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Our Crossroads in Teacher Prep

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Ariela Rozman, CEO of The New Teacher Project. TNTP recruits and trains effective new teachers, builds better teacher evaluation systems, helps school leaders nurture and reward excellent instruction, and advances smarter teacher-quality policies.

At TNTP, we wake up every morning focused on one goal: putting more great teachers in front of the students who need them most. Decades of research tell us that this is the most important thing schools can do for kids.

In the past few years, we've been known for our reports about the policies that prevent urban schools from hiring and keeping effective teachers (most recently, The Irreplaceables). But TNTP's main work has been recruiting and training new teachers through our Teaching Fellows programs, highly selective alternate-route programs designed to help districts start every year with a trained teacher in every classroom.

In many ways, our Fellows programs have been very successful. We have prepared over 30,000 "career changers" and recent college graduates to teach at struggling schools in resource-deprived communities, leading hard-to-staff classes like middle school special education and high school chemistry. Last year, we received more than 30 applications for every spot. Our 2012 class of Fellows included doctors, lawyers and scientists, and was far more diverse than traditional schools of education, with 38 percent people of color. Our Fellows have a lasting impact, too: in New York City, for example, one out of four math teachers came through our program.

I can fill this blog with statistics and details about how extraordinary our Fellows are. But what matters is not necessarily the selectivity of the program; it is whether our Fellows are helping students learn. And over the course of a few years, we encountered evidence that our Fellows were not significantly outperforming other teachers in helping students learn, as we had expected.

Instead, the data showed that they were just about the same. All pipelines, ours included, were bringing in a bell curve of teachers: some very good, some very bad, and a lot of folks in the middle.

We found ourselves at a crossroads. Did we have what it would take to question everything we'd done before, and to publicly say, "It's not good enough?" If we truly wanted to be an organization devoted to bringing excellent teachers to kids--not just helping districts fill difficult teaching vacancies--we would have to dramatically change our approach.

That's exactly what we did. A growing body of research has shown that the best predictor of teachers' success is their past performance in the classroom, not their paper qualifications. Research has also proven that teachers perform at very different levels--some exceptional, some ineffective, most somewhere in between--and our experience has shown that this is true from almost the first moment they enter the classroom. Our own research and studies like the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project have pointed the way toward more rigorous and accurate teacher evaluations.

With that knowledge in hand, we established a clear standard for excellent first-year teaching: new teachers need to quickly master essential skills, like basic classroom management and lesson planning, and show they can grow quickly. Then we built the Assessment of Classroom Effectiveness (ACE), an evaluation system specifically for first-year teachers, to ensure that only teachers poised for success would earn certification. Otherwise, we would risk bringing low-performing teachers to the classroom, contributing to the problem we were trying to fix.

Was it easy? No. Downright painful is more like it. Our staff worked tirelessly to conduct a comprehensive data collection and research effort, enlist hundreds of school principals to participate, pioneer the use of student surveys in certification decisions and coordinate in-depth classroom observations tied to a brand-new rubric. But we did it: our first class of Fellows was certified under ACE during the 2011-12 school year. We'll be publishing our research findings on ACE in a new paper next month.

I am proud that we made the right call for teachers in classrooms. (And when I say "we," I mean all 330 of us at TNTP.) Any time I spoke to a staff member about the decisions before us, they asked, "Is it the right thing for kids? Then let's get working." We chose not to be defined by what was or what we had been doing--or, as Rick would say, by our cages--but rather, to look to what we could be and start figuring out what it would take to get there.

- Ariela Rozman

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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