Big school district superintendents are faced with a bonanza of Title I funds under the recently enacted No Child Left Behind Act. They are trying to decide how to use the additional money to improve student achievement. Investing in quality teachers is one core strategy. While there are no silver bullets, there are promising practices that have never been tried on a scale equal to the task of improving the flow and quality of teachers to urban schools. One such practice would be the introduction of professional development schools. These are restructured and re-staffed schools operated by districts and universities to prepare new teachers to work effectively in urban settings. Were they to become the norm for teacher preparation and staff development in a city, there is evidence to suggest that student achievement will increase, new teachers will be more effective, and those teachers will remain teaching in urban schools longer.
Currently, low-performing urban schools are experiencing the brunt of the teacher shortage. These schools are forced to hire unprepared and inexperienced “teachers,” some of whom are the products of “quickie” alternate certification programs. The results are predictable. Low-performing children remain low-performing. Sixty percent of the teachers are gone within three years. The schools are forced to replace them with new unprepared and inexperienced teachers. With this passing parade of teaching temps the cycle of low performance continues.
Here are ten steps that a school district could take that will likely improve student achievement in urban school districts.
#1: Identify the 10% lowest-performing schools. Beyond the obvious need represented by the children in these schools, there are two other reasons for selecting them. First, these schools are already low quality “sink or swim teacher training institutions.” These are the schools most likely to be assigned the least experienced and least prepared new hires. They also are the schools in greatest need of the most experienced and expert practitioners. This strategy will provide incentives to bring these expert teachers into these schools, along with candidates. Second, if new teachers can be prepared to operate in these most challenging urban schools, they can work in others as well. All teachers new to the district should begin in these schools whether they are graduates of teacher preparation institutions or not.
#2: Transfer all teachers and administrators in the identified schools. The school clientele should remain the same; the adults should change. New leadership and new faculty who share a commitment to a new mission of student achievement, teacher preparation, and staff development are critical for success.
#3: Develop partnerships between schools and universities. The partnership is necessary to join the academic knowledge and resources of the university with the practical expertise, resources and needs of the schools. Both school and university stand to gain from this relationship, which is a departure from more traditional “student teaching arrangements.” Both school district and university must be willing to commit resources, share responsibility, and be held accountable for outcomes. Include regional, state, and private universities as well as city-based universities in the partnership. This can expand the pool of teacher candidates to include those coming from outside the city.
#4: Reconstitute the schools as professional development schools. The PDS is to teacher preparation as the teaching hospital is to physician preparation, i.e., a new institution to provide high quality service to students while preparing new generations of teachers. Children in the PDS have the benefit of expert teachers and university faculty present and focusing on their needs. At the same time these experts are mentoring and supervising candidates who are learning to practice effectively.
#5: Recruit and select the best teachers in the city to be mentor and master teachers and compensate them accordingly. It is essential that senior staff be specially selected and prepared for assignment in a PDS. National Board certification could be considered as one qualification. However, expertise in teaching must be accompanied by skills in mentoring and supervision. This is, and should be viewed as, a prestige assignment for which appropriate compensation is provided.
#6: Require all new teachers to spend their induction year in a PDS and demonstrate that they can teach so that students learn, before they are assigned to other schools in the district. If about 10% of the schools in a district are PDSs, then all teachers new to the district can be accommodated for a year as members of a cohort of interns or induction year teachers.
#7: Create a management and instructional system that ensures that a mentor teacher is responsible for the achievement of every student and that every intern is trained and supervised by qualified mentors. This may mean breaking the 19th century egg crate organization of the school. Team teaching might best meet this need in a cost-effective manner. Cohorts of candidates can be integrated into teaching teams led by mentor and master teachers. The team structure can provide time for mentor teachers to work with candidates and for candidates to have reduced teaching schedules to allow time for professional preparation. Demonstration teaching, large and small group instruction, tutoring, peer tutoring etc. would be employed and demonstrated.
#8: Create a teacher preparation curriculum that ensures that interns acquire the knowledge and skill necessary for effective teaching, learning, and assessment. As in a teaching hospital, the curriculum should be developed by school and university faculty and be built around identifying and meeting the needs of the students in the school. The PDS professional learning model provides opportunities built into the structure of the day for observations, conferences, participation of candidates in school-wide and team meetings, and seminars with mentors focused on student work.
#9: Evaluate each professional development school on a periodic basis to determine that it is operating consistent with standards for children, teachers, and professional development schools.
#10: Determine the funding strategy that makes the most sense for you. There are many options. One possibility is for districts to pay half salary for candidates with the other half covered by Title I funds. In this way candidates do not have to forego a year of salary while they are training. Using Title I funds to supplement the candidates’ salary also frees up district funds to compensate mentors and master teachers. Recently retired, highly qualified teachers might be recruited as mentors or master teachers, compensated appropriately but on a part time basis. District and university can share salaries for PDS coordinators. Mentors or master teachers might have joint appointments in the university, their salary being supported by both institutions.
Depending on various tactical decisions, this approach may cost no more than the current failed system in the short run, and will save money in the long run, by producing a more stable, high quality teaching force. A district that follows these steps would put into place a strategy for staffing its schools with a flow of teachers who can succeed. A reliable and adequate supply of qualified teachers is a critical factor in breaking the cycle of low performance in urban schools and improving student achievement.
See also: PDS Standards Field-Test Project