Undiscussed in Chicago: Recruiting the best to teach the poorest

Benjamin Riley

Benjamin Riley

“Our most glaring problem is still recruitment/preparation of good teachers & principals and that’s no closer to being solved.”

So tweeted Seth Lavin (@SethLavin), a teacher in Chicago, in reaction to the recent settlement of the high-profile teachers strike in that same city (a strike he supported). Not only do I wholeheartedly agree with Seth, but I believe the entire political-spectacle-slash-debacle we just watched unfold in the Windy City illustrates everything, and I mean everything, that is wrong with education politics in America today. We saw otherwise rational grownups behave like tempestuous children as they fought over minor, incremental changes (at best) to a fundamentally broken system , all while ignoring the needs of actual children – and managing to destroy any semblance of trust and collaboration between school officials, union leaders, teachers, and parents in the process.

What is truly remarkable about the Chicago teachers strike is how utterly oblivious all sides seem to be to the problem that Seth, and for that matter anyone who’s been inside a classroom lately, so easily identifies. We need good teachers, particularly to teach our poorest children. This is the biggest education-related problem facing Chicago. This is the biggest problem facing California. Long term, I think it’s the biggest problem facing the nation. Yet, we pay woefully inadequate attention to attracting bright young people into the teaching profession, or properly training them to become effective when they enter the classroom.

First, as to attracting talent, just imagine for a moment the offer we’re making to prospective teaching candidates today. No one in their right mind truly thinks that anyone wants to enter the profession because of the take-home pay. The combination of imploding budgets and seniority-based layoff policies has destroyed any notion of job security in the early part of a teacher’s career. And creativity and experimentation at the school and classroom level are stifled through a confluence of rigid workplace rules and inflexible accountability systems. In a related story, the number of credentials issued to new teachers in California dropped by 40% in the past seven years.

Second, as to teacher training, our system is a complete mess. We have somewhere around 1,300 teacher-preparation programs in the U.S. embedded in institutes of higher education. Most of these programs happily accept anyone who applies, offer coursework that’s irrelevant to actual classroom instruction, and then kiss the teachers they train goodbye at graduation, without any effort to track their graduates’ effectiveness at improving student learning. This isn’t just my opinion, either – Katherine Merseth, the director of the teacher education program at Harvard, estimates that 100 programs are adequately training teachers but the other 1,200 “could be shut down tomorrow.”

The good news is that we’re starting to wake up to the problem. For example, the “Greatness by Design” report on California teacher preparation, issued by the Task Force on Educator Excellence  and commissioned by Superintendent Torlakson, contains a few good suggestions. These include requiring all school leadership programs to reapply for approval based on new, higher standards (good idea) and infusing the Common Core state standards into teacher preparation (even better). At the federal level, I’m partial to Senator Bennet’s GREAT Teachers and Principals Act, which would support new teacher training programs similar to those we see at High Tech High in San Diego, or the Aspire Teacher Residency program.

But neither these nor any other policies are likely to have any meaningful effect unless the adults that purport to care about education stop behaving like ninnies. Reformers need to stop assuming union leaders are all retrograde, lazy-teacher-protecting bureaucrats, just as union leaders need to stop spinning conspiracy theories suggesting that all reformers are privileged hedge fund managers hell-bent on school privatization. These stereotypes serve no one, least of all kids, and prevent any meaningful overtures toward collaboration.

Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, recently wrote in a short paper, Teachers, Their Unions and the American Education Reform Agenda, that if education reform:

… consists in the main of forcing the unions to the wall, that is a policy that is almost certain to lead to no improvement in the qualifications of teachers as well as a broad decline in the morale of teachers we already have. In fact, further eroding the morale of our current teaching workforce will prove a very effective deterrent to recruiting young people to teach in our schools….Getting to a place where these issues can be productively addressed requires first a relationship of trust between government and labor. Building that trust ought to be the first order of business.

Let’s start building.

Benjamin Riley is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports education entrepreneurs. Previously, Ben worked as a deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice, where he worked primarily on education-related matters. He currently lives in Washington, D.C. but will one day return to the Golden State.




Filed under: Commentary, Credentialing, Evaluations, Pay and Tenure, Teaching



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13 Responses to “Undiscussed in Chicago: Recruiting the best to teach the poorest”

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  1. Janine Allen, president OACTE on Sep 28, 2012 at 8:55 am09/28/2012 8:55 am

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    As the president of the Oregon Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (OACTE), I offer the following response to the author to communicate the exceptional work being done in teacher preparation programs in the state of Oregon. Our state enjoys many partnerships with school districts in the area of preparing STEM teachers and to equip candidates with skills to effectively teach English language learners. We celebrate extended placements in schools of poverty and extensive work by university clinical faculty to support the growth of our teacher candidates and the success of their P-12 students. Our universities hold high admission requirements for our teacher candidates and require at least two teacher performance assessments prior to recommendation for licensure.

    “We need good teachers, particularly to teach our poorest children.”

    In the state of Oregon, teacher preparation program are working to develop stronger partnerships with area school districts as an essential component to prepare the next generation of teachers for Oregon’s P-12 classrooms. We believe the best way to link teacher preparation and student achievement is through extended clinical placements in school districts and school-university partnerships. Oregon was one of eight states to immediately agree to implement the NCATE Blue Ribbon Panel Report that calls for programs developed in partnership with schools that are fully grounded in clinical practice. In this way, coursework that strengthens future teachers’ content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and understanding of learners and their development is linked to classroom experiences where they can apply newly developed skills under the mentorship of an experienced classroom teacher.

    To this point, eight university preparation programs have been awarded grant funds by a private non-partisan foundation to further develop promising school-university partnerships that involve 19 school districts and ESDs. These partnerships are focused on supporting student learning in a variety of diverse classrooms, the placement of student teachers for extended clinical experiences as well as innovative models in laboratory schools and STEM projects.
    For example, the Salem-Keizer School District just launched an innovative laboratory school dedicated to English language learners in which their three university partners were involved in the hiring decisions, student teacher placements and teaching protocols for a extended student teaching clinical experience. Other universities are invited to observe literacy development and dual language instruction in this setting. Additional K-12 schools in this same district have opened their doors for concentrated placements and extended clinical experiences for their university partners. A professional development workshop was co-led earlier this summer for cooperating teachers and university supervisors using a common frame of reference for co-teaching and evaluating future teachers on the same standards being used in the district’s new evaluation process. In turn, the partner Universities have funded additional faculty time to spend more time in the school setting.

    Salem Keizer Assistant Superintendent Mary Cadez notes,
    “Our district has the challenges that many districts have with changing demographics that include but are not limited to: increased numbers of second language learners, increased levels of poverty combined with school improvement efforts and high stakes testing. Our university partners have answered the call for increased attention to selection criteria for entry into teacher training programs, increased training time in the classroom, mentors for our students, support for college and career ready programs, endorsement programs such as ESOL, Reading, Special Education and the Oregon Writing Project.
    Faculty in the programs have aligned the InTASC standards to their training programs in order to make a seamless transition for professional growth for our teachers as they move from preservice to inservice. They have worked with us on: professional development for our inservice teachers, helped us conduct action research, assisted us with cooperative grants, co-sponsored literacy conferences, consulted with us on technology use in the classroom, helped us plan and implement five learning lab schools, served on our beginning teacher mentor advisory board, and have been valuable thought partners as we work through times of revenue depletion and increased demands on our staff. Their efforts to insure that their graduates are successful extend far beyond graduation and fortunately we are the beneficiaries.”

    The state also just overhauled state accreditation of teacher preparation programs, raising the standards for all programs to the level expected of nationally accredited programs.

    “Attract bright young people into the teaching profession”

    All teacher candidates in the state of Oregon must pass a basic skills test for admittance to the preparation program as documented by legislative program approval rule. In addition, candidates must pass a rigorous state test in their content area for licensure and all candidates must demonstrate literacy pedagogy. All passing scores in Oregon are set based upon recommendations from practicing licensed subject matter experts with a majority of the cut scores set above the national passing scores. In addition, Oregon requires the passing of a test of basic civil rights and ethics for all licensure candidates. All tests must be passed prior to recommendation for licensure.

    “Most programs accept anyone who applies, offer coursework that’s irrelevant to actual classroom instruction, and then kiss the teachers they train goodbye at graduation”

    For decades, the state of Oregon has led the nation in requiring a statewide performance assessment for every teacher candidate that requires the demonstration of impact on P-12 student learning. Teacher candidates must collect learning data on their students throughout instruction, disaggregate by subgroup, and plan differentiated instruction to support the needs of their learning community. This is not a new assessment process but has been utilized for both formative and the summative evaluation of teacher candidates prior to recommendation for licensure for over 20 years. Each licensure candidate must successfully complete two teacher performance work sample assessments prior to licensure.

    In the past teacher preparation programs have had to track down and survey their candidates and employers a year after employment. Last year the programs all collaborated to create a common statewide survey that was piloted and is currently undergoing revisions.

  2. Jill Shedd, IACTE Executive Secretary on Sep 26, 2012 at 1:08 pm09/26/2012 1:08 pm

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    To better inform the author about the constructive, positive work being done to prepare teachers, representing the Indiana Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (IACTE), I offer examples of the admission requirements, quality of education students, programs in urban schools, programs to prepare STEM teachers, the extensive work in schools supported by university faculty and classroom teachers required of education students, and the commitment of schools of education to support the success of their graduates.

    “We need good teachers, particularly to teach our poorest children.”

    Many institutions of higher education emphasize candidates being change agents and impacting schools by being active teacher leaders. For example, Butler University has a partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) with Shortridge Magnet High School for Law and Public Policy. The University has secured funds to support the Early College program and have the third cadre of students on the Butler campus taking courses for credit. Butler’s middle/secondary teacher education program is taught on-site at the high school with two university faculty assigned as clinical faculty. They are regular professional development experiences in which both Shortridge and Butler faculty participate. Across the street Shortridge High School, the new IPS/Butler Laboratory School is in its second year. Butler education courses are taught on-site and all elementary majors have a semester long experience in the school. Only Butler prepared teachers are eligible to be hired into the school thus making the work of teacher education program transparent on a large scale. The school includes preschool which is funded by a corporate donor and a private, individual donor. The University is embedded in the Indianapolis community from preschool through the Early College program and is a strong partner in transforming the community.

    Several teacher education programs in Indiana have important partnerships with schools in urban centers so that education students and faculty work collaboratively with teachers to meet the needs of students and to prepare education students to excel as new teachers in urban settings. Among many such programs there is the Urban Schools Project at Indiana University offered in collaboration with Chicago Public Schools and the “Urban Year” at Ball State University in which future elementary teachers complete a full year residency program in Indianapolis. There are four Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellow programs in the state of Indiana which require that Fellows teach for at least three years in high-need secondary urban or rural schools. For example, the focus of the Purdue University program is to address the critical shortage of qualified science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers in rural areas. It is a collaborative, cross-disciplinary initiative that includes a team of educators closely associated with Purdue’s Center for Research and Engagement in Science and Mathematics Education.

    “Attract bright young people into the teaching profession”

    Admission into teacher education programs is rigorous. The Indiana Department of Education has set high admission criteria for teacher education programs. Further, many institutions have additional expectations to ensure that teachers are equipped to join the profession. For example, students at Butler University admitted into teacher education have a high school rank second only to its school of pharmacy. A new MAT program at Butler has been created to recruit science and math majors into an initial licensure program with full support and encouragement of the administration.

    Moreover, students at other colleges throughout the state of Indiana show ACT and SAT scores at or above the scores of students in those majors assumed to be “more rigorous,” such as the arts and sciences. When attempting to “increase the curricular standards of teacher content knowledge” in 2010, the state of Indiana found that students in teacher education programs were required to complete MORE not less content than those in content-based majors. Those in teacher preparation programs also were found to have grades which paralleled or exceeded those in non-teaching majors.

    Many Indiana institutions offer an alternative route secondary program which attracts college graduates and prepares them to be quality teachers in high need content areas, particularly mathematics and the sciences. The four Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellow programs in Indiana are focused on preparing STEM teachers to teach for at least three years in high need secondary urban or rural schools. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsCVLMLPVFE&feature=player_embedded#%21)

    With respect to recognizing and honoring outstanding new teachers, the IACTE hosts an annual Outstanding Future Educators program. Each of the Association members nominates their very best education students for this recognition. Annually, approximately 150 education students are honored.

    “Most programs accept anyone who applies, offer coursework that’s irrelevant to actual classroom instruction, and then kiss the teachers they train goodbye at graduation”

    While this may be true in Schools of Business or in the Sciences, teacher educators take care to remember our graduates. We help them find jobs upon graduation. We support them via email, blogs, texts, and late night phone calls with assistance with classroom concerns. Summer workshops are offered for professional development and ongoing support. We help them to determine when they are ready to explore advanced degrees in higher education. And we help ensure that, no matter what, they constantly learn and stay abreast of what is going on in the field. Education students join the state student education associations, that lead them to join their state associations, to which faculty also belong. Education faculty don’t say goodbye: we welcome them with open arms into the field we love. For example at Butler University, the College of Education has a first year teacher connection and development program that is offered via technology. All first year teachers in the city and surrounding school districts are visited by Butler University faculty at least once a year. Support groups for Butler graduates have also been created and are convened by University faculty. Butler middle/secondary education majors complete 850 hours of supervised clinical experience and elementary complete 1500 hours. Another example of support for new teachers is Purdue University’s a First Year Teacher Performance Pledge to schools through which faculty provide individualized support to graduates who are not meeting an appropriate standard during their first year of teaching.

    Woodrow Wilson fellows receive three years of mentoring after graduation as a fundamental component of the four programs in the state of Indiana.

    Furthermore, all education coursework is standards based and all programs are accredited through the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and national specialty professional associations (SPA) processes. These accreditation standards require programs to provide evidence that candidates have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to become excellent teachers. Few other programs are so rigorously overseen as teacher education. Other departments in liberal arts scoff at the idea that some external agency could critique or question what we teach, how we teach, and why we teach. Yet, this is a reality in teacher education. Students in teacher education are involved in ongoing field experiences in schools integrated with their university coursework. Faculty at many institutions work closely with teachers in schools to offer important teacher preparation. For example at Ball State University, University faculty serve as school liaisons to our Professional Development School Partners. Several Indiana institutions have co-teaching initiatives during the culminating student teaching requirement to prepare new teachers collaboratively with school corporations.

  3. el on Sep 26, 2012 at 10:32 am09/26/2012 10:32 am

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    I think you should not underestimate the effects of ramshackle buildings on student learning. I invite you to try writing your next essay in a room that is over 90 degrees, after you’ve been sitting there for several hours. We’re talking about issues a lot more serious than dingy paint and slightly worn or mis-matched furniture here.

    That occasionally a great teacher and great student can overcome those obstacles does not lessen that they are dramatic obstacles.

  4. CarolineSF on Sep 26, 2012 at 9:26 am09/26/2012 9:26 am

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    The so-called “reformers” view holds (or claims to hold) that teacher job security and teachers’ unions are the primary obstacle to educational success.

    The facts about non-union states and academic achievement conclusively show that to be false. The fact that Finland and other nations have a unionized teaching force helps disprove the “reformers'” view blaming teachers’ unions.

    Other facts about Finland’s educational system are revealing and interesting, but are not relevant to that particular issue.

    One benefit of being a founding member of Parents Across America is that I’m in constant communication with involved parents and educators from around the country, so I know that in fact teachers in non-union states have far less job security. The claim otherwise is a false line from the “reform” voices, when they’re put on the defensive about the misinformation they’re spreading.

  5. Ben Riley on Sep 26, 2012 at 6:19 am09/26/2012 6:19 am

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    Thanks to everyone who’s commented. Couple of quick follow-ups, in reverse order:

    @Michelle: What state are you referring to?

    @Bea: I agree that nice facilities are important, and probably play a larger role in influencing career choices than is acknowledged. At the same time, I see great teaching take place in even the most ramshackle of buildings, in the most poverty stricken neighborhoods. The common theme I see in such places is cultural, often driven by an outstanding principal who the teachers trust and work closely with.

    @CarolineSF and @navigio: I largely agree with Matt DiCarlo, Marc Tucker and others who note that unions per se must not be the source of our education woes, for all the reasons you note. But two important caveats.

    First, in the U.S., many of the policies that most teachers unions support are replicated in even non-unionized states, seniority-based compensation and termination procedures (“LIFO”) being the most glaring example. In my view, these sorts of policies negatively impact school and education culture because they decouple actual effort and accomplishment from reward, recognition and career advancement. If we are serious about treating the teaching profession as a profession — and I think we should be — we need to rethink the industrial-factory workplace rules that are the norm today.

    Second, and relatedly, both the policies and the cultural norms related to teacher unions, and the role of government for that matter, in other high-performing PISA nations is markedly different from that in the US. For example, everyone loves to point to Finland and say “look at how well they’re doing, and they have unions!” That’s true. They also have an insanely rigorous, 60-hour high-school-equivalent “exit exam” that essentially dictates a Finnish kid’s entire academic or career path. Compare that to California’s CAHSEE, which is almost entirely based on 9th- and 10th-grade content standards — and no one, I mean no one, is suggesting we should make the CAHSEE more rigorous. My point is that you can’t just pick and choose one factor among many and draw firm conclusions about why one system appears to be working better than another.

  6. Michelle on Sep 25, 2012 at 2:07 pm09/25/2012 2:07 pm

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    In my state, which is recognized for having very high quality teacher preparation programs, teacher candidates receive preparation to teach our poorest children whether in urban or rural communities. In addition to having internships, pre-student teaching, and student teaching experiences in schools with high percentages of children in poverty, they also volunteer in the high needs schools. Various teacher preparation institutions have partnerships with intermediate school districts, communities and individual schools within the communities to ensure that the best and brightest teacher candidates do answer the call to serve and teach all children. Deans and program directors/chairs also participate in activities which enhance their knowledge regarding the educational needs of all students. The college/university-based programs in my state do encourage students to major in STEM programs and engage in technological activities that enhance learning.

    Lastly, through internal, programmatic entrance criteria,college/university-based programs require prospective students to apply for entrance into the education programs that have standards beyond the entrance requirements of the colleges. Specifically, students admitted to a college/university have to apply again for entrance into education programs. Students in the teacher preparation programs must demonstrate knowledge of Common Core implementation and assessments. Faculty members work in the school districts to assist with continuous improvement and professional development which maintains contact with graduates.

  7. el on Sep 24, 2012 at 10:14 pm09/24/2012 10:14 pm

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    Amen, Bea.

  8. Bea on Sep 24, 2012 at 4:32 pm09/24/2012 4:32 pm

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    Do you want good teachers to work in urban schools? Make them inviting, safe, functioning places to work and learn. Until you show a little respect for the human beings warehoused in decrepit facilities, you will not move the needle.

    This stuff is not rocket science and it’s not all that expensive, but it WILL make a difference for the adults and kids who must spend long(er) days in our schools:

    Well lit rooms with functional technology. Fresh paint. Windows that open (or close as the case may be). Desks, tables and chairs in good repair. Bathrooms with doors that close and – gasp- toilet paper replenished daily. Inviting and safe grounds. Small enough class sizes to give everyone adequate space to occupy. HVAC systems in good repair. Roofs that don’t leak. Clean floors.

    Make our school buildings places where YOU would want to work and where YOU would be happy to send your children. Do that and good teachers will come.

  9. Jayne on Sep 24, 2012 at 1:37 pm09/24/2012 1:37 pm

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    Caroline, thanks for the info. Do you have link to a report that shows the connection between unionized teachers and higher academic achievement? That would be really useful.


  10. CarolineSF on Sep 24, 2012 at 7:12 am09/24/2012 7:12 am

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    Some of the things the Chicago Teachers Union have won with their seven-day strike:
    Almost 600 new art, music, and gym teachers
    Guaranteed textbooks in the first day of class
    $1.5 million for new special education teachers
    $.5 million for reductions in class size
    More than twice as much money for classroom supplies

    This list is verified by the Chicago Sun-Times, which is hardly a pro-union hotbed.

    The notion that “bad teachers” are the cause of the challenges facing public education is conclusively refuted by the fact that the states with weak or no union protections — and thus little or no job security for teachers — consistently have the lowest academic achievement. The states with the strongest unions consistently have the highest academic achievement.

    Those facts don’t show that unions lead to high academic achievement, because correlation doesn’t equal causation, but they prove that the supposed inability to fire “bad teachers” is simply not the issue. So, let’s dispense with that myth.

    By the way, it’s entirely accurate that some high-profile so-called “reformers” — of course not all, but a number who wield considerable clout — are hedge-fund managers promoting policies that lead toward privatization. Let’s start with Whitney Tilson, founder of Democrats for Education Reform, and I can start naming more if anyone has questions. I refute the claim that an accurate statement and legitimate concern is a “conspiracy theory.” Why should hedge-fund managers have far more influence on our national education policy than educators, Mr. Riley?


    • navigio on Sep 24, 2012 at 7:43 am09/24/2012 7:43 am

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      Thank you Caroline!

      A week ago I read the now infamous quote from the union chief that went something along the lines of ‘our members are not happy. they want to see what else they can get.’ Then I followed all the outrage around the web at such an ‘obviously entitlement-minded statement’. Including a special, dedicated outrage post by Michelle Rhee on her organization’s website, obviously inspired solely by the words spoken by that chief. I decided to try to find out for myself what she meant.

      Caroline lists some of the things that I found.

      Textbooks on the first day of class (instead of weeks into the year)? Oh the horror!

      In addition, there is one thing said in this post that really worries me. That is an admission that if reform consists of nothing but pushing unions to the wall that it is bound to fail. Unfortunately, that is the only thing that can happen now.

      Even if explicit ‘reform’ makes an attempt at congeniality, there are two other forces which will end up forcing the hand: an aging and separatist population that is increasingly apathetic or outright ‘anti’ to the needs of public education (and thus lacks the will to fund it), which is causing more and more of the necessary programs to be funded by parents and/or community (when they can afford to do so). And the exponential increase in charter schools and charter school enrollment. Both of these–especially the latter–is creating a new ‘expected cost’ paradigm for ‘public’ education.

      Market forces are not polite. To the wall with you; lickety-split!

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