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Boston Reinvents Teacher Training

How to recruit, grow, and keep teachers in a tough urban climate.

Instructor julianna Kershen wants the 75 members of the Boston Teacher Residency to think about where they sit. Not literally, of course. (This Friday they’re in a dingy teachers union hall taking Kershen’s class, “Literacy Across the Content Areas.”)

“Can you read this?” she asks, projecting a Boston subway map onto a screen. You can hear the chuckles: These teachers-in-training live on an $11,400 stipend and spend four days a week in Boston Public School classrooms and the fifth day doing master’s degree coursework. They know T routes cold, thank you. Clearly, they can “read” it.

Then Kershen puts up a New York City subway map. Then a piece of modern art. The periodic table of the elements. E-mail addresses in Arabic. A diagram of the ear. A sketch of X’s and O’s. Can they “read” these?

All Education Is Local
Kershen’s point—that accessing information depends on understanding the universe in which it is embedded—resonates. It’s more than a statement about teaching; it’s a comment about the very teacher training in which they are immersed. Just as “reading” a football play (it’s a two wide-receiver set with a tight-end option) requires knowing football, teaching in the Boston Public Schools requires knowing the Boston Public Schools.

In a striking shift from traditional teacher training, which leans on book learning followed by general classroom practice, the Boston Teacher Residency (BTR) program operates on the premise that to succeed, new teachers need amped-up self-awareness, help translating theory into practice—and loads of classroom time with a mentor teacher in the district where they will teach.

After all, no education theory class will help Clinton Lassiter engage a student who says that her top goal for eighth grade is to not get pregnant. And if at first Alexandra Snow imagined that she “would learn the skills of being a teacher and how to connect with students through the content,” the shooting death of one of her high school students before Thanksgiving was a brutal wake-up to the difficulty of her job. “There is so much more to teaching in Boston,” Snow says emphatically. “Everything is colored by social justice.”

Former Boston superintendent Thomas Payzant, who helped start btr, recalls that his biggest problem with new teachers was not subject knowledge or pedagogy, but under-preparation for the environment.

“What we were getting when teachers arrived in Boston classrooms were people who were pretty well grounded in content and had some sense of how to teach. But they were not well prepared for such a diverse student body with high percentages of kids from low-income families,” says Payzant, now professor of practice at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “That absence of experience with diversity often resulted in their lack of success.”

Seeking Good Teachers
Education reform demands better instruction, but inner-city schools lack good teachers. Research shows that urban teachers are typically less qualified (they graduate from less competitive colleges and are more likely to fail certification exams) than their suburban peers. Poor city schools face vacancies in key subjects and struggle to retain teachers. In 2000, for example, the statewide turnover rate for New York public school teachers was 15 percent, but 22 percent in high-poverty urban areas.

Teaching in these schools is not easy, which is why btr director Jesse Solomon says that teachers need more intense, tailored instruction than they usually get. Modeled on medical training, btr has its “residents” spend a clinical year with a mentor teacher while taking related courses and participating in discussions (“grand rounds”) that blend theory and practice. Residents receive a stipend and earn a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, with the cost forgiven in exchange for a three-year commitment to teach in the Boston Public Schools.

Solomon says the program’s strength is that new teachers get a full year of hands-on practice (and feedback) in applying cutting-edge approaches to teaching exactly this population. They are also pushed—hard.

“We try to overload people,” he says. In addition to a full four days in the classroom (plus prep time), residents write papers and conduct research projects. “You have to be able to balance lots of competing demands and do that across cultures, across race, across age. If you are overwhelmed by our residency, you will be overwhelmed by your first year of teaching. You’ve got to be able to hang in and have this bottom-line attention to student achievement.”

The tough love seems to be working. btr, now in its sixth year, has an 86 percent retention rate among graduates. A similar program, Chicago’s Academy for Urban School Leadership, reports that 83 percent of the 243 who graduated between 2003 and 2008 are still employed in the Chicago Public Schools. This is notably better than the standard 40 percent to 50 percent of new teachers who quit teaching within five years (a figure even higher in some city schools).

Urban Teacher Residency Institute
will this training translate into better learning? It’s not clear yet (Harvard education and economics professor Thomas Kane is doing a study now), but the approach is promising.

After sharing ideas informally, in 2007, residency program leaders from Boston, Chicago, and Denver’s Boettcher Teachers Program founded the Urban Teacher Residency Institute. Anissa Listak, director of the institute, which just moved its office from her Wicker Park condo to downtown Chicago, is this year shepherding teams from Philadelphia, Denver, New York, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, through the first “Residency for Residencies Program.”

Because this effort is so new and the three programs are not carbon copies, guidance is tricky. Should a district mimic Chicago, turning around whole schools by stocking them with new teachers and making them training academies? Or use Boston’s model, clustering several residents in a school but essentially spreading them across the district? It’s too soon to know which factors matter most. But Listak has “hunches,” which include recruiting skilled mentor teachers and giving residents lots of classroom time.

Because residencies are designed to serve district needs, each city comes with its own agenda. Diana Campbell, director of the Philadelphia Teacher Residency Program, says her program will train only math and science teachers because that’s where student performance lags most. It is also opening this June (instead of next) in response to teacher shortages.

Building a Whole New Structure
the wholesale rethinking of teacher preparation that is central to the urban teacher residency model is usually possible only when things are dire. “There needs to be a threshold of failure to say, ‘We haven’t done this well,’” says Listak, who has lots of conversations with city leaders who aren’t ready or able to leap. “They are scared away by the complexity of the model, or they don’t have buy-in.”

In Boston, Payzant was eight years into his tenure and well regarded (the city had had three superintendents in the decade before he arrived) when the teacher residency idea emerged. “You’ve got to have some political capital to move some of this,” says Payzant. He also had good working relationships with local leaders, including Ellen Guiney, executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, a privately funded district reform partner.

From the start, BTR had a “one foot in, one foot out” design. That means btr is part of the district (which provides 51 percent of funding) but is housed in the Boston Plan for Excellence. Joanna Jacobson, managing partner at Strategic Grant Partners, which provided guidance and start-up money for btr and the Urban Teacher Residency Institute, says that the design ensures the district’s commitment (teachers are being trained in and for district schools), but lets BTR leaders “keep their heads down and keep doing the work a bit disengaged from all of the politics.”

The third structural piece is what Listak calls “a university partner.” In Boston, former deputy superintendent Timothy Knowles says the residency wasn’t well met by college leaders whose training programs were being called out for failing to effectively prepare teachers for the city’s schools.
“It was a competitive threat—and that was intentional,” says Knowles, who now heads the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. BTR still takes a “grow your own” approach, designing and teaching all of the courses (it doubles as a state-approved teacher certification program), even though UMass Boston issues residents their degrees.

Elsewhere, education schools are coming to the table earlier. In Philadelphia, Campbell says that a University of Pennsylvania representative is on the city team attending the Urban Teacher Residency Institute training and that they both look forward to “co-owning the curriculum.”

The Elephant in Urban Education
a glossed-over reality of inner-city education is that the teachers are mostly white and middle class while their students are typically minority and poor. BTR confronts this issue head-on. At least half of the residents chosen each year from a huge applicant pool are minorities (53 percent this year). It’s also rare to visit a workshop for site directors (btr leaders in each school who guide mentor-resident relationships) or a lecture for residents where race and class are not on the agenda.

BTR leaders want residents to consider how identity and experience affect the way they teach—and how their students learn. “I came from a white, suburban, upper-middle-class background. I was in all honors classes and never gave any of my teachers a behavior problem in my life,” says Sarah Gross, a 2005 BTR graduate whose frank tone relays a comfort with her transition from business consultant to high school math teacher. “I would have no idea how to deal with a kid who swore at me or said they would go out into the street and become a street pharmacist.”

The focus on her identity during training, Gross says, helped her look to her mentor for ways to handle the shockers that can blow a lesson—or your confidence. “She definitely taught me to think, ‘Okay, I’m surprised. Let’s move on.’ ”

But identity awareness does not provide a free pass. In a problem-solving breakout session during one of BTR's regular site director workshops, Karen Loughran, site director at Charlestown High, grabs a chair in a cramped book storage room and tells peers that she’s stuck. Two of her residents are having a hard time dealing with student behavior. One of them is an African-American male who, as BTR field director Hollee Freeman puts it, assumed “he would have an in.” But it’s turning out not to be so easy.

Loughran understands. She knows that when kids yell in the hall and you ask them to quiet down, they’ll tell you to f*~! off. “This male trainee is starting to get into the mindset of ‘These are bad kids,’ ” explains Loughran, who worries the two residents are withdrawing, rather than engaging. “They are like, ‘I’m not going to work in this type of school.’ But this is what they’ve signed up for.”

It’s a serious problem, but not rare. Loughran, a mother of two, whose manner relays both patience and high expectations, listens to suggestions. Frank discussion—including admission of struggle—is critical. That’s why when veteran teachers seek out Loughran, wanting to become btr mentors, she is wary of “stars,” unless they are willing to question their own practices.

“The big thing at btr is you don’t walk around saying, ‘I’ve changed the world,’ ” she says. The best mentor teachers, she adds, “take the wind out of their own sails. They say, ‘This is what I’m good at and this is what I’m struggling with.’ ”

Reform Costs
It may seem obvious that getting better classroom teaching means improving the core task of recruiting and training teachers. The residency model is focused on that job, but it is detailed, time consuming, and expensive.

Not only is there the cost of stipends for residents—$11,400 in Boston, $32,000 in Chicago, and $10,000 at Boettcher—but there are also costs connected to their master’s degree training, health insurance, stipends for mentors ($3,000 each in Boston), and salaries for site directors, induction coaches, and administrators.

btr’s budget for the last school year was $3.4 million. Solomon has managed to get 85 percent of resident stipends and health insurance covered by the federal Americorps grant program. The district provides more than half of the budget, but btr still has to raise private money.

For cities launching a residency, finding funding is tough, but not impossible. In Philadelphia, Campbell has received a $500,000 grant from the Toyota Foundation and says that UPenn agreed to a tuition reduction for the master’s program. (She is still seeking funding so she can cap the degree cost for residents at $5,000.) Overall, Campbell figures she needs $750,000 to launch the program with 10 residents, providing them a stipend between $11,000 and $20,000 and offering mentor teachers a $5,000 stipend. While the focus is on getting up and running, Campbell knows that if she wants to grow to 160 residents in five years, that will cost money. Why start, she observes, if you don’t find some way to sustain the program?

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, likes the residency concept, especially when new teachers get more time and support before standing in front of their own class. “I think it’s a fabulous idea,” says Walsh. “The only problem I see with it is the cost. I know there are a lot of people who are saying, ‘We just need to find the money. This is the way we should train teachers for the inner-city.’ ” But, she says, “I just don’t know where the money is going to come from.”

A New Teaching Culture
residency programs like BTR want to do more than grow a supply of new teachers who won’t wilt in a city school. They want to change the profession. This is not merely about raising respect, but about the belief that teaching in urban schools today is both an intellectual and political activity. This does not, however, mean that btr seeks residents who want to “save” poor inner-city children. In fact, that is exactly what they don’t want.

Solomon, a curly-haired mit math major turned teacher-training reformer, expends a lot of energy, time, and money trying to get the best people he can to teach.

He speaks passionately about programmatic debates: How many residents and mentors does it take to spur a culture shift? How can he rework training to put student achievement more clearly at the core? But most powerful is his agenda to move inner-city teaching from Hollywood’s Stand and Deliver image—in which the committed teacher overcomes nonbelievers through the power of his skill and caring—to something more real, replicable, and collaborative. He sees a new generation of teachers reshaping the urban school landscape by coming out of their classrooms to share what they know—as well as what they don’t.

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