Future of Teaching

Too few teachers? This Indianapolis school district is growing its own

PHOTO: Dana Altemeyer, Lawrence Township
This year's Lawrence Township alternative license program cohort.

Michael Johnson has worked in schools for almost two decades, but he might finally stand in front of his own classroom next year.

Johnson, 45, is one of 14 prospective teachers in a new program designed to help teachers aides and other non-licensed school staff members earn teaching licenses while they work. The goal is to increase the district’s hiring pool while making it more diverse.

“We’re missing the mark on a lot of homegrown (teachers) that we have right within our own four walls,” said Tim Harshbarger, executive director for human resources in Lawrence Township Schools. “These are folks that know us, know our culture — some have been with us for years.”

The “district-based alternative certification” program was formed out of a partnership between Lawrence Township and the Indiana University School of Education at IUPUI. The 18-month program offers classes in the evening so students can work toward an elementary school teaching license while keeping their district jobs.

For Johnson, who has worked at Harrison Hill Elementary School for the past four years as a liaison between students, families, and teachers, the new program lets him move into a more direct role to help students while also teaching him more about what to look for in his own children’s education.

“I started to realize I can only go so far with what I have,” said Johnson, a father of two. “Doing this not only supports you as an individual to get the certification and get into teaching, but it helps you as a parent.”

For years, Indiana has been struggling to find ways to encourage more people to become teachers and keep experienced teachers in the classroom. The state has launched internet campaigns, created scholarships, and given districts permission to award some teachers in high-demand areas stipends, but districts still report that they struggle to hire — especially teachers of color.

That is a particular concern in urban districts like Lawrence Township and Indianapolis Public Schools, where most students are not white. In 2015-16, the most recent year’s data available, 93 percent of Indiana teachers were white, while 4.3 percent were black and 1.3 percent were Hispanic. The state’s enrollment this year shows two-thirds of students were white, and about 12 percent each were black or Hispanic.

Lawrence is hoping a “grow your own” approach could be a more effective solution for hiring that also allows students to learn from teachers with a better understanding of their backgrounds. Research has shown that students can benefit from learning from teachers who look like them.

Twelve of Lawrence’s 14 teacher program participants are people of color, and most of them are social workers, teaching assistants and behavior specialists who have been working in Lawrence Township for years.

“Traditional programs oftentimes tend to attract white women as students, and the research shows us that these alternate certification programs are more likely to attract students of color who will be teachers of color down the road,” said IUPUI professor Paula Magee.

The 18-month teacher certification program includes seven college classes and a semester of student teaching, and it costs about $14,000, with no financial assistance provided by the district or the university. Participants will finish in December with an elementary school teaching license and could be employed as teachers as early as January, although a job is not guaranteed.

They’ll also be six classes short of completing a master’s degree in education and will have the foundation to add-on other license areas, such as special education or English as a new language.

Because the classes are offered in the evenings, students can keep their district jobs during the day — often a hurdle for career-changers who need a full-time income, but only have the option to go to school during business hours. The classes are also held in Lawrence Township, so students don’t have to travel far.

“We’ve tried to make it really accessible for the students,” Magee said. “It makes that entry back into grad school a little smoother for them.”

Several other states have explored similar teaching programs for years, sometimes with mixed results.

Illinois’ effort to educate and license 1,000 new teachers ran into problems early on when students, who could take out loans provided by the state, were found to be dropping out in high numbers, due to poor academic performance or personal reasons. But programs that take students who already have a college degree, like the one in San Francisco, and those that don’t require the state to make a financial gamble, could be better positioned to succeed.

Magee said IUPUI and Lawrence are working on ways to address how to support its prospective teachers even when they leave the program. So far, only one or two students are not expected to move on to the student teaching portion in the fall, officials said.

Lawrence officials said this project has been in the works for years, and they’re excited by the turnout so far. The district is already making plans for a second cohort next year, and Magee said Wayne Township has also shown interest in starting a similar program.

To be eligible, prospective teachers need a bachelor’s degree and must be a full-time employee in the district in a non-certified role. Johnson said it was initially difficult to get back into school mode, but the support from his district and the university made a huge difference. He likens their support to the kind he frequently gives to his students and their families.

“It’s rewarding,” Johnson said. “We are all just meeting each other where we are, and that’s helping us to meet families where they are. And that’s education.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of remaining classes necessary for teachers to earn a master’s degree.

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.