The New Kids in School

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The objective of the lesson in this sixth-grade class at a Bushwick middle school is to “be able to use similar figures to find out the length of an unknown side.” The teacher gives the class a quiz, where the students have to find the length of a side of a triangle. Then she goes over the answers with them.

Except there’s a problem. The quiz has a mistake and now the students are confused, and she’s losing them. One girl, who didn’t even bother to write the answers to the quiz, has been sitting with her coat over her head for 10 minutes. The girl next to her is messing with her cell phone. Another boy is wandering around the classroom, bothering other students and trying to steal their pencils. The teacher tries to bring students back into the lesson, but to no avail. She’s lost them.

This teacher works hard. She arrives at school early, stays late and takes a lot of work home. In her 10 months on the job, she has built a bond with her students, even rushing out during her prep period to buy lunch at McDonald’s for two students who were particularly good that week.

But the truth is she’s still figuring out how to be a public school teacher day by day. She is a brand-new teacher, freshly graduated from the New York City Teaching Fellows Program, which allows new school instructors to get trained and certified in less than a summer.

The only preparation she received before she entered the classroom consisted of an intensive seven-week training and several weeks of student teaching in a summer-school class. There, like all Teaching Fellows, she learned the basics of discipline techniques and classroom management. While she’s been teaching school, she’s also been working on her master’s degree at night (and making an entry-level salary of $39,000).

Yet she was hardly prepared for this. At this school, everything feels tentative. There’s a new principal, many new teachers and a frustrating lack of organization. There are people available to help her–the program assigned her a mentor and a “homeroom buddy,” and there is a staff developer in the school each day. Getting to them is another story. “There is very little time for people to help me,” the new teacher says. “There are people who mean to, but they have no time to do it.”

A screwup with her students’ grades–she discovered late in the spring that she was supposed to have been tracking them cumulatively since September–was the capper to a trying year. “It’s been really hard and kind of horrible,” she says of her teaching experience. “It’s horrible for any new teacher–you’re supposed to just accept it. What we [neophytes] need to do is to start with an experienced teacher”–a mentor, or what educators of educators call a “master teacher.”

I am experiencing similar challenges myself right now, as a first-year Teaching Fellow at a Manhattan middle school. As part of the new citywide curriculum, I’m expected to use “workshops” to teach. Teachers start a class by giving a mini-lesson on a topic–say, the use of capital letters. Then the students break up into groups, some working independently while others sit with the instructor.

That would be nice. Really, though, there’s no way I can imagine working with small groups of my sixth- and seventh-grade special education students while the others work on their own. Not unless chasing each other around the class is considered independent work. I haven’t even figured out how to collect homework and make sure kids don’t go to the bathroom three times per period. Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time in front of the students talking, while they listen to me (or don’t) and copy what I write on the board. Sometimes I’ve given them worksheets to keep busy and, if I’m lucky, quiet.

The few times that I’ve tried to use the workshop method, the class has quickly broken down. I divided the class up into small groups to read books, based on each member’s reading level. I set up each group with its assignment and then spent the whole period running back and forth to answer questions and discipline students who were just sitting around talking. Meanwhile, the ones who needed my help–those who have the most difficulty reading–got no attention at all. I know the workshop method makes sense, but I don’t know how to manage it. And I’m not sure how I’m going to learn.

While we are learning how to teach, our students are paying what some educators call a “learning tax.” Katie Haycock from the Education Trust, a Washington nonprofit that encourages institutions of higher education to support K-12 reform efforts, asserts that on average, teachers in their first two years on the job see markedly lower gains in student learning than do those with more experience. “Researchers are finding that in the first two years there’s a real impact for students. So kids in hard-to-staff and high-poverty schools serve as training fodder for teachers who will move on and teach in other places. They are paying a price educationally.”

Dr. Gail Foster, a longtime teacher in the New York City public schools and founder of the New York-based Toussaint Institute Fund, which advocates for improved access to quality schools, has helped train Teaching Fellows. She says she’s seen the effects firsthand. Many of her students, Foster says, became overwhelmed and dropped out–some even before they entered their own classroom. (Of the cohort that entered the program in September 2001, 22 percent of the fellows did not return to teach in 2002–an attrition rate only slightly higher than that of the system as a whole.)

The rest, she’s sure, face an uphill battle. “What happens when you come in new and not trained properly, and overwhelmed by class management, and maybe come from a different socioeconomic background? All you want is order in the class.”

There is, Foster avers, “no remedy for what the students are losing during that year.”

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In New York City, where about 9,000 new teachers arrived in classrooms this fall–an untold number of them having never taught before–we’re about to find out exactly how high that price is. More than 3,000 are Teaching Fellows or were trained through another “alternative certification” program.

There will likely be many more of these fast-tracked new teachers in years to come. New York City public school teachers are retiring in record numbers: In September alone, 477 followed 3,868 who left over the summer. The average age of New York City’s 80,000 school teachers is 49, and more than a quarter are 55 or older. Thousands more are still uncertified, and under a new state edict shouldn’t even be teaching anymore; the Regents have given New York City permission to keep those teachers on through 2005, but no longer than that.

The Teaching Fellows program was launched under departed Schools Chancellor Harold Levy and aimed at attracting successful professionals to city schools. It is run with assistance from a nonprofit called the New Teacher Project, which has designed and implemented teacher recruitment, training and placement programs in a handful of other cities including Los Angeles and Baton Rouge.

In New York, those teachers are put right into hard-to-staff schools–places with especially high teacher or principal turnover, lack of organization, high poverty rates, little parental involvement. More-experienced teachers don’t want to work in these schools, and because of the teacher’s union seniority rules, they don’t have to.

Dr. Nicholas Michelli is Dean of Education at the City University of New York, where most Teaching Fellows obtain their master’s degrees. He’s fond of the fellows–because of its substantial advertising and marketing budget, the Teaching Fellows program can pick the best candidates from a large applicant pool. As he sees it, the program’s “biggest weakness is that [teachers] are assigned to high-needs schools.”

But Michelli and other educators of educators admit there’s a lot we still don’t know about what it means to parachute a new teacher into a troubled classroom. They’re eagerly awaiting the results of a major study just getting underway, which seeks to answer the question everyone’s asking: What, exactly, happens to kids when their teacher shows up with barely any training? Conducted by a team from the University at Albany, the research will probe a massive amount of school personnel data and survey teachers entering the New York City education system to determine the effects of each different “pathway” to becoming a teacher on student achievement–whether teachers entered through alternative certification, a BA in education, a master’s program, or off the street. The study should be completed in the next two to three years. Anticipates Michelli: “We’ll find out whether or not your pathway matters.”

Previous research suggests it does. Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford, cites several studies, including one of her own conducted in New York City, which found that teachers admitted with no preparation or through very short alternate routes tend to be less satisfied with their preparation and less confident about their abilities. Her study also found that teachers who felt well-prepared were usually more satisfied with their performance in the classroom. Darling-Hammond, a frequent critic of fast-track programs like the Teaching Fellows, says the fellows’ assessment is accurate. Because they often spend their first year trying to figure out the basics of classroom management and lesson-planning, “teachers that are not prepared are less effective with students,” she says.

Speak with Teaching Fellows, and you see what Darling-Hammond is talking about. Abigail Rao, a fellow in her second year of teaching at an elementary school in Harlem, laughs when asked about her pre-service training experience–in summer school, where classes were smaller and the day shorter than during the regular school year. “I felt so unprepared after going through that program that I thought, ‘I couldn’t do this.’ I couldn’t imagine having my own class. It was kind of a joke and a waste of time. I felt like it was unfair to kids we were going in to teach. It was infuriating.”

Minimal preparation can lead to a disastrous first year. Zach Berman, a fellow who entered the program in the fall of 2001 and taught in Brooklyn, dropped out by that Thanksgiving. “I felt ill-prepared for the rigors of planning the classes,” he explains. He wanted to teach high school history but was placed in an elementary school. He adds that “support was really inconsistent. Everything was inconsistent.”

Berman received conflicting advice from the school’s staff developers and mentors on issues as fundamental as seating arrangements. Recalls Berman, “Some people said put them in rows, some said put them in groups of sixes.” Each choice would have promoted a radically different classroom environment, one teacher-dominated and the other highly interactive. Berman never settled on which he wanted. He was too busy managing a classroom where the students had advanced skills in throwing paper wads. In one incident, a projectile inflicted retinal damage on one student. In another, during an exam, one kid threw another’s answer sheet out the window.

Dr. Richard Elmore, a Harvard University education professor and author of an upcoming book on New York Community School District 2’s renowned professional development, has seen a lot of teachers trying to wing it. He’s observed a pattern: Brand-new educators associate good teaching with classroom order and a lot of energy on the teacher’s part. Basically, they end up imitating their own teachers.

Yet the type of instruction that many educators believe promotes high achievement–where students “create meaning,” instead of just getting it all from their teacher–requires a lot of professional training, both before a teacher enters the classroom and throughout his or her career. Take reading. The National Center for Educational Statistics has documented that teachers who use real literature and heavily integrate reading and writing through workshop-type lessons–the kind the Department of Education would like us to teach–also see higher levels of achievement in their students.

But new teachers, Elmore has seen, especially those with little training, often try to do all the work themselves. So the classroom looks orderly and the students may (or may not) be listening to the teacher, while there is actually little learning taking place.

Elmore says that teachers who have dropped out of alternative certification programs sometimes enter the education program at Harvard, and “we then need to get them to unlearn these methods” they have picked up, so they can keep order in the classroom and get the students to learn.

“I’ve seen some good people in the Teaching Fellows program,” Dr. Elmore continues, “but they are C- to D+ teachers because they know nothing about teaching and are not getting much help.”

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It turns out that Department of Education administrators are well aware that the Teaching Fellows program has its limitations. The department’s director of alternative certification, Vicky Bernstein, lists some ways her staff tries to mitigate the impact of having thousands of new teachers learn on the job: “Communicating more realistic expectations” to the incoming fellows, with the message “Don’t expect to be a success on day one”; assigning mentors to new teachers; retooling university master’s curriculums so they start with a course on how to teach literacy and follow with practical seminars on how to cope in the classroom. (When the fellows program first launched, it began with a class on “School in American Society.”)

Even these measures, Bernstein concedes, are less than perfect. “A better model would be an apprenticeship model,” she says. “But we need to give a living wage during that period. No one has those resources. We can’t ask people with debt and expenses to take on the burden.”

Another big city with a troubled school system is wagering that it can. The Boston Teacher Residency is a 12-month teacher apprenticeship program, based on the medical residency model. It is the result of a partnership between Boston’s public schools and two foundations, the Boston Plan for Excellence and Strategic Grant Partners, which is contributing $2.2 million for a two-year startup. The program launched this fall with 16 new teachers and plans to enroll 120 by 2008–about one-third the number of new teachers Boston anticipates hiring that year. By then, the residency is supposed to be a fully public program.

“Teacher residents” are spending three-and-a-half days a week for one school year in a classroom, co-teaching with a master teacher. The rest of the time, and during the summers before and after that year, they take courses tailored for teachers who are already working in an urban classroom. By the end of 12 months, the teacher residents will have a master’s degree in education, and will start teaching on their own the following fall. They’ll also get a $10,000 stipend.

The program is structured to provide strong incentives to continue teaching in Boston. Trainees technically have to pay $10,000 in tuition, but for each of the first three years they work in the Boston schools, one-third of that fee is forgiven. If they leave, they have to pay.

There are no guarantees, of course, that Boston’s program will fill the training gap. Harvard’s Richard Elmore, who was actively involved in the Teacher Residency program’s formation and serves as a board member of the Boston Program for Excellence, says it takes three to five years of teaching–and, ideally, strong mentoring the whole time–before new educators have an understanding of how to engage students in the learning process, as well as how to manage differing learning styles and levels of understanding in a large classroom.

Elmore warns that the worst possible thing that could happen is if the residency program “reproduces the problem they are trying to solve.” One key is making sure that the teacher residents are working with master teachers who model good practices. This would overcome one of the common criticisms of apprenticeship-type programs: that new teachers just learn bad habits from old ones.

One district in New York is giving apprenticeships a chance. The dean of the Graduate School of Education at Bank Street College, Dr. Jon Snyder, is currently working with New York’s Region 9–the school district covering lower Manhattan, the Upper East Side, East Harlem and a chunk of the South Bronx–to create an internship program. Snyder describes it as “something in between” the two years of full-time preparation Bank Street usually gives (including an immersion in Bank Street’s on-campus lab school) and the 200 hours teaching fellows get. Snyder hopes that the program can start recruiting new teachers as early as January.

Last year and the year before that, Bank Street accepted Teaching Fellows into its master’s program, but Snyder decided not to take them this past fall. “Being a full-time student and a full-time teacher, it’s just too much for them,” says Snyder of the fellows his school has worked with. “It just leaves them physically and emotionally exhausted.” More urgently, he also had misgivings about sending new teachers into the trenches so quickly. “Without sufficient preparation, without a lot of support from fellow teachers and students, it’s very easy to fall into bad habits–trying to control the kids instead of teaching the kids,” says Snyder. Any alternative training, he maintains, must make sure that before a teacher takes control of a classroom he or she has the knowledge and skills to plan lessons, assess student progress and understand how young people learn.

There’s another reason Snyder didn’t enroll Teaching Fellows in Bank Street’s master’s program this year, he concedes: The fellows program didn’t quite cover Bank Street’s own costs. That’s no small change–a Bank Street degree costs $29,000 to $43,000.

Snyder says there are still plenty of teachers heading to private schools who want to spend that kind of money for a two-year Bank Street education. But with the Teaching Fellows’ fast track effectively paying trainees $100,000 during their first two years, it’s harder to find high-quality wanna be public school teachers who will do the same.

To keep Bank Street an attractive option for prospective public school teachers, Snyder has developed a fast track of his own. He plans to offer classes at night, allowing teachers-to-be to keep their day jobs. Following about a year of coursework, trainees will get paid to teach for a summer in partnership with a master teacher, then take over their own classrooms in the fall. While that’s basically the same in-class training experience the Teaching Fellows get, the Bank Street students will move into full-time teaching at the same Region 9 school they were trained in, and will be able to get advice and guidance from their master teachers as they go through their first years. The project will be paid for with trainees’ tuition dollars, supplemented with funding from Region 9 and additional support from the Charles Evans Hughes Foundation.

The next challenge is finding new teachers willing to participate–as Snyder notes, the Bank Street internship is “still not as good a deal financially as jumping in and having all your courses paid for” by the Department of Education. He’s not too worried, though. Snyder developed a similar program at University of California-Santa Barbara, a district so desperate for teachers that uncredentialed applicants could walk in and be hired “in 20 minutes.” (In California, some 80,000 teachers have no credentials or work on emergency permits.) Even though it required students to pay tuition and study for months, his program nonetheless received 200 applications for 45 slots.

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Apprenticeship programs aren’t unknown in New York. Sylvia Gross, a teacher at a K-through-8th-grade school in the South Bronx, started teaching after a year-long apprenticeship in her school. She is the type of teacher that most of the city’s schools would scramble to hire. After graduating from Yale she received a Fulbright to study arts education in Brazil. Upon returning to New York, she realized she wanted to be a teacher, so she applied to a program called Teachers for Tomorrow. During the apprenticeship, for which she was paid (Teachers for Tomorrow had private funding), Gross also filled in for absent teachers.

According to Gross, the apprenticeship taught her how to make students feel productive from the first day of class. “You have to learn how to do the routines with them, because that’s what keeps the class together,” she explains.

The apprenticeship didn’t necessarily make her first year any easier. But “it helped that I already had support from the community. People knew that the teachers and parents were behind me because I had already been there for a year. I had a reputation.”

Apprenticeships might not bring new teachers into the schools as quickly–but they may keep them around longer. With nearly 50 percent of new teachers leaving the system within five years, New York City’s inability to keep teachers is a driving force behind the worsening teacher shortfall. “All reports are saying that we don’t have a shortage–we have a retention problem,” says CUNY’s Dean Michelli. “There are enough certified teachers. They’re just not willing to come to our schools.” In 1999, the most recent year surveyed by the state Education Department, the city’s teacher turnover rate was 19 percent, twice as high as in suburban school districts. Adds Michelli: “We produce highly qualified candidates, but if we don’t fix retention, we’ll be doing this every year.”

It is too soon to determine what the Teaching Fellows’ long-term retention rates will be. National research suggests the future is not promising. A 2000 report by the National Center for Educational Statistics finds that 29 percent of new teachers who have not done student teaching leave the profession within five years, compared to only 15 percent who had student teaching as part of their training.

Boston’s residency program was created with retention in mind: More than half of Boston’s new teachers leave the city’s school district–or quit teaching entirely–within three years. Says Boston Teacher Residency director Jesse Solomon, “If we do a good job preparing and supporting them, we hope to do a better job in keeping them.”

In New York, for now, most new teachers are on their own. In my school, some have huge, overcrowded classrooms. Most of those I’ve spoken with are feeling pretty ineffective. One speaks fondly of returning to grad school. We all feel lost.

But I’m very lucky. In late September, I started a new position, teaching English as a Second Language to small groups of students outside and within their classes. Because I spend a few periods every day in another classroom, I get to see how more experienced teachers teach and manage classes.

And I’m going to stick with teaching in the city public schools. After my first year, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Additional reporting by Cassi Feldman, David Jason Fischer and Alyssa Katz.