Learning to teach — with avatars

No children were harmed in this teacher training exercise. Prospective teachers can practice their teaching skills on avatars in the Teach LivE lab, writes Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Report.

“We’re really hoping to make a first-year teacher look like a second-year teacher before they get started,” says University of Central Florida Professor Lisa Dieker. Ten minutes in the simulator is equivalent to one hour in the classroom, UCF estimates.

Teachers-in-training submit their lessons, so the lab staff can program the avatars to make mistakes.

“When we get a request for a lesson on multiplying fractions … then we need to make sure that our students make the errors that are typical,” said Michael Hynes, director of the School of Teaching, Learning and Leadership at UCF’s College of Education. “So [the teacher candidates] know they can react to them.”

The software collects data during each training session, tabulating how much time the teacher spent talking to each student. It also records how the teachers responded to certain behaviors so that teachers can review their reactions afterwards.

If teacher candidates are not using good classroom management techniques, students might start to snicker or take out cell phones. Even though the class is small, it’s possible to lose control of students quickly

Each avatar student has a distinct personality from the overachiever to the slacker.  UCF has only five middle-school avatars more, but plans to expand to different grade levels and go into principal training.

“Five years from now, I hope we’ll have 200 kids and you’ll call in and say ‘I would like a bilingual classroom with French and Spanish,’ ” Dieker said. “We would plop in third-grade kids [or] eighth-grade kids and ninth-grade kids, and people can customize the system.”

The story is part of the Hechinger Report’s teacheredpalooza, which includes stories on recruiting the best people to teaching, evaluating the quality of teacher education in Florida and in California, Do new exams produce better teachers? and alternative routes to teaching.

In a word, yes

Is it fair to put the total blame on a student’s academic performance on his or her coach?

That’s one of the questions with which Valerie Strauss (it must be a Strauss sort of day; my last post was spurred by her as well… so many thanks to Ms. Strauss) ends this blog post, which discusses some comments from our nation’s Secretary of Education.

The larger question at issue is whether college coaches — particularly public university coaches — should be fined for athletes’ failure to graduate.

I say that the answer is obviously yes. And the reason is this: it’s not that the coach has control of the student’s academics… but the coach does have a surprising amount of control over who gets admitted to the school on the basis of athletics. If coaches know that they’ll be held responsible, there will be an incentive not to recruit students who don’t have a realistic chance at graduating.

That’s where you’ll see the effect of this sort of policy.

The trick is that you need to make it so that the penalty for having non-graduating students is bigger than the payoff for having a winning team. Otherwise, the behavior will still persist, because it’s just a smaller incentive pointing in the same direction.

Now, maybe that means that you end up “pricing out” all the best coaches from public universities, so that only private schools like Notre Dame (football) and Duke (basketball) can afford the best coaches. Eh… so what if that happened?* That doesn’t seem like such a bad outcome to me. I’m all for college sports. But they’re called college sports and not just “the minor leagues” for a reason.

I don’t begrudge coaches their millions; I’m a fan of free markets. But a coach is a university employee, and that means that one of their jobs is (or should be) upholding the mission and reputation of the university. And that mission should — and I say “should” in the most skeptical sense — be about turning out educated minds, not about hanging championship banners.

Coaches are also hired to do that, but that job should be tempered by their broader institutional commitments. The job of a university isn’t to make money. That’s simply something universities have to do in order to accomplish their mission.

* (I’d note that neither Notre Dame nor Duke really has the same sort of problem with sports and academics that many big public universities seem to have.)

Subway of (false) hope

“Start here, go anywhere,” say the college ads in the subway.  “But more likely nowhere,” adds a professor.

Also on Community College SpotlightFirst Year Experience programs try to keep students enrolled for a second year.

Steering strong teachers to weak schools

Reformers are trying to steer strong teachers to weak schools, but so far it’s not working, writes Alan Borsuk in part four of the Building a Better Teacher series by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Hechinger Report.

A study released Nov. 18 by The Education Trust, a respected Washington-based education advocacy group, showed that students from low-income homes continue to have teachers who are working outside their field of expertise or who have little experience at rates much higher than higher-income students. The report called progress in changing that “disappointingly slow.”

In the suburbs, hundreds of teachers may apply for every opening. Few teachers want to work at West Side Academy, a K-8 school in a tough Milwaukee neighborhood, says the principal, James Sonnenberg. Three of his most promising teachers were laid off last spring because they lacked seniority, then recalled but assigned to other schools. Sonnenberg was sent “experienced teachers whom he had not sought, nor had they sought him.”

It’s hard to change the system without weakening seniority rights, paying some teachers more for taking on harder jobs and figuring out how to identify good teachers.

Denver, which has performance pay, rewards teachers for working in low-performing schools, Borsuk writes, but it’s not clear that it’s helping.

Wisconsin pays a $2,500 bonus to any teacher who earns certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, plus an additional $2,500 to board-certified teachers who work in low-performing schools. But there aren’t enough board-certified teachers to make a difference.

Milwaukee Public Schools hope to develop incentives to improve teaching in low-performing schools, but the focus is on rewarding all teachers in a school instead of singling out exceptional teachers.

The district’s main focus is on improving the teachers it’s already got through “effective on-the-job training, mentoring and coaching,” writes Borsuk.

Allan Odden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, says Chicago, Boston and New York improved the quality of teachers by looking farther afield for good teachers, avoiding the worst teacher-training programs.

“They recruit top talent,” he said, and put them in high-needs schools.

Odden also said programs such as Teach for America have tapped into a strong desire by top-flight college graduates to spend at least two years helping the country by teaching in demanding situations.

Fire the weakest teachers — the bottom 6 percent — suggests Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist.

Sonnenberg wants to require teachers to go where their skills are most needed, regardless of seniority. “Why can’t the employer determine what is best for the organization?” asked Sonnenberg.

But there is almost no talk of forcing teachers with seniority to take such assignments. And, ultimately, it is tough to make people take jobs they don’t want.

Making schools better places to work is the best way to attract good teachers, says The New Teacher Project.

Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee teachers union, listed things that would attract teachers: “A competent and fair principal is key not only in getting teachers there but in keeping them. . . . We’re also looking at schools that are safe.”

A few teachers are so brilliant they can teach well in any environment; some are so bad they’ll teach poorly anywhere. Most teachers will teach effectively in a well-organized school with an academic focus; they’ll teach poorly in a chaotic school.

Strict rules for behavior, longer school days, greater intensity around academic work — these are parts of the formula that some schools are using with success.

Joshua Beggs, who heads the small high school operation of Eastbrook Academy, a religious school on the north side, said: “Many high quality teachers want to spend their lives helping underserved students succeed. Give them a classroom full of students who want an education and they’ll work in the poorest neighborhoods and may even accept below-average pay. Place them in a school full of unruly, undisciplined, unmotivated kids and they’ll give it their best shot — but ultimately they’ll quit if they can’t achieve success.”

There isn’t enough money in the world — certainly not in school district budgets — to get talented people to bang their heads against a brick wall every day.

What they said at the summit

On Community College Spotlight: What they said at the Community College Summit.

For-profit career colleges fight back with an attack on community college recruiting, graduation rates.