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.

How I Teach

Why Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year uses penguins to help her first-graders grow as readers, writers, and thinkers

PHOTO: Alan Poizner
Melissa Miller reads aloud to her first-grade class at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin, Tennessee. Now in her 20th year of teaching, Miller is Tennessee's 2018-19 Teacher of the Year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Melissa Miller loves to read, adores teaching first-graders, and has a fascination for penguins.

It’s no surprise, then, that an annual highlight for Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year is teaching a science unit she created to get her first-graders reading and learning about the unique aquatic bird.

“We have so much we can learn about and from penguins,” Miller explains. “They work together, share responsibilities, look out for each other, love each other for life, and persevere in the most challenging situations.”

The unit begins during the wintertime with reading that lets students learn penguin facts and categorize them by color and topic. Then in the spring, they do book reports on penguins — projects that “celebrate how far each child has come as a reader and writer.”

“The unit encompasses everything I believe about teaching and learning,” Miller says. “It puts me in the position as facilitator of learning. My desire is to fuel students’ passion for learning by teaching with passion.”

Now in her 20th year of teaching, Miller works at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin, south of Nashville. Her enthusiasm as a teacher and expertise in curriculum and technology are among the reasons that she was chosen Tennessee’s 2018-19 Teacher of the Year. 

Miller talked with Chalkbeat about why teaching students to read is her greatest passion, how she partners with parents to build classroom rapport, and the upside of behavioral challenges. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I wanted to be a teacher beginning as a kindergarten student in Columbia, Tennessee. My teacher, Ms. Portia Lea, was so loving and encouraging, she just won me over. I have taken away a valuable lesson from each teacher that I had in my journey toward my career. I feel like they are part of who I am. I just want to give to my students the same experience of love, encouragement, hope, belief, and perseverance that I received.

Why elementary-age students? What’s the best thing about that age group?

PHOTO: TN.gov
“My great passion is teaching kids to read!” says Miller.

My great passion is teaching kids to read! Reading opens the doors to their world and windows of possibilities for their future. I have taught kindergarten through fourth grade, but find myself best at home in first grade giving that strong foundation in reading. My first-graders are sponges for knowledge. Each child is as unique as a snowflake. They are just as loving and encouraging for me as I am for them. 

How do you get to know your students?

At the beginning of the school year, I send home a questionnaire for parents to share their insights. During the first few weeks of school, we do community-building activities each day. I need to know what motivates each student, their favorite books, their family members, their pets, and what they want to be when they grow up. While reading books such as “Amazing Grace,” “The Important Book,” “Chrysanthemum,” “I Like Me,” and “Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge,” we learn many things about each other and truly become a family.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

My favorite lessons to teach are within the Penguin Research Unit that I created. Students research what penguins eat, where they live, their characteristics, dangers, and adaptations. In the process, the students learn that their brains are like folders and that they need to organize information in order to remember it. They take in new facts and categorize them by color and topic. Then they write a book report complete with table of contents, headings, captions, diagrams, author information, and a glossary. Those reports are read and edited by a local author before we publish them for others in the school to read. Because this happens in the spring, it’s a time to celebrate how far each child has come as a reader and writer. The unit ties together fiction, nonfiction, writing, math, and science standards. Even at 6 and 7 years old, the kids are learning to research their wonderings and making connections on how to contribute to the world around them.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

A funny necessity is my Mr. Sketch Scented Markers in all sizes to create anchor charts. A serious necessity is the rich literature that I have collected through the years. I don’t collect things, I collect books. A fun date night for my husband and me is going to the bookstore for coffee and more books.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

One of the quick lessons I learned came when I started out by communicating with parents once per week about their child’s behavior. I quickly found out that weekly would not work. Parents need daily communication. They cannot address problems if I don’t communicate them right away. The best communication plan is the one that gets the most collaboration. It strengthens the partnership between teacher and parents.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

“If you look cute and smell pretty, your kids will love you.” That came in the first week of my first year. Not only was this funny advice, it keeps things fun!

You serve as a team leader and mentor at your school. What advice do you give to new teachers?

Love your students! Each one is an individual with their own gifts and challenges. Get to know what motivates them, because each one is unique. Listen, really listen, to your students. Know the names of their siblings, favorite sports, favorite authors, and pets. Greet each student with a smile and a personal message. And make each day count!

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Anytime I contact a parent about behavioral challenges, it changes my perspective and approach. This is where empathy and compassion come together. Understanding the child deep down gives me a snapshot into what motivates them and what does not. It guides me in making home-school connections ultimately to benefit both places. I need to understand where they are coming from in order to help them see the vision for where they can go.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I am constantly ON. My mind is on my kids at school as everything I do and everywhere I go ties back to teaching and learning experiences that I can share.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Love Does” by Bob Goff

Do you have a favorite quote you’d like to share with other educators?

“Positive people on positive teams produce positive results and the essential ingredient is positive energy.” —Jon Gordon from “The Energy Bus”

Future of Teaching

Tentative contract includes big raises for IPS teachers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teachers would receive significant raises under a tentative new contract with IPS.

A month after voters approved a vast funding increase for Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration and the district teachers union have reached a tentative deal for a new contract that would boost teacher pay by an average of 6.3 percent.

The agreement was ratified by union members Wednesday, according to a statement from teachers union president Ronald Swann. It must be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which is likely to consider the contract next week, before it is final.

Swann did not provide details of the agreement, but it was outlined in union presentations to teachers on Wednesday ahead of the ratification vote. The deal would cover the 2018-19 school year, and teachers would receive retroactive pay back to July 2018. The prior contract ended in June.

Raising teacher pay was a key part of the sales pitch district leaders used to win support for a referendum to raise $220 million over eight years from taxpayers for operating expenses. The referendum passed with wide support from voters last month, and although the district will not get that money until next year, the administration can now bank on an influx of cash in June 2019. Teachers could receive another raise next year, once the money from the referendum begins flowing.

The proposed deal would bring pay raises for new and experienced teachers. First year teachers in the district would see their salaries jump to $42,587, about $2,600 above the current base salary, according to the presentation to teachers. Returning teachers would move up the pay scale, with most receiving raises of about $2,600.

The deal also brings a reward for teachers who are at the top of the current scale. The top of the scale would rise to $74,920 by adding several stops above the current maximum of $59,400. That means teachers who are currently at the top of the scale would be able to move up and continue getting raises.

Many longtime teachers in the district also earn additional pay for advanced education, but teachers who joined the district more recently are not eligible for that extra money.

Teachers who received evaluations of ineffective or needs improvement in 2017-18 are not eligible for raises.

The new contract is the second time in recent years that teachers have won substantial raises in Indianapolis Public Schools. After four years of painful pay freezes, Ferebee negotiated a contract in 2015 that included a large pay increase. Teacher pay is especially important for the district because it is competing with several surrounding communities to staff schools.

Health care costs would go up this year, a policy shift that was advocated by the Indy Chamber, which urged the district to reduce health insurance spending as part of a plan to shift more money to teacher salaries.

The contract includes a provision that was piloted last year allowing the district to place newly hired teachers at anywhere on the salary schedule. It’s designed to allow the district to pay more for especially hard-to-fill positions.

Teachers at some troubled schools, known as the transformation zone, would also be eligible for extra pay on top of their regular salaries at the discretion of the administration. That money would come from state grants specifically targeted at transformation zone schools.

The idea of allowing superintendents to pay some teachers in their districts more than others is controversial.