How to make teaching an elite profession

Seven percent of teacher training programs receive a top ranking in National Council on Teacher Quality’s Teacher Prep Review. “With only 1 in 15 programs providing first-year teachers with solid preparation, it is clear we, as a nation, have a long way to go if we are going to do right by teachers as well as their students,” said Kate Walsh, NCTQ’s president.

Among the top teacher training programs in the country — according to NCTQ — is Utah’s Western Governors University , which is online and competency based.

NCTQ recommends setting higher standards for teacher candidates, making it tougher to be recommended for licensure and holding teacher training programs accountable for the effectiveness of their graduates.

American schools need better teachers, so let’s make it harder to become one, argues Amanda Ripley in Slate. The “world’s smartest countries” treat teacher selection and preparation “the way we treat the training of surgeons and pilots,” she writes. Some U.S. states are raising standards for teacher education programs.

Rhode Island, which once had one of the nation’s lowest entry-bars for teachers, is leading the way. The state has already agreed to require its education colleges to admit classes of students with a mean SAT, ACT, or GRE score in the top one-half of the national distribution by 2016. By 2020, the average score must be in the top one-third of the national range, which would put Rhode Island in line with education superpowers like Finland and Singapore.

Sonja Stenfors, 23, is a teacher-in-training from Finland, worked as a classroom aide for a year to raise her odds of getting into a teacher-training program, writes Ripley. Only 10 percent of applicants are accepted.

After three years at a Finnish university, Stenfors is studying at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.  “Here it’s not cool to study to be a teacher,” she wrote in Finnish on her blog. “They perceive a person who is studying to be a teacher as a little dumber.”

The University of Missouri–Kansas City admits two-thirds of those who apply, writes Ripley. There is no minimum SAT or ACT score. Students have to have a B average, sit for an interview, and pass an online test of basic academic skills.

They do two semesters of student teaching, compared to Senfors’ four semesters in Finland, and receive “less rigorous, hands-on classroom coaching from experienced teachers.”

Scared of math

Math anxiety — fear that prevents learning — starts young, writes Dan Willingham,  a University of Virginia psychology professor, in RealClearEducation. Half of first and second graders feel moderate to severe math anxiety. By college, 25 percent of university students — and 80 percent of community college students — suffer from math anxiety.

Anxiety distracts. It’s hard to focus on the math because your mind is preoccupied with concern that you’ll fail, that you’ll look stupid, and so on. Every math problem is a multi-tasking situation, because all the while the person is trying to work the problem, he’s also preoccupied with anxious thoughts.

“Children who have trouble with basic numeric skills — counting, appreciating which of two numbers is the larger—are at greater risk for developing math anxiety,” he writes.

But math anxiety also is learned from anxious adults. If an elementary teacher is nervous about her math skills, her students are more likely to be anxious.

They conclude “it’s hard not because you’re inexperienced and need more practice, but because lots of people (maybe including you) just can’t do it.” They conclude they’re just not “math people.”

Teaching children basic skills is the first step to preventing math anxiety, writes Willingham. In addition, teachers can be traind on “how to talk to kids who do encounter difficulties; how to ensure that kids see their setbacks as a normal part of learning and problems that can be overcome, rather than as evidence that they are simply no good at math.”

A third strategy — giving students 10 minutes to write about their emotions before an exam — can raise scores,  recent studies show. Writing may help students put their “upcoming confrontation with math in perspective, and so feelings of anxiety will not be consuming the student’s thoughts and attention during the exam.”

Willingham has more on math anxiety in American Educator‘s Ask the Cognitive Scientist.

Boston: No excuses, high performance

Boston has the highest-performing charter schools in the country, writes MATCH founder Michael Goldstein on Flypaper. Why? Boston has lots of elite colleges, talented people — and the highest proportion of “authentic” adherents to the “No Excuses” model.

CREDO studies have identified top charter cities, measured in “days of learning.”

Two-thirds of Boston charters are “No Excuses” schools, writes Goldstein. Sharing a common philosophy, the schools share ideas and talent.

The Charles Sposato Graduate School of Education (SGSE), embedded at Match Charter Schools, provides teachers to all the No Excuses charters in Boston. SGSE is able to train rookie teachers whose students go on to get unusually high value-added numbers. . . . The message: “Here is what will be expected of you in a No Excuses school. That job is not right for everyone, but if it’s the one you want, we’ll help you practice, practice, practice to become good in that context.”

. . . Will Austin from Uncommon teaches a rookie teacher about effective math instruction; that teacher, in turn, takes a job at KIPP; now Uncommon’s ideas have moved to KIPP; and so forth. When Kimberly Steadman of Brooke teaches literacy to a rookie teacher, even fellow instructors (from other charter schools) perk up and jot down notes.

New York City, New Orleans, D.C., and Los Angeles charter students show large gains on CREDO studies because of No Excuses charters, writes Goldstein. “Boston outperforms these cities is because it has even more.”

Teachers learn science so they can teach it

Many elementary and middle-school teachers who teach science didn’t study science much — or at all — in college, reports NPR. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry offers  monthly science labs for teachers who want ideas, lessons and materials they can use in the classroom.

Teacher Jonathan Fisher, a philosophy major who avoided life science in college but now teaches it to fourth-graders, taught genetics to his class with an activity he learned here.

“The students used Styrofoam blocks and different body parts — so limbs and dowel rods and different-sized eyes — [and flipped] coins to figure out which genes would be passed on to their kids,” he explains. “The classroom couldn’t have been more excited.”

. . . Today, the teachers here at the museum will be given diagrams of cells, petri dishes, bottles of Glo Germ (a lotion that exposes bacteria on hands), and even instructions for a simple incubator that enables students to grow bacteria from their own dirty hands.

There’s little high-quality science teaching in the middle grades, says Andrea Ingram, who oversees education at the Museum of Science and Industry. “We either capture kids’ enthusiasm there, get them committed to science, or we don’t.”

At Sawyer Elementary on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Graciela Olmos is trying out a mechanical engineering lesson that she first saw at the museum.

Students at Sawyer Elementary in Chicago try out a mechanical energy lesson that their teacher learned at the museum's training program.Her eighth-graders roll marbles down incline planes and measure how far the marbles push a little Styrofoam cup.

At the museum, “They model for us, ‘This is how it’s going to look.’ And that’s something that we lack,” says Olmos. 

The school also lacks “science labs with gas lines and sinks.”

Olmos can’t focus strictly on science. “If my specialty is science, well, let it be science,” she says. “Don’t give me so many other things to do aside of that.”

Elementary schools should have science specialists who know their subject, says Joanne Olson, a professor of science education at Iowa State and president of the Association for Science Teacher Education.

More teachers are novices

More students are being taught by inexperienced, not-yet-effective teachers, warns a Carnegie report, Beginners in the Classroom

Novices are leading so many classrooms not only because of greater demand for teachers, but because so many teachers in existing jobs are leaving before they become accomplished educators. Although the recent recession slowed the exodus somewhat, teacher turnover rates are exceptionally high. In many urban districts, more than half of teachers leave within five years. And teachers abandon charter schools at especially high rates, a significant problem given the growing presence of charters in many metropolitan areas.

Pay isn’t the primary reason teachers quit, concludes the report. “Teachers leave because of a lack of administrative support — poor professional development, insufficient emotional backing, and scant feedback on performance.”

In Fast Start, The New Teachers Project describes how it changed its five-week teacher training program to teach fewer skills more intensely.

Fast Start focuses on four critical skills most closely linked to first-year success: delivering lessons clearly, maintaining high academic and behavioral standards, and maximizing instructional time.

. . . teachers spend 26 hours in intensive, hands-on practice.

Every Fast Start participant benefits from 32 hours of one-on-one and group coaching to help them constantly fine-tune their use of essential instructional techniques.

After two years, “we’ve found that teachers who performed better during Fast Start training earned higher ratings from their principals and did better on their district’s performance evaluation system.”

Teach for America will try more training

Five weeks of training in the summer isn’t enough to prep college graduates for teaching, say some Teach for America veterans. Now TFA is launching a year-long training program for college students who want to teach, reports the Washington Post.

In addition to classroom experience, the pilot program will include classes in educational theory and pedagogy.

“With this extra pre-service year, we’ll give them more time to absorb the foundational knowledge all teachers need, more space to reflect on the role they are about to step into, and more time to directly practice the skills they’ll need as educators – skills like delivering a lesson or managing a classroom,” Matt Kramer, the co-CEO, told a TFA gathering in Nashville.

The five-week training program pumps up recruits’ egoes, but doesn’t prepare them to teach in high-need schools, wrote Olivia Blanchard in an Atlantic essay. A 2011 TFA recruit, Blanchard quit after a year at an Atlanta public school.

I was immersed in a sea of jargon, buzzwords, and touchy-feely exercises.

. . . Typical instructional training included only the most basic framework; one guide to introducing new material told us to “emphasize key points, command student attention, actively involve students, and check for understanding.” We were told that “uncommon techniques” included “setting high academic expectations, structuring and delivering your lessons, engaging students in your lessons, communicating high behavioral expectations, and building character and trust.” Specific tips included “you provide the answer; the student repeats the answer”; “ask students to make an exact replica in their notes of what you write on the board”; and “respond quickly to misunderstandings.”

TFA will continue to ask recruits for a two-year commitment, but Kramer said corps members will be “encouraged” to stay in the classroom longer.

This is not a parody

Why do teachers say “professional development” is a waste of time and money? This seems like a parody of dreadful PD, but it’s a real training session for Chicago teachers, says Larry Ferlazzo. According to the video: “This presenter was one of several consultants flown in from California and the United Kingdom for the Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Strategic School Support Services’ special network.”

At least, this trainer was modeling instructional strategies instead of blathering about trendy-but-vague educational fads, writes Paul Bruno on This Week in Ed.

What is good teaching?

What Is Good Teaching? asks New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. The New Public  shows how hard it is to teach in an inner-city school, he writes. Teachers College at Columbia plans to use the documentary to train teachers

“What is good teaching?” asked Anand Marri, a professor at Teachers College who has championed the film. “Is teaching different in the Bronx versus the suburbs? How much do you start with where the students are?”

If you like your curriculum, you can …

“If You Like Your Curriculum, You Can Keep Your Curriculum,” Common Core advocates promised. But it ain’t necessarily so, writes Jason Bedrick at Cato @ Liberty. “Common Core’s primary backers have been assuring us for years that the standards do not mandate any specific curriculum or prescribe any particular method of teaching,” he notes.

Six months ago, Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern wrote in National Review Online:

Here’s what the Common Core State Standards do: They simply delineate what children should know at each grade level and describe the skills that they must acquire to stay on course toward college or career readiness. They are not a curriculum; it’s up to school districts to choose curricula that comply with the standards.

Now Porter-Magee and Fordham’s Chester Finn argue that the standards must change “classroom practice” to be effective, notes Bedrick.

Furthermore, the National Council on Teacher Quality, backed by Fordham, is grading teacher training programs on whether “the program trains teacher candidates to teach reading as prescribed by the Common Core State Standards.”

“Prescribed?”  I thought Common Core didn’t prescribe pedagogy.  But that was back when I was young and we were dating.

“Fordham and others trying to hold down the right flank of the Common Core advocacy campaign” need to “keep their story straight,” concludes Bedrick.

Schmidt: Poor kids get poorly trained teachers

The U.S. has some of the best — and worst — university-based math teacher training in the world, says William Schmidt, co-director of Michigan State’s Education Policy Center. Sixty percent of math teachers in high-poverty schools come from the worst programs, his research concludes.

Schmidt used data from the 2012 Teacher Education and Development Study-Mathematics, which surveyed, interviewed and tested elementary and middle school math teachers from 900 teacher prep programs in 17 countries, reports HechingerEd. He also analyzed courses taken by top-scoring U.S. math teachers.

He concluded there are nine important courses for math teachers-to-be to take (such as observation, analysis and reflection on mathematical teaching and multivariate calculus, for instance), but only a third of U.S. middle school teachers who participated in the study had enrolled in at least eight of them.

“Our very worst programs produce over half of middle school teachers,” Schmidt said at NBC’s Education Nation. “Where they’re going is where the good teachers are mostly needed.”