NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review

By Freeda Pirillis

In December of 2010, six VIVA Teachers excitedly walked into the U.S. Department of Education for the first time. Report in hand, each was prepared to discuss a list of recommendations for improving the nation’s educational landscape and, ultimately, how both pre-service and novice teachers could be best supported in today’s classrooms. I remember nervously walking into a boardroom, sitting near the head of the table, and watching Secretary Arne Duncan approach. In the VIVA report, Voices from the Classroom, I had written most heavily on teacher preparation and how university coursework in the U.S. was not adequately, nor uniformly, preparing teachers to meet the challenges of students with special needs, those who were homeless, or children with English as a second language. Three years ago, Secretary Duncan listened to our recommendations, read our report, and discussed how these issues were being addressed in the world. It was unclear to us what might come of our work, but we walked out of the room inspired by the meeting.

Fast forward three years and the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) releases a report confirming what we as VIVA Teachers felt, along with hundreds of teachers I’ve spoken to in my last 13 years of teaching: Our nation’s teacher preparation programs are NOT adequately preparing pre-service teachers. The review rated altogether 1,130 institutions in the United States that prepare 99 percent of traditionally trained new teachers. Not only does the review show that it is far too easy to gain admittance into a teacher preparation program, but that only 7 percent of the institutions provide their pre-service teachers with strong experiences in a classroom led by an effective teacher. Additionally, only 10 percent of U.S. teacher preparation programs received three stars or more – a total of four schools).

NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review illuminates the issue our nation continues to have with elevating standards for students, with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, while placing teachers at the forefront of accountability for meeting those standards. And yet, our university teacher preparation programs continue to churn out mediocre teachers who struggle to manage classrooms, who have to actively seek out their own professional development to improve their classroom practice, or flee the profession due to teacher burn out. NCTQ’s review sought to create transparency in our nation’s efforts to create a teaching task force that truly prepares students for the global community they will work in, yet it was met with “enormous resistance” from the leaders of university programs. What is there to hide? One only needs to speak with a classroom teacher to assess the quality of a teacher preparation program in any state in the U.S.

The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system should take a closer look at this report as it continues to lay off experienced teachers by the thousands. The NCTQ review reported the average number of years experience for teachers is one year, and their students lose “far too much ground” compared to those who are taught by experienced teachers. In light of its laying off of another 3,000 teachers several weeks ago, CPS is recruiting inexperienced teachers through the Teach for America program, which places teachers in urban, under-served communities after just five weeks of teacher training. This recent move in Chicago clearly depicts what the NCTQ review found: accountability of teacher preparation needs to be met by both university programming and school systems that reinforce the firing of veteran teachers for those new teachers who are cheaper to fund.

Freeda Pirillis, a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches first grade in Chicago. She participated in the VIVA National Idea Exchange.

Giftedness in our Classrooms: Remove the Ceiling and Give Them Room to Grow

By Sara Arnold

Kids are insightful; if you give them busy work, they immediately recognize it for what it is.  But if you engage them in authentic, real-life problem solving at high levels of challenge, they know you value and respect them.  Barbara Blackburn

I am a Talented and Gifted (TAG) Resource specialist for an urban school in Iowa.  I serve students in grades two to five with a pullout model, as well as being a gifted curriculum resource for classroom teachers.  Gifted students are gifted all day, every day.  It is our obligation to serve their academic needs consistently.

Although most gifted students can master the Common Core State Standards rapidly, many of them are falling behind.  Here are two stories of gifted students who are struggling with being gifted in their current educational setting. As educators, our job is to enhance and facilitate their educational possibilities, not limit their academic growth,

Dorothy,* a third grade student in an urban school, is academically gifted based on the results of normed-referenced assessments. She has already mastered the majority of the material covered in her classroom.  She understands multiplication and division, while fellow classmates are still working on addition and subtraction.  Negative behaviors increase.  She makes fun of other students because of their academic inabilities and tends to bully her peers.  One day while working with her, the topic of fractions came up.  She knew how to add fractions with common denominators, but when I asked her if she knew how to multiply fractions, her response was, “Oh, that’s too hard.”  Within ten minutes of instruction, she was able to multiply and divide fractions with common and uncommon denominators.  Later in the hallway, she thanked me for the instruction.  I had just quenched her thirst for academic knowledge.  
The question is how long had she been dehydrated?

Courtney* is a 5th grade academically gifted student in an urban school.  School has always been easy for her and she hasn’t had to work hard to get good grades.  As a result, she doesn’t challenge herself to learn new content.   When given the opportunity to do an independent study project, she puts forth limited effort. Because she has not been challenged in the classroom, it has led to academic underachievement.  How can we change this learned behavior?  Who is responsible for these behaviors: the student or the instructor?

Both of these stories are occurring not only in the schools I serve, but in schools all over the country.  It is our obligation to provide gifted students with appropriate academic content based on their ability level.  Gifted students need to be challenged and stimulated by an advanced and enriched curriculum that is above their current level of functioning in each area of learning (VanTassel-Baska, 2003). Many gifted students will not make academic progress during any given year unless interventions occur. (Winebrenner and Brulles, 2008)

There are many things that we can do as educators to help our gifted students feel successful in our classrooms.  Here are four ways to promote learning for all students in your classroom.

Differentiation is one way educators can provide academically appropriate content to their gifted students within their classroom. It means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs.  Teachers can differentiate content, process, or products.  It is imperative that teachers pre-assess students; this allows educators to determine the current knowledge of each student.  With the pre-assessment, teachers can then adapt their instruction based on the needs of the child.

Curriculum compacting can provide content to students over a shorter period of time.  Many gifted students can master the content only after a few exposures. Providing gifted students with a condensed version of the curriculum will expose them to the content and allow them to academically advance at an appropriate speed for their ability level.

Content acceleration is another way for gifted students to receive academically appropriate content.  Some students are academically gifted in a specific content area: math, reading, science, etc.  Teachers can give students an end of the year assessment.   If they have mastered the majority of the content, it is appropriate to provide content acceleration for the student.  For example, if a third grade student has mastered the third grade math standards, the child could go to fourth grade for their math instruction.  It is important to have a plan for future years.  Schedules and school location (elementary/middle school) can limit the feasibility of content acceleration, but this can be a successful alternative for gifted students if a well-developed plan is in place.

Grade level acceleration is a fourth possibility, if the child is gifted in multiple content areas.  Using the Iowa acceleration scale is an effective guide for teachers and parents to decide if acceleration is appropriate for the child.  In a recent interview, Joyce Van Tassel Baska stressed there is no research to prove that grade acceleration is harmful to student development.   Family and school support needs to be in place in order to provide a successful acceleration experience for the child.

Before I received my TAG endorsement, I had many misconceptions about gifted students and made mistakes as a teacher.  For example, I now know that pairing a gifted child with a low-ability student is a poor use of student time.  Some gifted students are unable to explain what their brain does automatically.  As a result, gifted students need to be paired with similar ability students.  Another important lesson I learned was that my biggest behavior challenges were high ability students who were bored. I was failing to challenge them in my classroom; I was getting in their way.

All of our students deserve to feel academic success in the classroom. If we meet the educational needs of our gifted students, we can remove their limitations and help them recognize their true potential.

* The students’ names have been changed.

Sara Arnold teaches elementary gifted and talented students in Iowa’s Cedar Rapids Public Schools. She participated in the VIVA ISEA Teachers Idea Exchange.

Implementing the Common Core State Standards: Too Little, Too Soon

By Freeda Pirillis

As a nation, we have made a shift from varying state standards to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a national benchmark for all students. These standards have aimed to level the playing field for students across the U.S., regardless of school district, socio-economic status, or demographic background, and to equip students with the skills to be college and career ready. Unlike the state standards of the past, which often resembled a random set of skills students would learn at each grade level, the CCSS expect that students develop a deeper conceptual understanding of subject matter, with more discussion and collaboration among students, and less paper-pencil tasks that require students’ memorization. Parents and teachers agree moving towards a common set of goals for students and eliminating the disparity between state standards is a step in the right direction.

As of the fall of 2012, 46 states had adopted the CCSS. Parents of school-age children in those states can now be confident that regardless of what district, school, or teacher is educating their child, the CCSS have determined the same learning criteria for all students, and therefore, teachers are fully prepared to teach to these standards. That is the assumption, anyway.

The reality is teachers may not understand the instructional shifts required to teach to the CCSS, have had little chance to read or digest the standards, and are in school districts that are providing little in the way of curriculum, materials, resources, or professional development to successfully implement the CCSS. Yet, teachers are being asked to design daily instruction around the CCSS and, further, are being evaluated by the progress their students make towards them. No one would ever allow their surgeon to operate if he or she had not had rigorous training to safely and successfully perform a procedure, and certainly wouldn’t trust a physician who was equipped with only a handful of tools to treat them. However, teachers are often expected to perform miracles with far less than basic classroom materials. As a nation, the disparity continues to exist between those who have and those who have not. Surprisingly, the have nots continue to be students and teachers.

As a Chicago Public School teacher, I received my copy of the CCSS last school year and was told to read them. That was the beginning and end of the support I received from my school district to understand or use the standards. Teachers across the district have been given weekly deadlines by their principals and network administrators to submit instructional units in every curricular area aligned to the CCSS. Many of them have been left scrambling to read, digest, analyze, review, and develop curriculum all in one to two week cycles. I, on the other hand, was hired by my teacher’s union to participate in writing collaborative to develop one instructional interdisciplinary unit that will exemplify the CCSS. This five-week unit will be piloted in CPS schools next fall, and placed in several national databases to assist teachers in understanding the instructional shifts of the CCSS.

My team of five National Board Certified teachers spent one year writing the unit and this entire year on revisions. We have been given the opportunity to delve deeper into the standards, study the progressions, craft and structure  the ELA standards, and engage in numerous discussions on the intent of standards. The difference between my experience of working with the standards over the course of two years and that of the other 26,000 CPS teachers is polarizing. Parents of students in CPS can be assured that depending on what school their child attends and in which network their school lies, teachers are being bullied into churning out units that do not represent the true vision of the CCSS and teaching has not shifted to prepare students better for the college and career readiness standards.

CPS has provided little in the way of support, but continues to hold teachers and students accountable to meeting the CCSS. One small effort was a conference last summer that was a joint venture between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union. Collaborate Chicago, hosted by Teach Plus, brought together 1,600 CPS teachers to learn more about the CCSS though teacher-led presentations. I was fortunate to present at the conference, and hoped CPS would continue to fund large professional development opportunities for teachers. Although this April’s Collaborate Chicago 2.0, which accommodated another 300 teachers, was another step in the right direction, it continues to feel like it’s not enough. There is so little support being given to teachers who want to ensure their students meet the new college and career standards, they are truly unsure how their teaching needs to change in order to get them there.

Freeda Pirillis teaches 1st Grade for Chicago Public Schools. She was a member of the team that wrote the first VIVA report, Voices from the Classroom.

Teacher prep: Let’s get clinical

by James Kobialka

Teaching is not a profession which can be taught through lectures and reports. Just  as doctors must be trained in hospitals, in practices, so must teachers be trained in classrooms in what is called the clinical model of teacher preparation.

I remember student teachers coming into my high school class. They would sit at the back of the class, scribbling in notebooks. After two weeks of this, they’d teach one lesson and disappear, presumably off to present a signed form and get a degree.

I finished my own teaching degree in May of 2011. I spent well over 300 hours teaching. I designed lessons, units, and curricula. I watched others teach. I videotaped classes; I wrote reflections; I received critiques; I did research; I earned my degree with ink and tears, as did the rest of my cohort.

I feel privileged to have been taught by great teachers. Every step of the way I was supported and challenged.

Not everyone made it. Some quit. They couldn’t hack the long hours and the stress of teaching. While I feel for them, I also am thankful. Their leaving did not hurt students – if they had burned out in their first year of teaching, it would be a different story.

Those of us who graduated did so knowing who we were – not as people, but as educators. We had a feel for our classroom persona, our strengths and weaknesses, our goals.

A lot of eyes are turning towards teacher preparation right now. 25 state school chiefs recently agreed to “take action” towards renovating their states’ teacher licensure and preparation programs.

Their recent report identified “Licensure” as a main area to change. I hope they will focus on the clinical model of teacher preparation that mimics how doctors are trained.

The state chiefs aren’t the only people asking these questions. How do we train good teachers? How do we know whether a first-year teacher will have a high- or low- performing classroom? How do we train what TNTP called the “irreplaceables”?

Here are your answers:

Stop hiring people who worked in industry for fifteen years and think that qualifies them to teach high schoolers.

Stop hiring subs who have been in the system for ten years but never designed their own lesson.

Stop hiring people who majored in Education but have never stood in front of a class.

Call up Clark University, my alma mater. Call up the Urban Teacher Residency United. Call up any of a long list of schools. . Ask them which of their recent graduates need a job – because many of us still do.

Start hiring people with classroom experience. Start hiring people with portfolios, with lessons, who can show you videos and student work samples. Hire people who know their weaknesses as educators and are willing to improve them.

Learn from the programs that work. Stop sending low-performing teachers to endless Professional Development lectures; set them up with a mentor instead. Have them reflect, read, write, and think – just like we want our youth to.

I wouldn’t trust a doctor who has never been in a hospital. I would never trust a pilot who hasn’t flown.

So why do we think we can trust teachers who’ve never been in front of a class?

James Kobialka teaches Science and English in Worcester, MA

Education Reform: Teachers Have Always Been at the Forefront

By Mary Cathryn Ricker

I was intrigued by Jay Mathews’ Washington Post column that proclaims “Teachers leaning in favor of reforms.” I do appreciate that he points out he has never once written about unions hindering reform, even if he back-hands the compliment withthat is not the same as saying the unions have worked hard to make all teachers more successful in the classroom.”

That is where I part very good company with him.

I appreciate the parsing of teacher’s feelings toward current education hot topics in the research he sites by Teach Plus and Education Sector. As the current president of my teacher’s union in St. Paul, Minnesota it is helpful to learn what teachers are saying and thinking both, individually and locally, and in the aggregate.

However, I have a fairly unique view, as a teacher serving as a local union president and a third generation teacher in my family, which leads me to a couple questions and a couple points I would like to make about teachers “leaning in favor of reforms.”

Supporting Education Reform

Because this research is a snapshot in time, it is impossible to say whether these attitudes captured by Teach Plus and Education Sector are new or not. In my family and in the historic local teacher’s union I have the privilege of serving, these attitudes are not new.

Someday we will have longitudinal research that either proves this group of newer teachers is somehow unique, or it will prove what I have experienced anecdotally: that teachers, and our unions, have always had a bias for improving teaching and learning conditions. Indeed, it was because I saw up close these examples of acting within a union to improve teaching and learning that I ran for president of my union, rather than get an administrative credential or take some other job, when I felt ready to lead with new ideas of mine and my colleagues’.

My Dad, Union President and Reformer

I saw my dad, and his generation, fight for adequate preparation time so I could build on that by advocating for increased professional learning time. His generation built salary schedules that honored years of expertise and graduate specialties so that we could come along and create leadership opportunities that don’t force a teacher to choose between leading or teaching.

The work done by teachers in their unions before me to recognize National Board Certification paved the way for others to design other differentiated pay structures. We can entertain a serious discussion about the AFT’s bar exam idea precisely because of the professional ideas to improve teaching and learning brought to the table year after year by many leaders who have come before us raising the bar for teacher standards over time from high school diploma to some college to a full credential. There wouldn’t be this notion of rethinking tenure, or due process, if there hadn’t been progress from capricious, political, sexist at-will status to fair due process in the first place.

Examples of Union-Supported Reforms

In the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers we have been doing things like:

  • Designing our own alternative licensure program to diversify our profession and fill hard-to-staff license areas
  • Expanding the professional development opportunities we started offering more than 25 years ago
  • Expanding our parent/teacher home visit project
  • Negotiating contract language to strengthen our peer assistance and review program and evaluation
  • Offering alternatives to seniority to protect the integrity of programs we offer our students.

We’re doing all of that with our ultimate goal of making our contract the most powerful document our district has to attract, support and retain a high-quality, diverse workforce that knows how to meet the needs of our students and families.

None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the teacher union leadership that came before us. None of it.

I appreciate the acknowledgement that Jay Mathews was trying to offer, but I caution him about painting the last 150+ years of St. Paul teachers (and others) as stagnant, versus a recently discovered fountain of youthful teachers suddenly leaning toward reform. The teaching profession has been evolving since it started. Each generation has added something, built on the work of the generation before.

Teachers have always leaned toward reform except, of course, for those times when we’ve been leading it.

NBC Teacher Town Hall, a Meeting of Convergent Volume

 by Wade Sutton

“…And thus the Native hue of Resolution

Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought

And enterprises of great pitch and moment,

With this regard their Currents turn awry,

And lose the name of Action.”

– Hamlet (Act III, Scene 1)

You would expect a national Teacher Town Hall to ask for change and action. You would think it would encourage divergent thinking. You would be wrong.

If MSNBC’s Education Nation had been honed to actually get 300 teachers to talk substance and seek resolution, here is the script I would have handed to Brian Williams:

Is it the place of the public school system to provide “wraparound services” that include medical care and breakfast? How does this really serve parents? Does it take away from the mission of schools? Are we creating dependence by filling these voids? Discuss.

Will structuring our teaching to a Common Core drive us further into a box and force us to teach to a test? What are other options that keep power at the state level? Discuss.

Why are universities failing to train educators fully? What needs to change? Should teachers only graduate and be licensed after at least three years’ experience in the classroom? Discuss.

Only master teachers with at least 10 years classroom experience should be allowed to begin an administrative degree program. How can we narrow the field to only accept the best as our instructional leaders? Discuss.

How does nurturing the culture of antagonism between teachers’ unions and administration harm our school system and our students? How can this vicious cycle be stopped? Discuss.

Why do teachers see unions as the strongest advocates for education instead of parents? Parents are the strongest advocates for their children, why the disconnect? Discuss.

But these questions demand time. These questions require careful thought and want divergent thinking. These questions depend on quiet contemplation and creativity. None of these powerful, progressive skills were in evidence at Education Nation. Instead, volume ruled the day.

The Pale Cast of Thought

Sitting in front of me were four teachers I thought cloned from one another. They exemplified the tone in the room: filled with what Yeats would describe as “passionate intensity,” the loudest and worst of the consensus, sadly more loyal to their union than to the art of education. They yelled and booed and cheered, entitled to be heard. One spoke to the camera and refused to stop. She solved nothing with her volume. The tone from the audience was not to hear and discuss, it was to display a unified direction. And to shout down dissent with “sound and fury signifying nothing” near to a solution. Good educators know that the loudest may not be the most dynamic. Their filibuster flares quickly and dies while we crave the silent solutions and strength that is caste in a slow hot fire.

And Lose the Name of Action?

This is why I walked away inspired to act with a consistent, powerful force in my own community to inspire change at the local level. I hope in the future that the national stage will mature to seek real solutions and next year I look forward to representing rural schools again. It is a game with a tone that limits our national dialogue on education. This must change. Progress cannot remain pressed aside in comfortable silence. Although quiet solutions were diminished and a real exchange was lost in the tempest, I am encouraged. It will be your unnoticed educator, the quiet and steady servant to parents, who will lead to change and actionable ideas.

Wade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minnesota. He has taught in private and in public school and was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report called 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.

VIVA Teacher Leaders Help the DOE Get Engaged

VIVA Teacher Leaders were well-represented at the US Department of Education’s launch of their “Project RESPECT”  initiative. The full article was first published on the DOE website.

Teachers and Principals Get Engaged

About 180 teachers, school principals and education advocates convened at the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters last Friday to make connections and engage in important conversations about how educators will lead the transformation of their profession.

With representatives from their leadership organizations, educators drilled down on a number of topics and made recommendations to the Department and the White House about ED’s next steps in the RESPECT Project.

Glenn Morehouse Olson of the VIVA Project recommended that ED become more involved in raising the bar for what teachers coming into the field should know and be able to do, including adding more writing criteria and setting standards for alternative certification.

Click here to read the full story on the DOE’s website