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In search of high-quality teachers, charter network trains its own

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Amy Youngman’s seventh- and eighth-grade humanities students had left for the day. Other than some shouts from the after-school program in the courtyard, all was quiet in her second-floor classroom here.

Amy Youngman (left) helps Danny Shapiro plan for his next week of teaching in the seventh- and eighth-grade classroom they share at ERES Academy in Oakland, Calif. Shaprio is a resident teacher-in-training and Youngman is his mentor. (Photo by Lillian Mongeau)

Youngman’s day of teaching at ERES Academy—part of the Aspire charter school network—wasn’t over, though.

Nor was Danny Shapiro’s day of learning. Shapiro, not 13 but 30, is learning to be a teacher. Youngman, three years younger than Shapiro but with six years of teaching already under her belt, is his mentor.

“Highs and lows?” Youngman asked Shapiro across the wide table that served as her desk.

Shapiro sighed deeply as he considered the ups and downs of his second week in the classroom. He is one of 34 new teachers in Aspire’s three-year-old intensive residency program, aimed at training incoming teachers like him for positions in one of the network’s nearly three dozen schools. Founded in California in 1998, Aspire currently serves 12,000 mostly low-income students in grades K-12 and will expand out of state for the first time next year with two new schools in Memphis, Tenn.

Many of these teachers-in-training are career-changers like Shapiro, who was working at a policy foundation in San Francisco focused on climate change this time last year. Now, he’s spending four days a week in a classroom in one of the state’s toughest neighborhoods.

Shapiro started preparing for his year of teacher training with three months of summer courses that will count toward a master’s degree. He continues working on that degree on his one weekday without teaching duties. A discount on tuition and a small stipend—about one third of what a first-year teacher earns—help make this program possible for Shapiro, who also took out student loans to cover his costs. By the time 12 months are up, Shapiro should have a teaching credential, a master’s in education and a job at an Aspire school.

“So, last Thursday was the low, because that was the day the stress and the [classroom] management [were] like a wave that came over me,” Shapiro said. “Friday was a high because I was so well planned.”

Youngman nodded as she wrote this down. After sharing her own high (two students scored 100 percent on their reading tests) and her own low (meetings went long on Friday, leaving her less prepared than usual for Monday), Youngman printed out the notes she’d taken while Shapiro was leading a history lesson earlier that day. Now, she asked him to highlight parts of the lesson that had gone well and underline those that hadn’t. Pulling out a highlighter and pen, he started reading.

Amy Youngman (center) and Danny Shapiro (left) check student work during a middle-school grammar lesson at ERES Academy in Oakland, Calif. Shaprio is a resident teacher-in-training and Youngman is his mentor. (Photo by Lillian Mongeau)

The number of career-changers who are entering the teaching force has doubled over the last 20 years. Shapiro, who majored in politics at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., is not among the much sought-after math and science career-changers, but feels his experience in international climate change policy can help him make real-world connections for his students.

Harnessing that practical work experience is a goal of programs like Aspire’s that cater to career-changers who want an alternate route to certification. Thirty-five percent of U.S. teachers report having first had careers outside of education, and more than two in five entered the classroom through an alternative preparation program, according to a 2010 survey by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in Princeton, N.J.

Now charter networks and school districts, including High Tech High in San Diego, Calif., are beginning to pioneer their own training programs. In addition to the desire to bring in new teachers from other fields, Aspire leaders report being dissatisfied with the training their first-year teachers have received. This problem—first-year teachers lacking sufficient content knowledge and classroom-management skills—has been echoed at the national level by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Study after study has shown that the single most important in-school factor influencing student achievement is the quality of the teacher. But figuring out new ways to train and evaluate teachers remains one of the most contentious issues in education today.

In California, nearly 40 percent of teachers are over 50, and the number of new credentials awarded to new teachers each year is shrinking. The state is near the bottom for student performance nationally, and the teaching profession is facing numerous challenges, according to a recent survey by the California Department of Education.

Teacher education in the Golden State is “uneven in duration and quality,” the report found, while “mentoring for beginners is decreasing.” The authors note that evaluation is “frequently spotty” and teacher salaries are often below market value.

The youngest and least-prepared teachers tend to be clustered in the highest-need areas, they found. But critics charge that alternative certification programs are partly to blame for this disparity. A lack of supervised teaching and minimum academic coursework in many programs lead to underprepared teachers who don’t stay in the profession, they say.

Richard Sterling, director of the teacher preparation programs in U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, says many of the most strident critics come from the ranks of traditional teacher education programs like his. Sterling worries that alternatively certified teachers don’t get enough of an intellectual grounding in the profession, but says each program should be judged on its own merits.

“My attitude is, ‘Let’s just take a look and not dismiss alternative programs out of hand,’ ” Sterling says.

The residency models, for example, offer more supervised teaching than many traditional programs and more academic content than many alternative programs. This makes for an intense schedule for residents. Aspire residents often work 10-hour days and some weekends to fulfill their teaching duties and complete their coursework. It’s hoped that the exacting residency year will provide a solid foundation in classroom management, lesson planning and grading, ultimately yielding first-year teachers who are well prepared.

Aspire hasn’t entirely eschewed traditional teacher education. The network partners with the University of the Pacific to provide residents with master’s-level courses. The focus of the program, though, is on what happens in the classroom.

A recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) found the length of time spent in the classroom and the quality of mentoring are key elements in strong teacher preparation programs. However, few of the 134 programs studied had those elements. For example, 43 percent of programs had no criteria for choosing mentor teachers other than that they have some teaching experience.

“Student-teacher programs tend to be luck of the draw,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the NCTQ. “They tend to be based on who volunteers, not on any evidence of effectiveness.”

Not so at Aspire, where mentors are carefully selected and trained. Take Youngman, one of several mentor-teachers at ERES Academy. She was tapped as a mentor because of strong student performance data and positive peer reviews of her teaching based on classroom observations, along with her principal’s recommendation.

Youngman receives additional training, a formal title change and a $3,000 stipend as part of her agreement to mentor a resident teacher. This is her second year as a mentor.

Shapiro said he finds her insights invaluable.

“There’s a reason why she’s a mentor,” Shapiro said. “She’s able to see a hundred things at once and not seem like she’s doing anything.”

Heather Kirkpatrick, Aspire’s vice president of education, hopes that using strong teachers to train newcomers will result in everyone staying in the classroom longer.

“I’m looking for ‘lifers,’ I really am,” Kirkpatrick said. Her goal is to keep the expert teachers interested and engaged at a time when about half of all U.S. teachers leave the profession in their first five years. Up to 10 percent of those leave in the first year, according to a 2011 study of beginning teachers by the U.S. Department of Education.

The study, which followed nearly 2,000 new teachers starting in 2007, found that well-chosen mentors can have a real effect on improving teacher retention. Among public-school teachers with an assigned mentor, 92 percent were still teaching the following year. Of those not assigned a mentor, only 84 percent were still teaching in their second year, the study found.

Once they’re through those critical first years, positions such as mentor teacher, lead teacher and model teacher offer alternative paths to promotion besides the traditional move into administration.

At ERES Academy, Shapiro combs through Youngman’s notes on his lesson. The notes read like a script, with Shapiro’s statements in one column and the students’ statements and actions in a second column.

Shapiro highlighted something he’d said at the beginning of the lesson: “Thank you, Cristian, for showing me you are ready.”

Offering positive reinforcement for good behaviors was something he’d been working on this week. Youngman agreed he’d gotten better at it.

In the second column, Shapiro had underlined a statement by a student that made him think he’d bumbled a teachable moment. He’d called on a girl who didn’t know the answer to his question.

He had several questions for Youngman: How long should he wait for a hesitant student to answer? Should he just supply the answer himself? Should he ask another student? Or was it better to push the first student to come up with something?

Youngman advised him to write down answers he needed students to know in advance of a lesson. If he didn’t get those answers, he’d know he’d found a hole in his teaching. He could then remedy it in a follow-up lesson.

That kind of detailed feedback is what Youngman said she wishes she’d received in her first year as a Teach For America teacher in San Jose, Calif. Instead, she said she felt mostly on her own, a common complaint of new teachers no matter how they are trained.

It’s too soon to have enough data to make a call about Aspire’s success, but Kirkpatrick said 18 of the first 20 residents completed their first full year of teaching. One Aspire principal, she said, called a current resident-cum-teacher “more like a third- or fourth-year teacher than a first-year teacher.”

Kirkpatrick said the goal is to prove that such anecdotes can be replicable—and to back up that claim with student performance data.

If the Aspire model does succeed at better training a new crop of teachers, it will be a notable win. A recent study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and Mathematica, a nonpartisan research group, identified Aspire as one of the nation’s high-performing charter networks. And the Aspire Public Schools ranked first in California among large districts with two-thirds or more low-income students, based on 2010-11 standardized test results, with 100 percent of graduating seniors accepted to four-year colleges or universities.

For now, the residency program at Aspire is funded by grants from foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Disclosure: the Gates Foundation is among the many supporters of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) Most public districts don’t have access to such funds, but Kirkpatrick thinks they might not need extra money to create their own residency programs. Aspire operates almost entirely within the constraints of public funding, and the long-term plan is to fund the mentoring program by shifting funds currently earmarked for teacher recruitment and support.

“We are not doing rocket science,” Kirkpatrick said. “There’s not one thing [other schools] couldn’t do.”

This story also appeared on NBCNews.com on October 23, 2012.

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