Without literate teachers, pre-K will flop

Highly literate pre-K teachers can help disadvantaged kids develop vocabulary and pre-reading skills, writes Connor Williams on The 74. But many preschool teachers aren’t well educated. How will we hire and train early educators who can close language gaps?

“We know the child’s word-gap risk increases his/her lifelong academic, social and income disparities,” e-mailed Elizabeth A. Gilbert, Director of the University of Massachusetts’ Learn at Work Early Childhood Educator Program. “The low-literacy early childhood educator’s word gap is one of the results of such disparity.”

It’s not enough to be great with kids, or have loads of charisma. Early educators need to build emotional connections with children, yes, and that can help students develop social skills and perseverance. But they also need to help students develop linguistically.

Preschool teachers are paid more like babysitters than teachers. If that doesn’t change, it will be impossible to hire highly literate pre-k teachers. It’s very clear that low-quality preschool and pre-K doesn’t improve children’s odds of success in school.

 

Learning to teach from a teacher

Urban Teachers trainee Meghan Sanchez, 23, is spending a year in a Washington, D.C. pre-K classroom before getting her own class. Photo: Jackie Mader, Hechinger Report

New teachers who’ve spent a full year in a mentor’s classroom may not be more effective in their first year, writes Hechinger’s Jackie Mader. However, they appear to improve faster than conventionally trained teachers and outperform them by their fourth and fifth year, according to a 2011 study of the Boston Teacher Residency Program.

In addition, residency grads are more likely to be teaching after three to five years, reports the National Center for Teacher Residencies.

NCTR residents also are more likely to teach English Learners or in areas of chronic shortage, such as  science, technology, engineering or math.

A first-year “resident” of Urban Teachers, Meghan Sanchez shares a pre-K classroom in Washington D.C. with Alina Kaye, an experienced teacher, while taking evening courses to earn a master’s degree. She’ll be supported for four years as she moves into teaching.

“Residency programs like Urban Teachers are something of a hybrid of traditional and alternative routes, and some experts hope they’ll be the wave of the future,” writes Mader.

By contrast, Teaching Fellow Amit Reddy is learning to teach middle-school science by teaching, also in D.C. It’s exhausting.

Teachers need to know wrong answers

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble,” said Mark Twain. “It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Teachers need to know the wrong answers to teach the right answers, says Philip Sadler, a professor of astronomy who runs Harvard’s Science Education department. It’s hard for teachers to explain concepts unless they  “understand the flaws in students’ reasoning,” writes Anya Kamenetz on NPR.

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It takes a lot of “mental effort to change the ideas that you come up with yourself,” says Sadler. “It’s a big investment to say, ‘I’m going to abandon this thing that I came up with that makes sense to me and believe what the book or the teacher says instead.’ ”

Sadler gave a multiple-choice science test to middle-school students, including a “distractor” — a common misconception — for each question, he writes in American Educator.

For example:

2. Eric is watching a burning candle very carefully. After all of the candle has burned, he wonders what happened to the wax. He has a number of ideas; which one do you agree with most?

a. The candle wax has turned into invisible gases.

d. All of the wax has melted and dripped to the bottom of the candle holder.

Fifty-nine percent of students chose “d.” Only 17 percent chose the right answer, “a.”

When Sadler tested the students’ teachers, they knew 85 percent of the right answers, but only 41 percent of the “right” wrong answers, writes Kamenetz. Students whose teachers were more aware of common errors “learned significantly more science, based on a retest at the end of the year.”

A first-rate teacher for every classroom

To “get a first-rate teacher in front of every student,” schools need to retain teachers long enough to build expertise, writes Marc Tucker on his Top Performers blog.

Attrition is higher in the U.S. than in top-performing countries, writes Tucker. Teachers who quit “typically complain that they were not well prepared for the realities of teaching and had little help from anyone else once they started teaching.”

“Most teachers have a steep learning curve during their first three years in teaching, but that curve typically flattens out after three years,” Tucker writes. Novices are motivated to learn how to do the job to survive — but, after that, “all teachers have pretty much the same job, at the same pay, with the same status, for the rest of their working lives.”

A new, very large international study by Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond looks at how schools support high-quality teachers and teaching in Australia, Singapore, Shanghai and Canada, he writes.

These high-performing countries work hard to hire the best possible teachers, then focus on building their expertise and providing “a meaningful career progression that reinforces and rewards” expertise, Tucker writes.

In these countries, novice teachers are less likely to quit and teacher effectiveness doesn’t plateau after three years. They keep getting better.

Teacher turnover costs billions

Teacher turnover costs schools up to $2.2 billion annually, estimates Richard Ingersoll, a Penn professor. Nearly half of new teachers will move to a new school or leave the profession in five years.

Ingersoll talks to NPR, which has been reporting on the pipeline into teaching,about the high cost of teacher attrition.

Teachers who’ve attended top colleges and minority teachers are more likely to drop out, his research has found.

“One of the main factors is the issue of voice, and having say, and being able to to have input into the key decisions in the building that affect a teacher’s job,” says Ingersoll.  That’s especially true for math teachers.

Student misbehavior and discipline also is a major issue.  “Schools that do a better job of coping with it have significantly better teacher retention.”

Superintendents ignore the costs of churn, he says. They’ll say: “We like employee turnover because we can hire more beginning teachers at a lower salary. We count on it in order to balance the budget.”

New teachers always are less effective than teachers with three or more years of experience.

It’s the same old teacher shortage

Despite what you hear or read, there is no national teacher shortage, asserts Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality. A few districts are having real problems, but the real shortage is nothing new: “All schools, as they have for decades, continue to struggle mightily to find certain kinds of teachers (STEM, ELL, special education).”

Why? Schools refuse to pay more “to attract people who have skills which are marketable elsewhere, to live in an undesirable location or to work in tougher environments,” writes Walsh.

Teacher-prep programs have been over-enrolling students for years, “routinely graduating twice as many new elementary teachers as public schools hire each year.” she writes. Now programs are graduating fewer surplus elementary teachers.

Teacher-prep programs have been over-enrolling students for years, “routinely graduating twice as many new elementary teachers as public schools hire each year.” she writes. Now programs are graduating fewer surplus elementary teachers.

Some districts have begun to panic, Walsh writes.

They’re used to having to sort through a pile of resumes to find a single good hire. They are not nimble or flexible enough to adapt their recruiting and hiring practices to a tighter job market.”

What is a reasonable response to a downturn in teacher production?  It’s not to open the floodgates and let anyone teach. We need to continue to encourage teacher prep programs to become more selective and do a better job preparing new teachers, so that districts don’t have to count on 20 resumes to find a single qualified teacher.

There’s a huge pool of credentialed teachers who left — or never got a chance to enter — the profession, she writes. “And we encourage districts to pay teachers in chronic shortage areas or who are willing to teach in really tough locales more than others.”

Social services alone won’t improve learning

Cincinnati has piloted community schools, which “wrap health, dental, therapeutic, and family support services around existing schools” to “improve students’ learning and life prospects,” writes Paul Hill of University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. The idea has spread to New York City and Philadelphia.

However, social services along won’t improve student outcomes, he warns. Students from poor families need a high-quality academic education in addition to social supports.

Oyler School in Cincinnati offers a full range of support services -- at a high cost.

Oyler School in Cincinnati offers a full range of support services, but costs are high and the effect on achievement is not clear.

Oyler School, Cincinnati’s model community school, provides an array of health services, including vision and dental care and mental health counseling.

However,  “the links between even intensive services and student learning are weak and tough to find,” Hill writes. “In Cincinnati, the strongest link between wrap-around services and outcomes like normal progress in school comes from attendance gains: on-site health services mean a parent or guardian no longer needs to take children out of school to wait all day to be seen at an emergency ward.”

“Careful studies” have found that students’ learning growth in the Harlem Children’s Zone “is a result of improvements in the schools,” rather than improved social and health services, he writes.

“Despite enormous support from Cincinnati hospitals and businesses, only Oyler has the full menu of services,” Hill notes. Community schools are expensive.

Is AP for average kids? More schools say ‘yes’

Charter and magnet schools dominate the list of most challenging high schools, according to Jay Mathews’ 2016 index.

BASIS Oro Valley, an Arizona charter school, ranks first on the Challenge Index with the highest percentage of students taking the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and/or Cambridge tests. Other BASIS schools rank second and fourth.

BASIS also has three schools in the top 10 of the U.S. News list of best high schools, which is based on test scores and graduation rates.

Ninth-graders can take AP Chemistry at BASIS Oro Valley in Arizona.

Ninth-graders can take AP Chemistry at BASIS Oro Valley in Arizona.

Mathews designed the Challenge Index to identify “schools that have done the best job in persuading average students to take college-level courses and tests.” That’s why he doesn’t look at passing rates, which reward schools that restrict AP/IB/Cambridge to top students. He created a separate “public elites” index for schools that enroll “a high concentration of top students.”

Charters, which are 7 percent of high schools nationwide, make up one third of the top 100 schools on the list.

Skilled teachers can show show even “habitual slackers” that “struggling with a challenging course is less boring than sitting through a painfully slow remedial course,” Mathews believes.

At IDEA charter schools in Texas, where most students come from low-income Mexican-American families. 99 percent of graduates go on to college.

At IDEA charter schools in Texas, where most students come from low-income Mexican-American families. 99 percent of graduates go on to college.

I’m not sure I agree that all or most students belong in what are supposed to be college-level courses, especially if the “average kid” is now a remedial “slacker?” But some schools are getting students to take and pass high-level courses.

“In some of the poorest parts of Texas,” six schools in the IDEA Public Schools charter network made the top 50 on the Challenge Index, he writes. At 11th-ranked IDEA College Mission, for example, 91 percent of students qualify for a free or subsidized lunch.

Last year they had AP test participation rates twice as high as those of affluent public schools such as McLean and Whitman high schools, or private schools such as National Cathedral and Holton-Arms.

. . . Low-income students who take AP courses “are significantly more likely to graduate from college than students who never take an AP course,” said Michael Franco, the network’s vice president for secondary school programs.

The network has increased pass rates while expanding access, Franco told Mathews. “Last year, 81 percent of our seniors graduated with AP credit.”

Can Austin High be saved? Should it be saved?

Austin High School on Chicago’s West Side is fighting to survive, writes Kate N. Grossman in The Atlantic. Like dozens of low-performing schools in low-income neighborhoods, Austin has lost students to charters, magnets — and district schools in safer neighborhoods. Loyalists want to turn Austin back into a neighborhood school. Can Austin High be saved? Should it be saved?

“With 391 students, including just 57 freshmen across three academies in a building meant for nearly 1,700, Austin is one of 35 Chicago public high schools that are well under half full,” Grossman writes.  “Ten schools aren’t even a quarter full.” Most are in low-income black neighborhoods that are losing population.

Three-fourths of Chicago’s high schoolers chose not to attend their neighborhood school this year. That leaves the city’s “most challenging and low-achieving students” in half-empty schools. With funding tied to enrollment, there’s no money to maintain programs and staff.

Austin was closed in 2004 for “weak performance and chaos,” and reopened in 2006 as three small academies. Achievement remained low. Enrollment fell steeply. A recruitment drive has fizzled.

At Austin, only four families came to a well-planned open house in March, despite sending 430 invitations . . .

. . . just 8 percent of 712 eighth graders in Austin’s attendance boundary chose Austin in 2014.

Citywide, 31 percent of high school students who rejected their neighborhood school chose charters; the rest picked a district-run school.

Detroit parents will do almost anything to send their children to better schools, reports Detroit Chalkboard. Parents can choose a charter, magnet or suburban schools, but they must provide their own transportation.

Monique Johnson leaves home just after 6 a.m. with her son Shownn, 13, an eighth-grader. They “catch a ride to a bus stop eight blocks from their home, avoiding closer stops that are too dangerous. Their first bus comes at 6:20.

Shownn is exhausted at that hour and sometimes sleeps on his mother’s shoulder during the 25- to 40-minute ride along Schoolcraft Road toward Woodward Avenue. The bus drops the pair at the corner of Woodward and Manchester in Highland Park. Mother and son typically wait 20 minutes for their next bus, the No. 53, while peering warily through the dim light cast by the Walgreens across the street.

. . . Mother and son typically arrive at University Prep Science & Math Middle School, a well regarded charter school in the Michigan Science Center, around 7:30 a.m. and Johnson waits with her son until his classes begin at 7:50.

She gets at home about 9:30. “That’s about three and a half hours before she has to leave again on another four buses to return to Shownn’s school and bring him home.”

I guess she doesn’t think it’s safe for her 13-year-old son to make the journey by himself.

Denver improves with choice, charters

Denver has expanded choice and charters — and improved student achievement, writes David Osborne, director of Reinventing America’s Schools at the Progressive Policy Institute, in Education Next.

Since 2005, Denver Public Schools (DPS) “has closed or replaced 48 schools and opened more than 70, the majority of them charters,” he writes. The district also has opened charter-like “innovation schools.” Eighteen percent of students are now in charters and 19 percent in innovation schools.

Charters and traditional schools receive equitable funding and use a common enrollment system.

On-time graduation rates and test scores have increased significantly, far faster than the state average, writes Osborne. “DPS has more than doubled the number of students taking and passing Advanced Placement courses, and black students now take advanced math classes at the same rate as whites (Hispanic students lag by only 1 percentage point).” College-going rates are up for low-income students as well.