Preparing Teachers for Urban Schools

“Please to God, if you are going to send … [new teachers] into urban schools, prepare them a bit better than I was prepared.” (quoted in Bethany Rogers, pp. 353-354)

If I asked you to guess when this novice teacher said the above words, a good guess might be last week, last month, or last year. Actually, it came from a new teacher who had graduated from a university-based teacher education program in 1967.

I am reminded of this nearly half-century ago quote after reading Dana Goldstein’s book, Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession . In one chapter, Goldstein does a balanced job of reporting on Teach for America, a quarter-century effort that has brought liberal arts graduates from top colleges and universities into teaching. She points out the negatives (five weeks of summer training before assuming a full-time post in an urban school; only a two-year commitment to teach; high attrition rates after two years are completed) and positives (TFA secondary school math teachers outperformed a matched group of regular teachers as measured by standardized test scores; the funneling of TFA graduates into policy posts since the early 1990s). She sums up her experiences as an education reporter by saying:

Teach for America recruits are neither the saviors nor the banes of public education. Rather, like novice educators I’ve observed and interviewed, they run the gamut from talented and passionate to lackluster and burned out. What corps members share is the experience of being introduced to teaching through a truncated training process that stresses strict discipline and quantifiable results (p.197).

I had reached a similar conclusion.

Goldstein then goes on to recommend residency programs where newcomers to the profession are supervised by experienced teachers equipped with the expertise to model effective teaching and skills and be both sandpaper and a pillow to novices. Immersion into full-time classrooms is measured and monitored each step of the way over one to two years. These residencies—Goldstein notes that there are now 18 such programs from Memphis to Boston—make a great deal of sense to her, given her rich reporting on teachers and teaching over the past two centuries. And I agree.*

I would like to add another to her list of sensible ways of preparing teachers for urban schools. Look at the largest charter organization in California, Aspire Public Schools. The first 18 highly selective Aspire Teacher Residents in 2012 completed their first year of a four year stint–sounds like medical residents– of a closely supervised internship that includes a stipend of $13,500 and health insurance.

Fifteen have been hired to work full-time in the schools in which they were trained. Aspire has a network of 34 schools. They now step into the classroom as the teacher-of-record with a preliminary credential from the University of the Pacific and a Masters degree while continuing to work closely with a mentor who is paid a stipend to coach. And this support continues in subsequent years with Aspire teacher-coaches working with them until the residency is completed. Here is a district-based teacher training program–as opposed to a university-based program–that is smart.

Why smart?

Because they ask for a four-year commitment from novices rather than two in Teach for America. No novice has a prayer of mastering the complexities of teaching in two years–four years is closer to the norm of becoming a competent teacher.

Because support from mentors and peers–they are part of a cohort that meets periodically –during those years they are sailing solo in their classroom– strengthens the chance that such teachers will master the intricacies of the craft and become mentors themselves. After completing the four year residency, they can consider other posts in Aspire network such as Lead Teachers, Model Teachers, or administrators.

Because Aspire trains and inducts teachers into their expectations (e.g. all poor and minority students will go to college) and standards of teaching and student learning (e.g. how to teach, motivate, and evaluate students) in 34 charter schools. They do not depend wholly on university-based teacher education programs that provide generic course work with a brief time in actual classrooms.

Because the residency program is geared to pay for itself once foundation funding ends unlike similar programs elsewhere in the nation.

There is another reason I resonate to district–based (with affiliation to local university) internships and residencies is my experience in Washington, D.C. a half-century ago.

Surely history does not repeat itself since contexts then and now differ, but it comes close sometimes. In the early 1960s, I was a Master Teacher of History in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching that took returned Peace Corps Volunteers and trained them in one year to become urban teachers. Federally funded by the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, the model of a district-based program of teacher education located in a high school (and later in junior high schools and elementary schools) with second-year residencies created during the program attracted national attention for taking young, determined novices and helping them learn to teach in urban classrooms.

In 1966, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson sponsored the National Teacher Corps bill and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. The NTC went through many changes in its life span of 15 years in 700 sites across the nation recruiting and inducting thousands of new teachers to work in low-income minority schools (see National Teacher Corps 1966-1981 ) Many of those NTC teachers went on to become master teachers, principals, superintendents, and academics. Many stayed in the classroom. The experience left them changed people.

And in Washington, D.C., the Cardozo Project morphed into the Urban Teacher Corps that between 1967-1971 recruited and inducted hundreds of college graduates into D.C. classrooms before it was shut down by a new superintendent (see “Personal Odyssey: Becoming a Teacher and Reformer in the 1950s and 1960s,” February 27, 2011).

The D.C. schools scarf up Teach for America novices–recall that Chancellor Michelle Rhee was a TFA-er before serving as head of the district between 2007-2010. To my knowledge, there is no residency program in the district now.

So even with a score of teacher residency programs available now across the country, they are but a drop in the bucket of novices entering urban schools in 2014. Most newcomers come from conventional teacher education programs. The plea of that new teacher in 1967 was not hollow then nor is it now.


*To be clear with readers, Goldstein interviewed me about my experiences with the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching and I provided a back-cover blurb for the book.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

19 responses to “Preparing Teachers for Urban Schools

  1. jeffrey bowen

    I graduated from the Johns Hopkins MAT program in 1969. Today’s Teach for America and the charter linked Aspire programs reflect many aspects of the MAT–including summer pedagogy, micro-teaching, and internships. A reliable cohort group and mentoring are as essential now as back in the 60’s. But 4 years with a pitiful stipend AFTER college, and no public school teaching credential to boot? Really?? Dream on…

  2. Joan

    You should check out Match Teacher Residency on the East Coast! It’s shorter, but similar in many ways.

  3. semading

    Jeffrey Bowen…actually, the stipend is for the firt year. Afterward, individuals will earn a full teacher salary with 100% benefits.

  4. Well said! Aspire is a leader among teacher residency programs and among school districts that have taken a direct role in strengthening the preparation and quality of their novice teachers. Urban Teacher Residency United’s Network is proud to count Aspire as a member; We look to programs like Aspire’s for lessons to improve the impact of other residency programs–new and existing– and to inform peer working groups and technical assistance through our Network outreach. So pleased to see you highlight their remarkable work.

  5. I wonder if the “residency” aspect is sufficient to differentaite preparation for urban education (versus “all other”). It may be hard to answer, depending on prior life experiences….

  6. JMK

    I felt extremely well prepared by my ed school, and I’ve taught in two Title I schools and one declining enrollment school that had to take a lot of expelled kids from other schools. I grant you my ed school didn’t much care for me, but oh well. If I could change one thing about teacher training, it would be to require a longer term teaching and require it to be in high poverty schools.

    But the residency programs can’t possibly scale, can they? I like Aspire, but if we basically say we’re going to pay students for their first year of student teaching, that’s going to cost a lot. And if we say no, we’ll only pay teachers if they work in high poverty schools, I see two problems. One, teachers will get credentialed and paid for ed school–then leave for schools that aren’t high poverty.

    Two–the implication is that learning how to teach in high poverty schools is different and less attractive, and more difficult than teaching in low poverty schools. Which is, of course, true (in that we can see teacher choices reflecting this), but setting up teaching incentives based on that, not so good in that the politics get iffy.

    In fact, we should create teaching credentials based on demographics, and pay more to teach in high poverty schools–but again, the whole implication that teaching skills and competencies varies based on SES? That will be difficult to push through.

    I remember someone asked Elizabeth Green that question in a q&a session, and she basically implied it was racist to imply that teaching kids takes different skills depending on their ability and income. Expect lots of that in feedback if we ever tried to formalize it.

    • larrycuban

      You raise some points that get to the core of staffing issues of recruitment, training, and attrition. On the matter of whether residencies will scale, that is a question that has bugged school reform for the past three decades, particularly with the influence of business leaders (and philanthropists) who see schools as just another kind of organization in need of efficiency. Going to scale in schooling sees uniformity and compliance as organizational characteristics when schools are far more complex in relationships, unpredictability and resistant to engineering solutions that work better in non-school organizations. So residencies popping up all over surely will cost more and will have far more variation than efficiency-minded leaders can tolerate; such programs cannot easily “scale up” and thus save money. Also paying medical interns their first year after finishing med school is seldom questioned now. Federal and private incentives, including direct payments,to get doctors, lawyers, and other professionals to work in underserved areas is fairly common.

  7. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    I do agree with Larry Cuban that the option described is smarter than eg Teach for America.

  8. Hi Larry, Nice to finally meet you – in the blogosphere. Years ago as a graduate student at the College/University of Charleston while working with the Accelerated Schools Project, I was given a copy of your article “Reforming Again, and Again, and Again.” The title has stayed with me – the best (or at least the one that most resonated with me) among hundreds I read and wrote abstracts for in those days when I had just returned from private sector teaching in Japan and to earn an MAT degree so I could teach in America.
    I’ve long believed that internships as you’ve described above could be part of the solution if our aim is to get better-prepared teachers in our most challenging classrooms – not to mention teachers more likely to remain in education. But as JMK, above, observed, scalability… Where does the money for this model come from if it’s to be applied more broadly? Or even sustained locally?
    Thirty years in the profession in a career that has spanned two continents, three countries, elite private schools, public blue ribbon schools, Native American village schools, suburban schools, impoverished urban schools and more, and this is what I’ve come to conclude…
    – Teacher education programs in this country are weak. I used to think that was the root of the problem.
    – The earnings potential in education – from entry to retirement – is low compared to many other professions requiring a college degree. It’s a limiting factor on recruitment and retention. And that actually Is one of the roots of the problem, but more so in its effect on our ability to recruit and retain quality administrators than it is on our ability to recruit and retain teachers. (No one ever talks about administrators when the subject of reform comes up. It’s always teachers, teachers, teachers, and that, in my view, is the wrong foot to begin on. Nothing – no sports team, no industry, no political system, no military unit no corner grocer and no school or school district can long rise above the level of its leadership. How is that we intuitively understand this regarding every enterprise except public education?)
    – The other root of the problem – and one that goes hand-in-glove with the vexing challenge of improving the quality of administrators in our schools – is oversight. We are crippled by a myth that goes something like this: Teachers are saints. They care deeply about children, spend money out of their own pockets, work tirelessly (And Bravely) on behalf of children, and have special powers that allow them to do what no NFL team, US Navy unit or company is capable of: rise above bad leadership. Americans are so deeply invested in this myth that they can do little but act with indignity in instances where some or all of this proves to be untrue. Show me a poorly performing school, and I’ll show you a long line tax payers and elected representatives on the local, state and national level (up to and including President Obama – and prior to him, President Bush) who are ready to tar, feather and ride out of town every teacher “responsible” for the low performance.
    And the administrators who preside over the low performance are happy to join the chorus with the utter nonsense: “Why, I’d fire these teachers in batches if it weren’t for union rules tying my hands.”

    All this goes on while our nation’s school boards fiddle. Their members are the people who are, first and foremost, charged with holding our schools – and our school administrators – accountable.
    By and large, they do not do their jobs.
    Every successful institution has an oversight body keeping that institution on track. These bodies have in common things such as clear visions for the enterprises they oversee, concise, understandable, to-the-point mission statements, and passion to see a quality end product. They have the authority, the will and the conviction to hold accountable and to remove their CEOs and the lieutenants of those CEOs when they don’t perform up to expectation.
    We don’t have any of those things from most of our school boards in most districts in America.
    Without quality oversight – competent, alert, educable, passionate school boards or some Capable oversight body that would replace those boards – all else is, to paraphrase Thoreau, hacking at the leaves when we should be hacking at the roots.
    I think that matter of bad leadership – administrators, school boards – is addressable. Maybe even solvable.

    • larrycuban

      I, too, Jack,am glad that we reconnected through the blog. Although we have not met, my article that you read decades ago and your response here have, indeed, linked us again, lo these many years. Thanks for the comment on teaching principaling, and local school boards drawn from your experiences in so many different settings.

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