UnSchooling Lives

August 3, 2007

In today’s debates about NCLB, standards, testing, etc., it is worth being reminded that there remain some schools that having a rather different conversation.

Money quote: “Education is in the heart of the listener, not the voice of the teacher.”

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I want to take a second to promote the work of Venture Philanthropy Partners, who fund a number of groups in the DC Region, including See Forever and Maya Angelou. Fundraising is hard business, but these folks really get it. They listen to the non-profits they work with, they are in it for the long haul, and they care. They just announced a new fund, and this is their promo video.

I have talked before (here and here) about the limits of any school reform that does not dramatically improve the quality of teachers in the classroom. Veteran New York City math teacher and UFT Chapter Chair Terry Weber recently shared his proposal on getting and keeping quality teachers.

According to Terry,

For the past two years I have run a work shop at the Coalition of Essential Schools’ Fall Forum on “How to break the odds: keeping teachers past 5 years.” These workshops have consisted of teachers, principals, and other educational professionals. The consensus was that working in an environment where one is treated as a professional is the most important. They wanted a well thought out mentoring program and they wanted some input into what happens in their schools and in the curriculum.

As an example of an effective mentoring program, Terry points to his own school, Urban Academy. Unlike most new teachers, who get handed a full teaching load on their first day at the job, Terry and other teachers at Urban get careful mentoring for their first year on the job, and beyond. In their first year, they only teach one class on their own, and in that class they have the assistance of a veteran mentor. They also spend a year observing their mentor teach, and they get co-teaching opportunities. As Terry describes it,

In February of 1996, after 24 years of telephone work I crawled out of Verizon manhole in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and stood in front of classroom teaching a course I created with the help of my mentor, a science teacher, called Basic Repair and Maintenance Using the Scientific Method. I had become an apprentice at the Urban Academy. I taught my class, co-taught a math class (I was certified to teach math), tutored a few students, sat in my mentors class and visited other classes in our school and visited a variety of classes in schools across New York City. I participated as an equal in the weekly staff meetings. After my third term of teaching 2-3 classes I started feeling slightly comfortable in front of a classroom.

The results for teacher retention are nothing short of amazing, he argues.

Here’s some evidence that Urban Academy works:
1) In 20 years of existence Urban Academy has lost 4 teachers: 2 retired, one died and
one went to law school but after a few years at Legal Aid is returning to school.
2) A majority of our students qualify for free lunch and since we are a transfer school most either didn’t do well in a previous school or didn’t like their school. 90% of our graduates go to a 4-year college.

In addition to mentoring, Terry argues that teacher say over what happens in schools and curriculum has a signficant impact on retention. He points to Nebraska as a model for how teachers can be involved in creating quality assessments even in the No Child Left Behind era.

In Nebraska, the Commissioner of Education, Douglas D. Christensen, instituted STARS (School-based Teacher–led Assessment and Reporting) to fulfill the NCLB requirements. This is a system where teachers across the state determine what the assessments are for the students of Nebraska. When one visits Nebraska and chats with teachers about their jobs there is an incredible amount of enthusiasm about how they are respected as teachers. They have a say so in how their students who are assessed. Finally there is some place in the United States where people who actually stand in front of children all day having a say in how they students are assessed and what might help them move forward in their education.

Overall, Terry makes some strong points. There is no question that if every school trained and mentored its teachers as Urban does, teaching and learning would improve. So I support it. But how does a system scale the Urban model? And how does a school with teacher retention issues implement it? The model works well in a school that only has to hire one new teacher every few years. But in a school where one-third of the teachers every year are new–and this is unfortunately commonplace–how in the world can the school afford to have one-third of this teaching staff spending most of the day learning from the more senior ones?

Also, what does Terry have to say about the role that the teacher contract provisions play in undermining teacher quality, especially for schools with the most low-income students? And what about merit pay? Is this worth considering?

For Terry’s entire argument, see here: Weber on Teacher Quality