Teaching teachers

‘Personalized learning’ comes to teacher training, bringing big ambitions and big questions

PHOTO: Woodrow Wilson Academy
Alex Trunnell collaborates with two other teaching "design fellows" at the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning.

Imagine you’re a new teacher. You overhear two students disparaging Black Lives Matter protests, and know that other students heard it, too. You’re worried the comments will damage your classroom culture.

“What are you going to do in the exact moment? What do you do in the next month to make sure your classroom is a safe environment?”

Asking those questions is Rupal Jain of the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, a soon-to-launch graduate school of education with a new approach to teaching teachers. The Academy’s goal is not just to challenge them with scenarios like that one, but to ensure they master them, with prospective teachers moving at their own pace and graduating when they demonstrate more than 40 specific skills.

The future of education will “move away from focusing on what you’re being taught to what you’ve actually learned,” said Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College and the head of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the organization behind the Academy. “We thought, let’s create an institution that does it and can model it.”

The Academy, which will focus on preparing math and science teachers, is taking shape in partnership with MIT and with the support of major education funders. It recently netted a $3 million donation from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the organization tasked with doling out the Facebook founder’s billions.

It amounts to a combination of two major efforts in American education: long-running attempts to improve teacher training to soften the on-the-job learning curve, and the newer effort to “personalize” education using technology and other means.

It’s unclear if it will work: “Competency-based” teacher education has a thin track record, and though research has been done on the teaching fellowships the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has run for the last decade, the foundation has not released it. But the Academy has the funding, prestige, and handle on the zeitgeist to suggest that its approach will influence teacher education in the years ahead.

What is the Academy?

Walk into the Academy headquarters today — an office in a nondescript building on MIT’s campus in Cambridge — and you’ll see evidence of furious brainstorming: Post-its, scribbled notes on whiteboards, a big concept map that staff members call their compass.

That work is a result of a partnership announced in 2015 between the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and MIT, which has attached an elite name to the endeavor and whose researchers are helping construct the curriculum.

The next two years were spent fundraising and sketching out how the program might work. Woodrow Wilson has raised $22 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Bezos Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation of New York, among several other funders, and plans to raise $10 million more. (Chalkbeat is also supported by Gates and Carnegie.)

This year, 10 “design fellows,” mostly recent college graduates, are helping develop the program by serving as enthusiastic guinea pigs and idea generators.

The idea of building something new appealed to Alex Trunnell, who recently graduated from Vassar with a degree in physics and astronomy. Recently, she spent time trying to design ways to prepare teachers to ensure a classroom runs smoothly.

“How do you avoid any kind of hardship that isn’t grappling with the content?” she asked. “We realized that there is no right way to do those things. We can’t teach you the one right way to set up your classroom because it doesn’t exist.”

Instead, the Academy is creating a sort of teaching “gym” for aspiring teachers to practice, with activities and 3D software for designing a classroom space, for example.

The design fellows also visit schools once a week and work directly with students during after-school programs. And they’re using a simulation program known as “Mursion” for practicing classroom scenarios.

The inaugural class of of around 25 teacher candidates will start this fall. The Academy plans to ramp up to admit 50, then 75, and then 100 students by the 2021-22 school year.

But its goal is much larger in scope than producing new teachers. It’s to serve as a proving ground for a novel way of teaching teachers.

PHOTO: Woodrow Wilson Academy
Alex Trunnell, a teaching “design fellow” at the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning.

The model’s challenges

To work, the Academy will need to successfully assess the skills it expects prospective teachers to master. That’s a tall order, particularly before teachers actually have their own classrooms.

Staff at the Academy say they plan to measure those skills repeatedly and in a number of ways, including written exams, virtual simulations of classrooms, and real-life student teaching situations. Still, certain context-specific skills, like being able to develop strong relationships with students, will always be challenging to gauge.

“We don’t have assessments yet that really assess the quality of those kinds of practices,” said Pam Grossman, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania school of education and a member of the Academy’s advisory board.

Another hurdle may be the funding model. Rather than charging based on the number of courses taken, the Academy plans to charge a set fee of $25,000 per student (with discounts based on student need) no matter how long it takes for someone to complete the program. The Academy will have to sell prospective students on that uncertainty — and keep students on track for its own financial sustainability.

“Every time I talk to my parents about this program it really freaks them out. It’s a hard thing to get your mind around, this idea that I don’t know when I’ll finish up,” said Trunnell. (She and the other design fellows will be able to enroll for free once the program launches later this year.) “For me, it’s actually really nice, because it’s this idea that I’m going to be done when I’m prepared and ready to be a good teacher.”

No research on Woodrow Wilson’s other teaching program

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation has been involved in teacher preparation for years, but its track record is unclear.

Its teaching fellowship, which launched in 2007, has partnered with universities in a number of states to train math and science teachers. Like the Academy, the fellowship aspired to “transform teacher education while preparing future leaders in the teaching profession,” according to its website.

We don’t know how well that effort worked, though. Despite contracting with the American Institutes for Research to study its fellowship, Woodrow Wilson has not released any external research about its fellowship programs.

A person with direct knowledge of a draft of a study of the fellowship in Michigan said it found that, on average, the Woodrow Wilson “fellows’ performance is about equal with the performance of comparable non-fellow teachers.”

The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the findings are subject to a confidentiality agreement. (A spokesperson for Woodrow Wilson confirmed the existence of a nondisclosure agreement with AIR.)

Levine said he’s waiting for longer-term results from multiple states, and promised to release the research at some point in the future. Levine says that the Academy will also open itself up to careful study.

“What we’re waiting for is to bring this to a completion,” he said of the fellowship research. “I want real results before I start boasting or criticizing ourselves for them.” (The Foundation has, in two reports, though, claimed some success based on that research without releasing the full studies.)

The lack of publicly available information about the foundation’s long-running programs raises questions about the organization’s commitment to transparency.

Grossman, the University of Pennsylvania dean, said that, more broadly, it’s crucial to have careful studies on what is and isn’t working as teacher training programs try new things.

“We really need to be generating the research that adds to the knowledge base about what’s effective in teacher education,” she said. “And that means making the results of these studies public.”

If you build it, will others adopt it?

Let’s imagine that everything goes right with the Academy: it designs and executes its program well, it recruits full classes of new students each year, and it releases rigorous research showing that its graduates are successful in the classroom.

In that case, it will still be preparing just a hundred or so new teachers each year — even as public schools look to hire roughly 250,000 teachers annually and employ more than three million total teachers. To realize its goal, the Academy needs to be able to diffuse its approach widely.

Levine says that’s what they’re planning to do. “Everything we create is going to be open source,” he said. “The goal here is for this not be thought of as a competitor with traditional teacher ed providers — our goal is for this to be thought of as a resource center.”

That means some of Woodrow Wilson’s success will depend on whether the rest of the teacher prep world is interested in the Academy’s work and whether larger schools of education can put its simulations, games, and curriculum materials into use.

Ken Zeichner, a professor at the University of Washington who has been critical of some of the new teacher prep programs like Relay, said a lack of resources and expertise to implement a new approach had been the downfall of competency-based teacher education in the 1970s.

“These innovations are created, and you have all these universities that have not had the capacity to be able to implement the innovations that are being created,” he said.

There’s also the question of whether Levine — who has criticized existing teacher education programs for some time — is the right ambassador.

Levine says he’s not worried. “I may have been a critic, but I’m a critic who basically loves them,” he said. “There’s no example of us walking into an ed school and people saying, ‘Oh my God, you’re that monster!’”

Grossman says the Academy is more likely to be successful if it does not position itself as having all the answers. “Not, ‘We’re going to develop this and you can all learn from us,’ but ‘We’re in this together. We’re all trying to do some things to improve the quality of teacher education,’” she said.

certification showdown

Judge strikes down rule allowing some New York charter schools to certify their own teachers

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy hosts its annual "Slam the Exam" rally at the Barclays Center.

In a blow to charter schools in New York, a rule that would have allowed certain schools to certify their own teachers was blocked in court Tuesday.

The judge’s ruling upends the plans of the city’s largest charter school network, Success Academy, and wipes out a legislative victory that New York’s charter sector thought it had won — though the decision will likely not be the end of the legal battle.

The regulations, approved by the State University of New York in October 2017, were designed to give charter schools more discretion over how they hired teachers. They eliminated the requirement that teachers earn master’s degrees and allowed charter schools authorized by SUNY to certify their teachers with as little as a month of classroom instruction and 40 hours of practice teaching.

Some charter networks argued their existing in-house training programs are more useful to new teachers than the training required for certification under state law.

But the rule was quickly challenged by the State Education Department and the state teachers union, which filed separate lawsuits that were joined in April. They argued that SUNY overstepped its authority and charged that the rule change would lead to children being taught by inexperienced and unqualified teachers.

The ruling was issued Tuesday by State Supreme Court Judge Debra J. Young, who wrote that the new certification programs were illegal because they fell below the minimum requirements issued by the state.

Charter networks “are free to require more of the teachers they hire but they must meet the minimum standards set” by the state, the judge wrote in her order. Young also concluded that laws requiring public comment were not followed.

“Today’s decision is a victory in our fight to ensure excellence in education at all schools,” state teachers union president Andy Pallotta said in a statement.

The Success Academy network and the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning had their plans for homegrown teacher certification programs approved in May, according to SUNY officials.

Success Academy spokeswoman Anne Michaud said the network is disappointed with the judge’s decision.

“As the top-performing public school system in the state, we are working to meet the demand for excellent schools that families in New York City are so desperate for, and we will continue to fight for what we know is our legal right: to train world class teachers and fill the teacher shortage that hampers so many disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Michaud said in a statement.

The certification policy grew out of the 2016 budget deal, when state lawmakers gave SUNY the authority to regulate the “governance, structure and operations of charter schools.”

The state’s top education officials — Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa — have long seemed offended by the new regulations. On a panel last year, Elia said, “I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that.”

In a joint statement on Tuesday, Elia and Rosa praised the court’s decision as a “victory for all New York’s children.”

“In its strong opinion, the court rightly upheld the Board of the Regents and the Commissioner’s authority to certify teachers in New York State,” the statement reads.

On Tuesday, SUNY officials said they planned to appeal and believed that the judge’s ruling also offered a roadmap for creating new certification rules as long as they met those minimum standards.

“We are reviewing today’s decision. While we are disappointed that it did not uphold the regulation as written, it acknowledged the ability of the Charter School Institute to issue regulations,” said  SUNY spokeswoman Holly Liapis in a statement. “We will further evaluate our next steps.”

This post has been updated to include a statement from SUNY and from Success Academy.

guide to the battle

With days left in this year’s session, what will happen with teacher evaluations?

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

As the clock ticks on this year’s legislative session, the fate of New York’s teacher evaluations hangs in the balance.

The teachers union has been waging a spirited battle to decouple state standardized test scores from teacher evaluations this year, which would mark the culmination of years of fighting against a system they say unfairly stigmatizes teachers. The legislation has already cleared the Democratic Assembly, but it remains at an impasse in the Republican-led Senate, which wants to tie the changes to benefits for charter schools.

As end-of-session haggling gets into full swing, it’s unclear whether the union will be able to secure a bill with “no strings attached.” Alternatively, lawmakers may agree to help charter schools in exchange for the bill’s passage, or they could be unable to settle their differences and shelve the measure until next year.

Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming battle:

Why are we talking about teacher evaluations again?

New Yorkers have spent years (and years) fighting about teacher evaluations.

In 2010, New York adopted a new teacher evaluation system that included state standardized test scores. Supporters of the policy argue it is the best way to objectively measure whether teachers are helping students learn. Opponents, including teachers unions, argue test scores lead to unreliable evaluations and often mean teachers are being rated based on subjects they don’t teach.

The debate took another turn in 2015 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a new teacher evaluation system in which as much as half of an educator’s evaluation could be based on test scores. That law technically remains on the books today, but in response to fervent pushback from parents and the union, the state’s education policymaking body paused the use of grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations.

Lawmakers, policymakers, and the union jumped back into the charged conversation this year in part because the temporary pause on the use of certain test scores in the evaluations is set to expire in 2019.

What exactly does the union want this year?

The union-backed bill would forbid any requirement that districts use state standardized test scores in teacher evaluations. Instead, local districts would collectively bargain the assessments used to rate teachers.

Paradoxically, this major political shift will likely make little difference in the lives of New York City teachers. That’s because for the last several years the city has already been using a system of local tests to rate educators.

New York City created a slate of assessments called “Measures of Student Learning,” which test students on everything from English to art. Michael Mulgrew, the city teachers union president, said he is happy with the current system and has already vowed, “Nothing will change for New York City teachers.”

Critics, however, point out that very few teachers are given poor ratings under this system. In New York City last year, 97 percent of teachers were given one of the top two ratings of “highly effective” or “effective,” according to Mulgrew.

What are the chances that this bill passes?

There’s a good chance some teacher evaluation legislation will pass before the end of the session but if history is any indication, it will cost something.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has already staked out his position: He is willing to go even farther than the Assembly, scrapping the 2015 law all-together and leaving virtually every major decision about teacher ratings up to local collective bargaining. But in order to do that, he wants to dramatically expand the number of charter schools that can open in New York City and across the state. (The Senate introduced a second bill that the union also criticized for being friendly to charter schools.)

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has already called the bill “cyanide,” cuing the l back-and-forth that typically proceeds a larger deal each year in Albany. Last year, for instance, shortly after the mayor won a two-year extension of mayoral control, he made it easier for charter schools to expand and pay for space. The year before, mayoral control was attached to a provision that made it easier for charter schools to switch between authorizers.

Though Senate Republicans are typically able to secure at least a small victory, it’s unclear how much they can demand in an election year when their control of the chamber is in jeopardy. That is particularly a problem in Long Island, home to some of the most fierce resistance to standardized testing that will also be an electoral battleground this fall.

What might a compromise look like?

Anything is possible in Albany, but something charter school-related is a good bet.

Advocates have expressed concern that they will soon hit the cap on how many charter schools can open in New York City. Historically, they have also pushed to make it easier for charter schools to pay for school space and to allow charter schools to certify their own teachers.

Charter school advocates might also find it a particularly prime year to push for changes. With a major lobbying group out of the picture and the potential for Flanagan  who has been a charter school ally  to lose his majority next year, this could be the sector’s best shot to press for changes.

Also, Flanagan and others have expressed concerns that the legislation will create more testing, since it allows all local districts to create their own tests in addition to the state tests. The final deal could address this concern.