Aronson says. The instruction was in general teaching technique. But the new thinking is that “Teachers need to know their content. So we’re invested heavily in content-specific training, from early-childhood information for our pre-K folks to mathematics instruction for secondary-school teachers. We’re going to continue to invest in content pedagogy. It’s critical.”
A third large area where TFA’s training has been enhanced is to make it more hands-on. “We’re continuing to invest and put energy into making sure that the teaching experience in the summer is authentic and resembles the type of experience corps members will have in the fall,” Aronson says. The bulk of a corps member’s time at the institute is devoted to student teaching, and TFA is making a point of inviting more kids into the summer-school classes where its teachers practice, so teachers can garner experience with both the subject and the grade level they’ll be handling later.
Finally, TFA is gradually rolling out across its regions a powerful in-class system for critiquing and advising members as they instruct children. TFA and the Center for Transformative Teacher Training have collaborated on what is called the Real Time Teacher Coaching model. It allows new teachers to receive steady individual feedback from master coaches (sometimes immediately via earbud) on how they can improve their performance. Together, all of these elements offer an intense training experience for TFA’s rookie teachers.
TFA spends $47,000 per corps member over three years for training. (The teacher’s salary is paid by the institution employing her.) More than 90 percent of TFAers return for their second year in the classroom (a better rate than other novice teachers). About 60 percent extend their service for at least a third year. Does the investment of $47,000 to bring a bright and dedicated but inexperienced young teacher into a classroom for two or three years make sense as a philanthropic investment?
Many donors seem to think so. The Mind Trust, for instance, helped raise the $2 million necessary to attract TFA to Indianapolis a few years ago. “We concluded that if we didn’t have TFA in Indianapolis, our ability to have the talent we needed to do a whole range of things in education reform wasn’t going to be there,” says the Mind Trust’s David Harris.
TFA has become a catalyst for education reform broadly. About a third of TFA alumni remain in the classroom for the long haul, and about another third remain in education as consultants, education-technology entrepreneurs, at education nonprofits, and so forth. The program thus serves as a seedbed for future education leaders and reformers. “TFA is bringing in this new pipeline of talent in the community that wasn’t there before,” is how Harris summarizes what he has seen in Indianapolis. If these overflow effects are added to the teaching work of the corps members, the effect per dollar invested is higher.
Relay Graduate School of Education
A number of new organizations are learning from TFA, and seeing if it’s possible to attract the same caliber of people TFA gets, systematically train them, and employ them over longer periods of time to take education to the next level. That’s what’s happening at the Relay Graduate School of Education. The first new teacher training school to open in New York City in 80 years, Relay offers a profoundly practical classroom-proven style of instruction, and it offers official certification—though only to teachers who prove they are effective, as measured in the performance of their students. All Relay enrollees are working teachers, generally coming in through alternative certification programs such as TFA, the NYC Teaching Fellows, TNTP, or as new hires at charter schools. Like any program aimed at working professionals, classes are held on nights, weekends, and online. The purpose is teaching strategies that teachers can take into school the next day.
On a Thursday night in September, a mostly 20-something crowd—racially diverse but predominantly female—gathers in Relay’s Chelsea neighborhood New York City classroom space. Professor Mayme Hostetter is teaching the concept of academic rigor. The students review sample lesson plans and discuss which are the most rigorous, which could be better.
These teachers in training give their highest marks to a project looking at hurricane preparation in Florida. Students will study the coastline and population projections, and make recommendations. Then everyone goes to work on his own rigorous lesson plan.
Brent Smart is part of the class. He was born in Barbados, and works as a teaching assistant at Voice Charter School in Queens in NYC. He went to public schools, and did well enough to get into Skidmore College. Though he graduated from that demanding institution four years later, “at Skidmore I found out I wasn’t prepared.” As he struggled to keep up with his classmates, he decided to go into teaching to keep other young people from facing this same problem.
As a working educator, he appreciates Relay’s focus on classroom management skills. For instance, he has learned the importance of tight transitions. “If you think about how many transitions there are, especially in elementary school, efficient transitions save you a bunch of instructional time.” He has learned to “always be thinking ahead, how to move things efficiently to maximize time.”
Behavior management is only one component of keeping a classroom humming efficiently, though. Smart reports that he has also been taught strategies to check for understanding. Relay’s focus on data analysis is “pretty intense,” he says, and the numbers show which students are keeping up and which aren’t. “We need to track everything, which is good for me. It gives me a benchmark—how I’m performing, and how I can better help my students.”
While he was student teaching, “I saw growth in so many areas, especially in students just learning English…. The instruction I got from Relay—it prepared me to support the students in my class, especially the struggling students.”
Perhaps the best evidence of Relay’s ability to get teachers to focus on rigor and excellence is the fact that Smart was redoing the lesson plan he had brought to class. After looking at examples the professor passed around, he realized that the lesson he had prepared wasn’t good enough. So he was working to make it better, a fact that would certainly help his students the next day.
Relay enrollees are held accountable for outcomes among their students. In order to earn their degree, the students in their classrooms must average at least a full year’s worth of academic gains in a year’s worth of time. No other teacher college has ever used any real-world measure of success like this so meaningfully.
Relay enjoys wide support today from philanthropies like the Robin Hood, Helmsley, Gates, and Arnold foundations, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and individual donors like Larry Robbins. The goal is to make the program sustainable on its own. Teachers generally pay for their own master’s degrees, and the goal is to make Relay so worthwhile that people will be willing to take out loans to cover the cost. Relay has expanded beyond New York City to New Jersey and New Orleans, and other cities will follow. It’s also partnered with Coursera to create an online version of the Relay program.
Match’s graduate school of education
Relay is not alone in showing that new and very different schools of education, focused on student performance, can be set up outside today’s conventional channels. The San Diego charter school network High Tech High established its own state-approved, degree-granting teachers college. Starting with their own need for a reliable supply of high-quality teachers, especially in math and science, HTH created its own training program, which now turns out graduates who flow into schools across the region. Creating your own teachers college is not a small undertaking, but it is doable.
Taking a page from the medical world, a number of organizations are creating teacher “residencies” that provide candidates with a combination of intensive hands-on training and classroom learning, leading directly to job placement. Match Education operates a string of superb charter schools in the Boston area. Match also has created its own accredited teacher school, which grants a master’s degree intriguingly titled the “Master’s in Effective Teaching.”
Match begins its teacher training by being very selective. “Our admissions rate is in single digits,” says CEO Stig Leschly (previously an entrepreneur who founded and sold Exchange.com to Amazon in the late 1990s before turning to education reform). Match accepts about a hundred or so candidates to its graduate program each year out of 1,500 interviewed. “We are selective up front, and we make no bones about it.”
These individuals are then rigorously trained in classroom performance and management. “We believe strongly that what’s required for entry level teachers is how to teach a basic lesson, how to control the environment. They need to develop automaticity about basic teaching techniques.” The goal is to help rookie teachers quickly become competent “in real challenges they will face,” says Leschly. “That differs drastically from conventional graduate schools of education, where you ask noble questions, but not in our view the ones that matter in the first 12-18 months.”
To hone their automatic problem-solving classroom responses, Match’s candidates go through “north of 500 teaching simulations through their first year,” says Leschly. To make these lifelike, the test subjects will sometimes “randomly misbehave. They’ll walk out unannounced.” These things happen in real classrooms, and teachers need to be prepared.
But Match teaches much more than how to keep order. “We spend a lot of time coaching our teachers how to check for understanding,” says Leschly. They learn techniques for engaging students throughout a whole class, and for steadily increasing the rigor of the subjects discussed. Prospective teachers go through a natural progression: “They practice moves, they scrimmage, then they get their own classrooms.”
Most of Match’s teacher trainees hold jobs working as tutors in the Match schools. Individual or small-group tutoring is a key part of Match’s philosophy, and Match children get at least two hours daily of such instruction. The schools hire their own tutors, often from the ranks of college grads looking to do something meaningful before graduate school. And they hire a lot of tutors. Match Community Day School alone reports that it spends about $1 million on tutors each year. This level of staffing can be achieved because “we’re incredibly frugal on everything other than human beings,” says Leschly. “We have tutors and teachers and the photocopying.”
Tutors are given clear lesson goals. And they are held accountable for results, in an environment with high overall expectations. The day your author visited, a coordinator was videotaping tutors at work so that techniques could be reviewed later.
About half of Match’s tutors enter the school to be trained as teachers. After one year, they get full-time jobs teaching (at Match or elsewhere; there is high demand for their graduates). They continue to take online courses and participate in professional development. But as at Relay, they will only receive their master’s degrees after test results demonstrate that their students have made good yearly progress.
For funders looking to bring an existing national program to their communities, TNTP gets high marks from other philanthropies. Founded by Michelle Rhee in 1997, TNTP has recruited, trained, and placed tens of thousands of new teachers in multiple states. TNTP runs intense summer training programs for its Teaching Fellows, typically in partnership with a university that can credential the graduates. In Indianapolis, for instance, students train from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Marian University from June through July. Then TNTP provides coaching during the graduates’ first years in the classroom, while they are simultaneously completing masters’ degrees through Marian.
In other regions like Washington D.C., TNTP operates a TNTP Academy—the organization’s own instructing and certifying entity. Students do coursework and training directly through these academies, under the guidance of master teachers. In all cases, final certification requires evidence of effective classroom practice.
As at Relay, High Tech High, and Match, TNTP’s training is practical and hands-on. Says president Tim Daly, “We take a skills-first approach.” Conventional teacher colleges “teach theory and deeper, broader, conceptual things to new teachers. We believe those things are important, but not to new teachers.”
TNTP puts “a huge emphasis on practice.” Their training inculcates skills until they are second nature. “How you have kids enter the classroom. How you collect papers. Do stuff without kids present over and over again until they’re fluent. That is almost never done in schools of education.” These skills give TNTP teachers firm control of their classrooms, so teachers can then focus each day’s energy on intense instruction, rather than restoring order.
Like TFA and Match, TNTP is highly selective, taking about 8 percent of applicants. TNTP’s typical participant is often a little older and more experienced—typically between the ages of 27 and 35. An analysis that studied TNTP teachers in Louisiana over several years found that, on average, students in their classes advanced five percentage points higher in math than those taught by other teachers.
While most of TNTP’s operational funding comes from schools themselves (they pay the organization for each teacher placed, and other services), about 30 percent of the group’s support comes from philanthropies. Some donors help TNTP advance its research programs. Other supporters provide the funds that allow the program to enter a new region. The Mind Trust, for instance, brought TNTP to Indianapolis just as it did TFA, to accelerate its larger ed-reform goals in its home area.
The Urban Teacher Center
A regional organization focused on Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, the Urban Teacher Center trains English and math teachers. All of its graduates are dual certified in special education. With more than 15 percent of all students in these two districts qualifying for special-ed services, there is always a demand for such teachers. While UTC has received money from the NewSchools Venture Fund, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and others, it also has a “healthy earned income.” The dual certification in particular makes districts willing to share the cost of training and bringing in a UTC teacher.
Like the other alternative teacher trainers we’ve been profiling, UTC ties its certifications to the teacher’s proof of effectiveness. The children UTC instructors work with are often already behind peers. These teachers are expected to prevent them from falling further back by generating at least a year’s worth of gains in a year’s worth of time. Teachers who can produce more than a year’s worth of gains in a year’s time are prize resources who can change children’s lives. By making sure they are only turning out teachers who get results that reach the national average or above, UTC, Relay, Match, and company are taking the risk out of hiring for schools. In the words of UTC co-founder Christina Hall, “We’ve cut the bottom half off the bell curve.”
These alternative training programs calculate student performance results with painstaking care. TNTP, for instance, mixes standardized tests, expert observations, and student surveys. The resulting scores can be compared to “a universe of other teachers with similar students,” notes TNTP’s Tim Daly. To be certified, you need to be better than most of your peers. “Have you earned a second year in the classroom? In some cases it’s an unambiguous yes. In others, it’s a clear no.” If a candidate doesn’t clearly perform better than an average teacher, “then we part ways.” In borderline situations, TNTP will sometimes extend a candidate for a second year without certifying, and make a final decision after one more year of performance data is available. If there isn’t clear improvement, that person will be coached out of teaching.
As Daly puts it, “The philosophy we have is that the only excuse for teaching like a beginner is if you are a beginner. A second-year teacher who still teaches like a first-year teacher? We would rather put a new first-year teacher in your place.”
This tough front-end selectivity has great value to schools. In many cases, it’s difficult to get rid of ineffective teachers after their first years on the job. Once teachers are tenured, they have many job protections, and firing someone for poor performance can be extremely difficult. What Relay, Match, TNTP, UTC, and company are promoting are training methods that allow a school to see whether a person can be an effective teacher or not before they make what is often a permanent decision. “If someone struggles, they tend to persist in their struggle,” notes Daly. It’s better “to address that in a direct way up front than to remediate that for years and years.”
Workshops vs. evaluations
These new approaches to training teachers are exciting, but they’re also relatively small. Between them, TFA and TNTP may have trained about 60,000 teachers, many of whom have the capacity to transform lives. There are 3 million teachers working in the U.S.
Rapid transformations sometimes overtake overpriced industries, which the U.S. college system surely is. It’s possible that our system of teacher training could break open if the rest of higher education breaks open as a result of online competition or other changes. But it’s also possible we will see business as usual in the mainline teacher colleges for years to come. In the meantime, what about the 50 million kids and 3 million teachers already in the system? What can be done there?
Many of today’s 3 million are doing a good job. Even at so-called turnaround schools, where a dysfunctional campus is shut down and restarted with new leadership, and everyone has to apply for their old jobs, the new leaders often keep a few of the old teachers. At Grover Cleveland school in Philadelphia, for instance, which is now part of the Mastery Charter Schools network that employs Nadirah Sulayman, CEO Scott Gordon reports that even in that horribly failing school, 5 percent of the teachers demonstrated an ability to be effective. They were retained, and he says they are now the “happiest” faculty there. Having struggled for years under bad leadership, they appreciate the different system, with different expectations, that they are now part of.
There are some bright spots and energetic people almost everywhere. Most teachers, however, would benefit from better incentives, a better school culture around them, and improved training. So donors need to ask: How can we help teachers with potential improve? How do we keep more of the best people in teaching? How can evaluation, feedback, promotion, and compensation systems be set up to encourage continual school enhancement?
Those questions lead to this question: Can any substantial gains be wrung out of existing structures of so-called “professional development” (PD in ed jargon), the regular institutionalized training that teachers cycle through? PD is already widespread, but varies widely in value. Mora Segal of ANet concludes that “professional development is a billion-dollar industry in education, but it’s heavily driven by hiring a local former principal to come in and do a workshop for a day. It doesn’t stick.”
Many teachers have had bad experiences with professional development and participate grudgingly or with low expectations. As one highly rated teacher interviewed for this book put it, “I would rather have my fingernails pulled out than go to most PD.” A recent trend is for districts to invest in coaching, believing that one-on-one training can do what workshops cannot. But again there are no standards here, and no accountability.
Even new ideas have a hard time attracting the attention of jaded teachers. TNTP launched a program called “Great Teaching, Great Feedback” that allows any teacher to upload videos of himself or herself teaching, and get expert feedback. Uptake has been slow. “Teachers rarely do it” without prompting says Tim Daly. “The idea of opening your practice up to others is fairly new. The door has been so closed.”
Regular evaluations have become a science at some companies. At the consulting company McKinsey, associates get reviewed every six months, with a designated evaluator calling dozens of people each associate has worked with, resulting in a rating for each person. A high rating leads to big bonuses and promotion. A low rating leads to being told you must work closely with leaders and mentors to improve—or being “counseled to leave.” This sort of system keeps quality high and ensures associates have incentives to improve.
Teacher evaluation systems, however, have long been meaningless. The vast majority of teachers get thoroughly positive ratings that don’t reflect the huge differences in outcomes between teachers. These broken evaluation systems have profoundly negative effects on retention. When high achievers aren’t appropriately recognized and rewarded, they tend to counsel themselves to leave—the exact opposite of what you want to have happen.
In response, some funders are looking at ways of linking teacher evaluations to concrete student results, like the results coming out of the Measures of Effective Teaching system funded by the Gates Foundation. (See page 21.) If student performance, teacher evaluations, and school pay can be aligned together, then incentives for good teaching could improve dramatically.
REACHing in Chicago
Efforts to put some real substance in systems for evaluating existing teachers were nudged forward by the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top grant competition. States seeking funds had to at least loosely link teacher evaluations to student outcomes. Some 40 states now include some measure of student achievement in teacher evaluations, and in 20 states it’s a substantial connection.
This has occasioned much suspicion and resistance in parts of the educational establishment. Chicago has been trying to reform its evaluation system, with contentious results. Student test scores are only one part of a broader evaluation rubric called REACH, which touts feedback to teachers and efforts to help them improve. Teachers would be observed multiple times by administrators and experts, and coached on what they could do better. Nonetheless, the modest use of student test data in teacher evaluations was one of the factors contributing to the strike that the teachers union launched at the start of the 2012-2013 school year.
Even though REACH bases only a quarter of a teacher’s evaluation on student test scores, the vast majority of Chicago teachers said they believed this was too much. Some of this may have been due to poor explanations of exactly what kind of student scores would be involved. One teacher told the researchers funded by the Joyce Foundation to evaluate the effort that “I can’t stop gang violence. I can’t stop poverty. I can’t stop the parents who don’t care if their kids go to school…. Those are things that a teacher cannot possibly control.” But “value-added scoring” removes much of this problem by looking not at absolute results but rather at each student’s progress from his starting point.
A teacher of bright kids in a suburban school who begin at the 95th percentile and end the year at the 95th percentile will not score well on these rubrics. However, a value-added testing system will strongly reward a teacher in a tough school whose students come in among, say, the bottom 5 percent and end the year at the 20th percentile. That teacher has done a good deal to advance her charges, and she will be rewarded for that, not punished, even though they remain far below average. The only teachers who have reason to fear value-added testing are those who don’t see their students improve while they are in their classrooms.
The evaluations of REACH showed that some principals clearly didn’t buy in either. They insisted that they already knew who was effective and who was not. In a district in which a great many students are clearly failing, principals were more likely than expert evaluators to give out top scores to teachers. In fact, hardly any teachers got unsatisfactory ratings from principals. And these subjective evaluations are weighted far more heavily than test performance.
“It remains to be seen whether or not REACH will work,” says Butch Trusty, former director of education programs at the Joyce Foundation. If only 2-3 percent of teachers receive unsatisfactory ratings, can the other 97 percent at least be given a sense of where they could get better? “If you are able to provide teachers and principals with more nuanced data about their performance, it could enable all sorts of other decisions that affect quality in the system.” Despite all the resistance, there seems to be change in the air, notes Trusty. “People are quibbling about exactly how to hold teachers accountable for student results. But the conversation is not about whether teachers should be held accountable.”
IMPACT in Washington, D.C.
The move toward meaningful annual evaluations of teacher performance has gone much further in Washington D.C. That’s largely thanks to a group of major philanthropists including the Walton, Robertson, Arnold, and Broad foundations. To get a pathbreaking deal arranged, they put $60 million of financial sweetener into the pot to increase pay for teachers, which helped convince the Washington Teachers Union to withhold objections.
Under the district’s new IMPACT system, half of a teacher’s evaluation score now comes from how much students improved their standardized test scores after a year in her classroom. Other measures of increased student achievement, plus five classroom observations by principals and master teachers, are also used to grade teachers.
Instructors in D.C. whose value-added score shows them to be “highly effective” get a cash bonus of up to $27,000. Two “highly effective” ratings in a row lead to a salary raise of as much as $25,000. Getting repeated “highly effective” scores yields the equivalent of about a five-year jump on the standard teacher salary scale. As you might expect, this resulted in higher rates of retention by the district of excellent teachers.
On the other hand, Washington teachers who get reviewed as “ineffective” are subject to dismissal, as are those rated “minimally effective” for two straight years, and those scoring for three years in a row at the middling level of “developing.” During the first couple years of the new assessment system, 500 teachers with poor ratings for effectiveness were let go from the D.C. Public Schools.
Washington’s assessment system offers coaching and other help for poor and middling performers to improve their classroom practice. Because the coaches have the detailed performance reviews to work from, they can personalize the professional help needed by each teacher, rather than offering general training like typical teacher-development seminars.
The first major academic assessment of D.C.’s new system of teacher evaluation, done by James Wyckoff of the University of Virginia and Thomas Dee of Stanford, was released late in 2013. It showed that a rigorous value-added approach to grading teachers has clear positive effects in both retaining good teachers and pushing out persistently ineffective ones. Teachers at the margins were incentivized to use the professional assistance—those with one low rating sought help to avoid a second, and those near the top of the middle rating made efforts to become “highly effective.”
When supporting performance-pay systems, donors should ensure that teacher evaluators are skilled and well-trained, and that evaluations use clear criteria. Evaluations should be transparent, with no mystery to make teachers nervous or feed any fair grievance. All agree that these evaluations should drive toward teacher improvement, not just punitive action. Donors might help reduce resistance to value-added assessments by financing the inclusion of teacher input in the creation of evaluation documents, and by funding assistance from experts who have established well-regarded teacher evaluation systems elsewhere. The Harrison School District of Colorado, for example, has been heralded for having developed an effective teacher-evaluation and performance-pay system that both teachers and administrators support.
Keeping good teachers
Once you know for sure who your effective teachers are, you want to make sure these good teachers stay. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 50 percent of all teachers leave their job within a five-year period. The New Teacher Center has been working on improving this statistic for years, with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the AVI CHAI Foundation, and others. The organization currently works with about 25,000 rookie teachers across the country.
“First of all they’re overly optimistic,” says CEO Ellen Moir. “That’s the nature of starting a new job. They think they’re going to be better than they are.” In some cases, teachers have seen an outstanding teacher like Nadirah Sulayman make it look easy. Then they get parent complaints, student behavior issues, and lessons that flop. If they’re not prepared and resilient, “you feel so deflated.” To head this off, the New Teacher Center sends expert teachers into classrooms to coach and mentor new instructors every week.
If you’ve made the investment in hiring someone and giving that person a classroom, you obviously hope he or she works out. But a key insight in education reform circles over the past few years is that high turnover in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. If people figure out teaching isn’t for them, better that they move on to something that’s a closer match for their skills than stick around and drag down students year after year. You certainly don’t want them moving into administration just to get out of the classroom.
The problem is, the people you want to leave teaching aren’t necessarily the ones who do. Plenty of wonderful young teachers leave upon having families to do something more lucrative or less stressful. Meanwhile someone across the hall who’s pulling down a six-figure salary may just be biding time until retirement. “Good people leave in droves,” says Doug Lemov. “Stopping that by honoring them, by training them, by giving them opportunities to shine is the easiest big fix.”
In 2012, TNTP produced a report called “The Irreplaceables,” which documented the problem of benign neglect. Looking at the top 20 percent of teachers in urban schools—those achieving 5-6 months of additional academic gain among students, compared to lower performers—TNTP found that only 47 percent had actually been told they were high-performing. Perhaps even worse? Only a quarter of the “irreplaceables” reported that someone had identified leadership opportunities for them, and only 37 percent said someone had encouraged them to keep teaching at the school. Almost as many low performers (31 percent) had been encouraged to keep teaching, and a full quarter of low performers had actually been told they were high performing!
The report noted that “principals use retention strategies at similar rates for high and low performers.” This is absurd since, according to TNTP, you have only a 1 in 11 shot of replacing a high-performing teacher with someone equally as good. Whereas you have a very good chance of replacing a low performer with someone better.
What would be better ways to keep good teachers? TNTP suggests more feedback, more recognition, more resources, and putting good teachers “in charge of something important.” This last idea raises a tricky issue. In many organizations, the way to earn more money and prestige is to move into management. If a great teacher aspires to become a principal and shows talent for managing adults, that may be a good thing. However, many great teachers don’t want to manage on a schoolwide level, or aren’t equipped for it.
A number of funders are therefore looking at career ladders for teachers that give them more leadership opportunities and expand their influence over more students, without forcing them out of teaching. The Milken Family Foundation has invested heavily in the “TAP” system, which allows teachers who show they are effective to become mentor teachers and then master teachers. Mentor and master teachers become part of the school’s leadership team and work with the principal to set learning goals, and they coach other teachers on instructional strategies. A school with 30-40 teachers might have four mentor teachers and two master teachers. Mentor teachers maintain full teaching loads in addition to their leadership roles, and master teachers are in the classroom approximately half the time. Whether in the classroom or not, they work more hours and days, and they are compensated accordingly.
Approximately 400 schools in 10 states use the whole TAP system, and some districts use part of the system. There tends to be more cooperation among teachers when it’s one of their own peers providing feedback. Jason Culbertson of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, which oversees TAP, says that when a teacher hears from master teachers, “she knows they didn’t just get the strategy off the Internet the night before. They’ve used it with these students in this building and have evidence of its effectiveness.”
A number of other programs are trying to cultivate teacher leaders, and expand their capacity. Leading Educators, a nonprofit that works in New Orleans, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., and other cities, trains teachers to be department chairs and grade-level chairs. It provides the skills necessary to help them coach the teachers who report to them. In addition to creating strong teacher-leaders, Leading Educators allows for a testing of the waters on adult management, which may lead to better principals. Many experts lament that, too often, the first experience principal candidates have leading adults is when they assume their principalship. Programs like Leading Educators give excellent teachers an opportunity to hone their managerial skills in a role with lower stakes.
Recognizing the need to create better career ladders and growth opportunities to keep talented teachers from leaving education, organizations like Teach Plus help experienced instructors find ways to transform schools and improve school systems. Focused on “second stage” teachers with 2-10 years of experience in the classroom, Teach Plus offers policy fellowships, networking events, and opportunities to voice opinions that may not be heard from union representatives of teachers. The goal is to organize corps of experienced, talented teachers to help turn around failing schools.
Teach Plus Policy Fellows meet monthly for 1.5 years in six cities around the nation with the goal of realizing “tangible, teacher-driven policy impact.” In Indianapolis, Memphis, and Boston, for example, local school districts have adopted a number of the policy recommendations that Teach Plus fellows have proposed. The Boston recommendation spawned Teacher Turnaround Teams—groups of effective, experienced teachers who are deployed to failing schools as a body (often ten or more). The idea is that if supported with the right policies, these teams can improve school culture and change student expectations and academic performance.
We could have fewer and better teachers
It’s worth noting how fashionable ideas about school staffing have made it harder to keep teacher quality high. A frenetic push for smaller class sizes created a massive expansion of the teacher work force over the last generation. “During the past half-century, while the number of pupils in U.S. schools grew by about 50 percent, the number of teachers nearly tripled,” notes Chester Finn of the Thomas Fordham Foundation. “Spending per student rose threefold, too.”
Hiring more teachers made unions happy, but it also soaked up money that might otherwise have been used to increase the quality and pay of teachers, Finn notes. “If the teaching force had simply kept pace with enrollments, and school budgets had risen as they did, today’s average teacher would earn nearly $100,000, plus generous benefits. We’d have a radically different view of the job, and it would attract different sorts of people.”
America invested in more teachers rather than better teachers. “When you employ three million people and you don’t pay especially well it’s hard to keep a field fully staffed,” says Finn. “Especially in locales like rural communities and tough urban schools that aren’t too enticing. And especially in subjects like math and science where well-qualified individuals can earn big bucks doing something else.”
The most direct way to increase the influence of the best teachers is to be more selective in hiring and then place more children in the classes of excellent instructors. One approach might be to offer a bonus of $1,000 or so for each extra student a proven master teacher agrees to take into her class. This might not work in districts with strict class-size limits or other obstacles in their union agreement. But where teachers and parents opt in, it could magnify the effect of the best teachers. Outside funding might make it easier to put this into effect in a district. Schools might also use technology or teacher’s aides to expose more children to top instructors. Researchers at Public Impact recently released a report stating that if schools used these tools, they could pay some teachers at least 20 percent more, in some cases without new funding.
Some of these changes involve using paraprofessionals to assist teachers in handling larger classes. This has long been standard at colleges, where experts in a field teach large courses, which then have small group discussions led by graduate students. Particularly in areas like secondary math and science, where there is a dearth of qualified teachers, a similar system might use teacher’s aides to extend the reach of master instructors.
Blended learning is another way to expand the scope of great teachers. Blended learning combines technology and face-to-face teaching in ways that optimize both. By using technology to deliver basic instruction, teachers are freed up to spend more time working one-on-one with students. Lessons can be instantly differentiated to each child’s level of mastery, and students can practice skills like reading and math problem-solving with the instant feedback that helps people improve, instead of enduring the three-day-lag of hand-graded quiz results.
Class sizes in some blended schools reach 30 to 40 kids, or even a 75-to-1 pupil-to-teacher ratio at the Carpe Diem schools. While not for all students, typical students in blended schools perform quite well. They’re engaged with personalized lessons online while the teacher works with smaller groups and aides circulate to keep students on task. This substitutes smart machines and lower-priced labor for rarer and more expensive labor, allowing schools to be very selective about who they hire and allowing a great teacher to reach more children.
This is similar to a hospital, where it makes no sense for a surgeon to go around taking temperatures every four hours. A highly-skilled teacher should not be grading spelling worksheets. Another upside is that if you have one teacher for 75 pupils, you can pay her more, and invest more in professional development, sabbaticals, and other skill builders.
A number of charter schools have implemented full-blown blended learning programs. Rocketship Schools, Summit Public Schools, Carpe Diem, KIPP Empower in Los Angeles, and other campuses are starting to see impressive results. KIPP Empower LA has relatively large classes under its blended learning model, but some of the highest scores in the entire KIPP system. In 2013, 95 percent of second graders at the school were proficient or advanced in English language arts, and 98 percent were proficient or advanced in math. Despite its disadvantaged student body, KIPP Empower was the highest-performing school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the tenth highest-performing elementary school in all of California.” (For more on blended learning, see our sister volume devoted entirely to such schools—Blended Learning: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Supporting Tech-assisted Teaching.)
Many blended learning schools started in California. In part, that’s because the proximity of Silicon Valley makes the use of technology a natural thing. But it’s also because California has been in a deep educational funding crisis for years. Blended learning can offer some financial relief by reducing the number of excellent teachers who need to be found.
What about paying good teachers more?
Blended learning can create the space to pay great teachers more. There are also other ways of achieving this, as in Washington, D.C.’s pay-for-performance reform discussed earlier. If top teachers earned more, would we get better quality? What if we somehow raised teacher salaries generally?
Some experiments offer insights. In New York City, a charter school called TEP (“The Equity Project”) launched with a splash a few years ago with its announcement that starting teacher salaries would begin at $125,000. Performance bonuses could add tens of thousands more—putting teaching salaries in line with what some lawyers earn. Would that lead to results?
One school paying outsized salaries might be able to poach educators from nearby campuses in a way that could not be replicated if it was done in all schools. Even ignoring that, the results at TEP were solid but not exceptional. During the school’s first few years, as it was expanded by one grade per year (a standard approach with new schools), 8-10 new teachers needed to be hired annually. During the first four years, TEP wound up parting ways with about a quarter of its hires each year. “That’s not something we aspire to, that’s just the reality,” says founder Zeke Vanderhoek.
As TEP worked the kinks out, though, test scores rose, and TEP is now ranked in the top 10 percent of New York City public schools, despite the high poverty of the children attending. However, this charter school doesn’t just pay more. All the teachers are “‘at-will’ employees who have to meet certain expectations, or otherwise they’re not retained,” says Vanderhoek. And they have to take on more tasks to make the economics work. TEP operates on the same per pupil allocation that other charter schools get. It makes its teachers’ higher salaries work by expecting more of them, and employing fewer administrators and support staff.
One teacher doubles as an assistant principal. There is a social worker, but there’s no guidance counselor. Teachers run the after-school programs. All this leads to longer hours. One reason some people go into teaching is that the hours are shorter than many other jobs, with summers off. TEP pays teachers like lawyers, but also expects them to work lawyer hours. The result is that TEP sometimes burns people out, as law firms do.
Teacher Dan Vazquez describes a day starting at 7:30 a.m. and running through after-school clubs that conclude around 5:30 p.m. “It is a lot of work,” he says. “Yes the salary makes it nice, but at the same time it’s a stressful job.” A number of his colleagues left because of the hours. On the other hand, he notes, “You want talented people teaching your kids.” A funder might help replicate this charter school model in other communities, to see if high-paying and highly accountable schools could attract enough educators, and produce sufficiently strong results with children, to be broadly viable.
Fellowship programs that increase salaries are another way donors have tried to attract better people into teaching. Math for America, partly funded by math-professor-turned-hedge-fund-operator James Simons, pays math and science majors who become teachers an additional stipend beyond their scaled district salary. This stipend can total up to $100,000 spread over 5 years. Conversations with teachers in this program reveal that the fellowship’s networking and professional development opportunities are also valued.
A donor interested in other subjects might pay for enrichment for teachers of that topic. Writing teachers might get their tuition paid at summer writing workshops. English teachers could be sent to England to see Shakespeare’s plays on his home turf. Summer study and sabbaticals for certain highly effective teachers can give them new perspectives and keep them in the profession longer.
Prizes are another technique certain donors have used to sweeten the financial rewards of teaching. The Milken Educator Award is primarily aimed at teachers fairly early in their careers. Jane Foley, a former Indiana elementary-school principal who runs the program, looks for teachers who show a wide devotion to their profession. They are publishing papers, and presenting at national conferences.
There might be for-profit methods by which top teachers could increase their compensation. Teachers Pay Teachers is an online marketplace where teachers buy other teachers’ lesson plans. With thousands of teachers voting with their money, good practitioners rise to the top. This has happened in South Korea, where some teachers build online tutoring businesses to supplement their salaries. That’s not attractive to everyone, but it could make teaching more lucrative for entrepreneurial types.
Why school leaders matter for teacher quality
Great performances rarely happen in isolation. Great teachers seek out others who excel, and flee dysfunctional environments. That’s why Brett Pangburn from Chapter 1 wound up at Excel, not in the Boston Public School system, and why Nadirah Sulayman works for a Mastery charter school, not one of Philadelphia’s traditional institutions.
Dysfunctional environments also prevent teachers who have the potential to bloom from ever progressing beyond mediocre. On the flip side, a dedicated and energetic principal can get more out of almost all teachers. Good school leaders often cycle through classes all the time, observing how things are going, and offering feedback in both casual and formal settings.
“You’ve got the kids’ attention, but I noticed your transitions from one type of work to another aren’t as brisk as they could be.” “The same three children raised their hands for the questions; maybe you could wait a little longer for more participation, and narrate the wait time to engage more students?” “I’ll take your class for this period on Thursday so you can go watch Ms. Brown down the hall.”
In schools with a collegial environment where teachers are open to feedback, this can elevate everyone’s game. At schools that are successfully closing the achievement gap this kind of thing happens constantly. At the Grover Cleveland charter school in Philadelphia, principal Rashaun Reid reports that he’s in teachers’ classrooms or meeting with them at least 85 percent of his time. He sets weekly teacher goals, and has worked on improving his own skills at delivering professional advice.
Charter schools have pioneered a different conception of school leadership from the old days, when the principal was often in his or her office dealing with discipline and operational matters. It’s not that operational matters don’t matter. They do, and principals (or someone) needs to deal with them. Being disciplined about spending, for instance, can allow great leaders to find funds for special projects. But focusing on the quality of teaching is vital if you want great schools. A school leader who can coax better performances from teachers can lift hundreds of students in positive ways.
Jean Desravines, CEO of New Leaders (formerly known as New Leaders for New Schools) says that his organization was started 13 years ago under the premise that “the principal’s primary role is to drive student achievement. At the time that was foreign. Most people viewed the principal as the school manager, the disciplinarian, not the person who’s the CEO of student achievement gains.”
Today’s new-style school leader can put “a tremendous focus and emphasis on teacher quality,” says Desravines. “What is often missing is appreciation and understanding that the only way you get teacher quality and efficacy on a large scale is through great leadership.” The leader is responsible for setting the culture, and for actually finding the instructors and developing them.
In the business world, there’s a saying that people join organizations but flee managers. In surveys, teachers name their principal as a primary reason they stay or go. A great leader can keep fine teachers on the job for more years, so they can influence more children. That’s why philanthropists interested in the question of teacher quality must also focus on principal quality.
Charter schools attract excellent teachersBy Karl Zinsmeister
During the latest decade, a higher quality of candidate has begun to be drawn into the teaching profession. Driving this has been the rising demand for smart teachers from charter schools (which are approaching 7,000 in number, and expanding every year by an additional 600 schools). The growth of alternative recruiting networks like Teach For America is also feeding the upgrade.
For two generations, teachers have lagged other professionals in academic qualifications. To test if this is still the case, in the Winter 2014 issue of Education Next Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch compared the SAT scores of college graduates going into teaching versus other fields. While in 2001 teachers ranked 3-7 percentile points below classmates headed for other kinds of work, by 2009 they were 2-3 points above non-teachers. Still not academic stars, but trending in the right direction.
There is good research showing that the individuals hired to teach in charter schools are more likely to be graduates of selective colleges than teachers in conventional schools. A 2004 paper from the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University compared a weighted mix of 20,000 teachers at conventional and charter schools, and found that the charter teachers were significantly more likely to have graduated from a college that Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges placed in one of their three most selective categories, and less likely to come out of a non-selective or less-selective college.
A 2009 paper by Steven Wilson zeroed in on charter schools that get good results from low-income children and found that 77-83 percent of their teachers came from one of Barron’s three top categories. (And about two thirds of those came out of a college in the very highest category.) Among teachers in conventional schools, only 19-25 percent graduated from colleges rated in those same selective categories.
While “charter schools face disadvantages in areas like lacking access to funding for buildings, and getting lower per-pupil reimbursements from states,” notes Gretchen Crosby Sims of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, “they also have great advantages. One of the biggest ones is greater flexibility in deploying their teachers.”
Lots of organizations are working to create more good teachers to staff charter schools. Teach For America, which recruits top college graduates and young professionals to teach for at least two years in schools serving needy populations, has moved aggressively into the charter realm in the past several years. Many big urban school districts are losing students and laying off teachers, making it harder for TFA to place its corps members in conventional schools. But the blossoming of charter schools has more than picked up the slack.
In Chicago during the 2013-2014 school year, 59 percent of TFA teachers were working in charter schools. In Philadelphia, an even larger fraction work in charters—only 21 out of 257 corps members taught in conventional public schools in that city in 2013. Nationwide, about two thirds of all TFA teachers work in conventional district schools, but the fastest growing niche for TFAers is charter schools.
Despite these successes, many charters—like most other schools today—don’t have as many truly impressive teachers and teacher candidates as they would like. “The ‘no excuses’ charter schools depend on highly talented people,” says Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, and “staffing all the new schools...while also replacing teachers who retire, fail, or burn out, will be a strain in the future. It will only become manageable if we find innovative new ways to effectively train top teachers, reduce unnecessary burdens on them, and incentivize them to stay with education as a career.”
—This is excerpted from the new Philanthropy Roundtable book From Promising to Proven: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Expanding on the Success of Charter Schools, by Karl Zinsmeister, published in March 2014. See “Chapter 4: Bringing Top Teachers and Principals to Charters.”
The Catholic TFA
America’s urban Catholic schools play a key part in the larger cause of educational excellence. While such schools were originally created to teach Catholic doctrine along with the three Rs to parishioners’ children, they now provide an escape valve for many non-Catholic kids who would otherwise be trapped in failing public schools, which is why many donors such as the Connelly Foundation in Philadelphia now enthusiastically support Catholic schools. For a much lower cost than the public schools, Catholic schools send a higher percentage of their students to college.
But as with public schools, Catholic schools face challenges in acquiring the talent they need. Religious orders no longer supply significant numbers of teachers. To help fill the gap, the Alliance for Catholic Education was founded at the University of Notre Dame with funding from the William E. Simon Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and others. The program recruits hundreds of bright young college graduates—from Notre Dame’s graduating classes, 12 partner universities, and other colleges—to work in needy Catholic schools around the country. These graduates take classes over the summer, teach while living together in communal houses for mutual support, return to campus for more classes, and teach again. Certifications, specialty training in areas like bilingual education, and master’s degrees are available to participants in the two-year program.
Since its founding, Notre Dame’s ACE program has trained more than 2,000 teachers and leaders, of whom 75 percent are still in education. Schools in over 74 dioceses and archdioceses receive ACE teachers.1 And close to 300 students now enter the sister programs run by other colleges like Boston College and Loyola Marymount University.
Measure, and then act
Tying teacher certification to classroom efficacy is an important breakthrough. But to do that, you need good data on teacher and student performance. Many organizations are working on accurate measures. “I think it’s a really important time,” says Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools. “In the history of innovations, the innovation was always proceeded by advances in data, advances in measurement. We’re clearly at that point” with teaching today. “All of a sudden we can measure things like never before.”
Many schools now use the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) comparison that was described near the beginning of Chapter 2. It assesses performance at the beginning of a school year and at the end. A nonprofit called the Achievement Network, often known as ANet, is helping 470 schools in Massachusetts, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, and D.C. collect even more detailed information on how students are doing every few weeks. That way, teachers can make mid-course corrections.
The aim, says CEO Mora Segal, is to make it possible for “every teacher in the building to walk into their classroom and see with great clarity what each student needs academically.” ANet is supported by national funders such as Gates, Walton, and Dell, and by regional donors in the states where they are working—like the Barr, Lynch Family, Shippy, Flamboyan, Skillman, and Hyde Family foundations.
Today’s growing availability of data can give reformers all kinds of insights. That’s how TNTP realized that you can know after one year whether someone has the stuff to be an effective teacher. “People used to think of the first year of teaching as a random data point,” says Doug Lemov. “It turns out the data is pretty indicative. If you didn’t learn to master the classroom environment in the first year, you never really got it.”
TNTP also discovered it worked better to bring more people into its training programs, and then weed them out as time passed. That produced a better caliber of teacher than smaller classes more carefully screened in advance. Good measurements are still not as plentiful as could be desired, but the best teacher training programs are using statistics more, both to assess their candidates and to show future teachers how good measurements can help them better understand and instruct their K-12 students.
Frequent, accurate feedback is how people improve. ANet’s Segal reports that the schools using their quick-results measures “are improving at about two times the rate of their peer schools,” on average.