Building teachers to last

The biggest challenge facing legislators as they pursue rewriting the state’s teacher evaluation law this year is not how to weed out the worst teachers but how to retain the best. The key to the latter won’t be found in rubrics and value-added test scores but in deeper training for novice teachers and more career options for veteran teachers.

A baker’s dozen young and mid-career teachers make an articulate case for the latter in a new report, “Many Ways Up, No Reason To Move Out,” the product of the Bay Area New Millennium Initiative, a project affiliated with the North Carolina-based Center for Teaching Quality (go here to download it). The report serves as a reminder to lawmakers to keep in mind “To what end?” as they consider what elements should comprise a teacher evaluation.

The teachers call for three-year apprenticeships for new teachers and a career ladder that offers accomplished teachers leadership opportunities to entice them to stay in the classroom – instead of quitting the profession, as more than half do by the fifth year of teaching in some districts, or pursuing a job as an administrator, in part to make more money.

“Basically it’s like this:  If you’re competent and ambitious, you have to leave your job. Right now the only way to move up is in administration,” Sherene Judeh, one of the co-authors of the report, said at a conference last month in Sacramento on Teaching Quality and California’s Future (go here for a summary of the conference by David B. Cohen, one of the organizaers).

Judeh, a fifth-year teacher, and co-presenter Anna Martin, a seventh-year middle school teacher, embody the challenges facing teachers and districts that don’t want to lose them. A ninth- and tenth-grade humanities teacher and grade-level leader at Lighthouse Community Charter High School in Oakland, Judeh has had multiple roles already, chairing the algebra readiness committee and working with novice teachers as a mentor. Martin is a hybrid teacher in the Alum Rock Union School District in San Jose, coaching teachers, making student placement and master scheduling decisions, mentoring students, and providing professional development for all staff members.

Under a different career ladder, there would be other opportunities for teacher leaders. Source: "Many Ways Up, No Reason To Move Out." (Click twice to enlarge.)
Under a different career ladder, there would be other opportunities for teacher leaders. Source: "Many Ways Up, No Reason To Move Out." (Click twice to enlarge.)

But most districts lack clearly delineated career paths to become master, mentor, hybrid, or specialization teachers, linked to objective standards and professional development fostering teachers’ aspirations. And they lack pay differentials recognizing those levels of achievement, so that a master teacher can one day earn as much as an administrator.

Judeh and Martin started through Teach for America, which makes their advocacy for a three-year apprenticeship all the more interesting. They had only a five-week summer training course before being placed in high-poverty urban schools, then got their teaching credential while teaching school the first year.

“No first-year medical resident is given a scalpel, an operating room, and multiple surgeries to perform on her first day,” the report says. “No law intern argues a case by himself at his first court appearance. No rookie is the starting pitcher on the first day of his team’s season. Yet we continue to throw our beginning teachers into challenging environments without a support system in place to coach them. And unfortunately, in the end, students are the ones who suffer the most as a result.”

In the first year of a three-year preparation program, the apprentice teacher would observe a mentor teacher, while helping to plan lessons, working with students in small groups and taking courses for a credential. In the second year, the apprentice teacher would teach two classes, with the mentor teacher observing and the apprentice meeting regularly with the cohort of apprentice teachers in the credentialing program. In the third year, the apprentice would teach a full load, with the mentor teacher  observing during several paid release days per month.

The apprenticeship is modeled after urban teacher residency programs in Boston and Chicago. San Francisco Unified and Aspire Public Schools have year-long versions, too, as do a number of teacher preparation programs at several California State University campuses. The teacher candidates bear the full cost of the program.

Carolyn Nelson, dean of the College of Education and Allied Studies at California State University, East Bay, said “a more gradual training model, like a medical residency, would be a wonderful way to go.” The issue would be funding, particularly paying for the equivalent of a full-time teaching salary the second year, with added support the third.

The expectation would be that better trained beginner teachers would feel more supported and confident and be less inclined to leave. Turnover has a big cost: Referring to  a study by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the report cited the cost of recruiting, hiring, and retraining replacement teachers nationally at  $7.34 billion annually, with high-poverty, high-minority districts bearing a disproportionate cost.

The report challenges the status quo – teacher tenure after only two years and a pay scale based on years on the job – that the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers defend. “Effectiveness,” the report says, “will no longer be marked simply by a set number of years in the field. Instead, a clearly delineated career continuum will be linked to objective teaching standards and benchmarks, not the traditional and outmoded ‘steps and columns’ system that still dominates American public education today.”

The recommendations are what may be needed to attract a new generation of teachers looking for more respect and more career opportunities backed by better pay.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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