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15 Strategies for Placing Excellent Teachers in High-Need Schools

By Arthur E. Levine — August 01, 2014 6 min read
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In July, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced his department’s new Excellent Educators for All initiative, which seeks to ensure that students in high-need schools have equitable access to effective teachers.

The secretary, in a July 7 letter to the nation’s chief state school officers, called for states to demonstrate how they will put strong teachers in all classrooms—not just in the well-resourced ones.

The need for this effort is urgent. Recent studies have found that students in high-need schools, which are overwhelmingly low-income, minority, and low-achieving, are twice as likely to have teachers without adequate credentials in their fields, particularly in math and science. The National Science Foundation reports that 15 percent to 20 percent of math and science teachers in high-need high schools, and as many as 35 percent to 40 percent in high-need middle schools, are teaching out of field. In addition, too many of the credentialed teachers in those schools were not adequately prepared in classroom management.

Secretary Duncan’s agenda is both laudable and imperative, but achieving it will be extraordinarily difficult. Seven years ago, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which I lead, launched a state-based teaching fellowship, designed to achieve goals the secretary also aims to meet: attracting high-ability students to careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) teaching in high-need schools, and enabling strong and committed universities to develop model teacher education programs to prepare them. The fellowship now operates in five states—Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio—and involves 28 universities and scores of high-need districts.

Both from its successes and missteps, the foundation learned a great deal about what works in recruiting and preparing excellent teachers for high-need schools. Here are 15 lessons from our work so far.

1. Focus on entire states. States offer the greatest leverage in meeting the secretary’s goals because they are the locus of the nation’s educational policies and funding. They have common certification and teacher-education-program authorization requirements. They permit the most effective targeting of high-need districts and their teacher-subject-matter shortages. And, at the state level, relatively small numbers of new teachers can make a large impact and build critical mass in struggling districts.

2. Begin with the governor and build a statewide coalition. This coalition should consist of the state’s top higher education official, its chief state school officer, legislators on both sides of the aisle, universities, high-need school districts, unions, and other stakeholders. This guarantees program continuity and brings all the key state players to the table.

3. Be selective. Choose the best, but recognize that capacity to create excellent teacher education programs does not mirror U.S. News & World Report rankings. Invite participation only by those universities with the capacity to create excellent teacher education programs, stable school districts that can benefit from the initiative, and high-ability aspiring teachers with a commitment to teach in high-need schools. Vet potential participants carefully.

4. Invest in recruitment. Attracting high-ability students in high-need subject areas, particularly STEM majors, and professionals who have many more-lucrative career possibilities, is expensive and time-intensive, but worth it.

5. Focus on one-year master’s-degree teacher education programs. They are cheaper than four-year undergraduate programs and far more attractive to career changers.

We found it took 18 to 21 months for universities to create cutting-edge [teacher education] programs and three years to perfect them after implementation.”

6. Be explicit. Make clear to participants—universities, districts, and admitted students—what is expected of them in terms of program characteristics, assessment, how many years they must work in high-need schools, and what constitutes a high-need district. The Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship provides participating universities with detailed program-design requirements, such as yearlong clinical experiences and three years of mentoring for graduates, and demands that fellows teach for three years in the state’s high-need schools.

7. Do the research. Determine the number of teachers that participating districts can actually hire and the subject areas that are needed. There is a tendency on the part of superintendents to speak of how many teachers they need, rather than how many they can actually hire. Similarly, STEM vacancies tend to be thought of as fungible, when in fact biology is often adequately staffed and physical sciences are woefully understaffed.

8. Provide necessary resources for universities. They need the funding to develop excellent, cutting-edge programs and to offer financial support to students. Our program provides universities with $400,000 to $500,000 to develop their programs and also awards students $30,000 fellowships to attend them.

9. Require skin in the game. Universities should be asked to match funds for program development to strengthen ownership and commitment.

10. Foster strong partnerships between universities and school districts. Such partnerships enable districts to get the teachers they need, and foster collaborations between arts and sciences colleges and education schools to bring together subject-matter content and pedagogy.

11. Give universities the time to create excellent teacher education programs. We found it took 18 to 21 months for universities to create cutting-edge programs and three years to perfect them after implementation.

12. Demand accountability. In the Woodrow Wilson program, university presidents and district superintendents are required to sign memoranda of understanding making clear what they will do by what dates. Universities must successfully achieve their stated objectives to qualify to receive fellowships. Future teachers who do not fulfill their minimum commitment of three years of teaching in high-need schools in the state where they earned their master’s degrees must repay their fellowships.

13. Work with universities and school districts to develop and implement excellent programs, and mentor students once they become teachers. Imagining new programs is difficult, and, without support, many universities and schools tend to maintain the status quo. Mentoring students encourages retention. After the three required years of teaching, 80 percent of Woodrow Wilson fellows stay in teaching.

14. Require third-party evidence-based assessment. Anecdotes and reassurances no longer suffice as proof of success. The coin of the realm has become hard data on issues such as student achievement and teacher retention, supplied by disinterested and credible third parties. States must build in plans and resources for such assessment from the very beginning.

15. Require achievable sustainability plans. Every memo of understanding by presidents of universities participating in the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship includes a plan for institutionalizing the new teacher education program and for diffusing its practices to other teacher education programs in the university.

Study after study has shown that teachers are the single most important in-school factor in improving student achievement. Yet too many young people in the nation’s urban and rural high-need schools still lack the opportunity to work with good teachers, across the curriculum. To change this situation will require a clear state-level commitment to invest in a stronger and more diverse corps of educators and excellent teacher-preparation programs, as well as an energetic local response to hire and support the best teachers.

The Woodrow Wilson experience shows that significant improvement is indeed possible. Committed universities can develop excellent teacher education programs. High-ability students will attend such programs and make careers teaching high-need subjects in high-need districts. Secretary Duncan’s goal can become a reality.

A version of this article appeared in the August 20, 2014 edition of Education Week as 15 Ways to Draw Great Teachers to High-Need Schools

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