Teacher Preparation

Mass. ‘Bonus Babies’ Get Crash Course

By Jeff Archer — September 06, 2000 10 min read
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The nail-biting was almost audible when a group of teachers-in-training gathered here at Durfee High School for one of the last seminars in their crash course on education.

Alison Thibodeau, a former substitute teacher with a graduate degree in economics, confessed that not one of the 9th and 10th graders she’d been teaching this summer managed to pass a quiz she’d just given. And Matthew Stuck, a Coast Guard lieutenant who’s leaving the service to teach mathematics, agonized that his recent lesson on linear equations seemed lost on two-thirds of his students.

“I’ve done some stage directing,” offered William Pett, another would-be teacher, “and I can tell you, you always wish you had more time to rehearse.”

But rehearsal time was kept to a minimum for the 18 novices who met here each afternoon this summer—and for 147 others like them at five other training sites throughout the state. As participants in the Massachusetts Institute for New Teachers, they had less than two months to learn the basics of classroom management, lesson planning, and different learning styles.

Better known as the Massachusetts signing-bonus program, the initiative has attracted far more attention for the $20,000 it hands out to recruits. But with the high-profile initiative now into its second year, what’s clear is that the financial reward is only part of the attraction. In fact, despite the butterflies in their stomachs, many of these “bonus babies” say it was the promise of an accelerated entree into the profession that most caught their eyes.

“The traditional path would have been to go back to school, and I don’t know if I could make that kind of a two-year commitment,” said Diane Fowler, 51, whose previous credentials include a master’s degree in history and four years’ experience as a special education teacher’s aide. “So to be able to complete this program in seven weeks is a big plus.”

A ‘Middle Ground’

When state Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham first proposed the hefty incentives, the hope was to help the state’s schools better compete with private industry in attracting high-caliber talent. At the time, Massachusetts was starting to feel some of the pinch from the nationwide shortage of qualified teachers, and had just been jolted by a 59 percent failure rate on its new teacher-licensing exam.

Although the program was aimed at career-changers and recent liberal arts graduates, little thought was given initially to preparing the bonus winners for their first classroom assignments. Massachusetts allows districts to design their own alternative-licensing programs for nontraditional candidates, but state officials say few have done so.

The training program the state assembled borrows heavily from Teach For America, the decade-old private venture that recruits recent college graduates to work in urban and rural schools around the country. This year, in fact, four of the six Massachusetts training sites have been run by the New Teacher Project, a consulting effort born from TFA. The others are run by the University of Massachusetts.

During the institute, participants spend their mornings helping to teach summer school to middle and high school students, in many cases to students in danger of being held back because of low test scores. Organizers concentrate on training secondary school teachers because the shortages are not so dire at the elementary level. In the afternoons, the participants gather for seminars on such topics as using student assessments, teaching children with special needs, and applying the latest brain research to instruction.

“We’re trying to give them the scaffolding they need that they can build on later,” said Vicky Seelen, who directs the training site at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Ms. Seelan and her husband, Tad Lawrence, themselves reflect the program’s nontraditional bent. Together, they’ve led the seminars at one of the program’s biggest sites, and yet neither has any experience working in public education beyond student teaching. Instead, both teach at Boston-area independent schools.

The two see the training program as a “middle ground” between the conventional public school teacher-preparation model emphasizing lots of coursework in education, and the typical independent school model, which tends to stress expertise in one’s subject area. Said Ms. Seelen: “It’s an accelerated program for a very special kind of person.”

Opening Doors

Chosen from a pool of more than 900 applicants, this year’s cohort of participants in the Massachusetts program includes biochemistry majors, former management consultants, and refugees from the legal profession. Many have some experience working with children as tutors, mentors, or even private school teachers. A few have taken education courses, but none have taught public school.

Few better qualify as a poster child for the program than former software engineer Rik Rowe, who spent much of his work life designing information-technology systems for an investment firm. Along with his programming skills, he’s always had a knack for explaining math concepts to others. “It comes from being detail-oriented and thinking step by step,” he said.

Though bitten long ago by the teaching bug, the 41-year-old Mr. Rowe said he hit a roadblock whenever he investigated getting the necessary credentials. Each option meant giving up his job to take education courses and to student-teach—something he couldn’t afford to do. So when a relative told him about the new program, Mr. Rowe rushed to get his application in.

“I’m not in it for the money,” Mr. Rowe said, “but for the chance to teach.”

Not only is he taking a two-thirds pay cut, but he also opted for the program even though the state told him he wouldn’t be getting a bonus. In expanding the initiative from 59 participants last year to 165 this year, Massachusetts added about 60 slots for candidates who would not receive the award.

A similar lesson was learned this summer in New York City, where some 2,300 people vied for 350 spots in the district’s new “teaching fellows” program. Like the Massachusetts initiative, the New York program involves a summer crash-course run by the New Teacher Project. But New York’s “fellows” only receive a $2,000 stipend, plus tuition reimbursement toward the master’s they must earn to become fully licensed.

“There’s no question about the fact that these programs are escalating, and it’s indicative of the interest in teaching,” said C. Emily Feistritzer, who heads the National Center for Education Information, a private research group in Washington, and is an ardent supporter of alternative routes into teaching. “I think we’ve underestimated the attractiveness of teaching as a profession.”

Still, many of the participants in Massachusetts say the bonus was an important attention-getter at a time when other promising opportunities beckoned. It also helped them survive the summer between quitting their old jobs and beginning their new ones. Each bonus winner gets $8,000 by early in his or her first semester of teaching; the rest is given in $4,000 payments at the beginning of each of the next three years.

A Scarlet Letter?

While the $1.7 million-a-year program has succeeded in capturing the attention of its intended audience, the state’s broader education community has been slower to embrace it. Critics have charged that it essentially pays top-dollar for a small cadre of poorly trained educators.

Some participants have been told outright that the brevity of their training is a mark against them, and many have chosen not to tell their colleagues that they’re among the chosen few. According to Ms. Fowler, a schools superintendent interviewing her early this summer said bluntly that he would “never ever hire a ‘bonus baby.’” She later got multiple offers from other systems.

Contending with the hiring bureaucracy in urban systems also has created problems, especially in Boston, where standard procedures usually keep job-seekers waiting until August to learn where they might have positions.

“We all really had a hard time getting jobs,” said Liora Faliks, a 23-year-old graduate of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “A lot of principals I interviewed with were pretty negative. They looked at me as a person with no experience, but who just had a lot of fancy degrees.”

Even still, some Boston principals have worked around the 64,000-student district’s administrative rules and managed to snatch up a few of the bonus winners. Some districts also actively sought out the recipients. The 5,500-student Chelsea public schools alone hired about a dozen of last year’s 59, including Ms. Faliks.

Moreover, state education officials say that much of last year’s skepticism has faded, and that participants are getting jobs more quickly now. Mr. Rowe, for instance, had eight offers before his summer training even began.

But the placement challenge has prompted the state to drop both its guarantee that all participants would find jobs and the expectation that all bonus recipients would work in urban districts.

Some Not Returning

Still an open question is just how effective the bonus winners are once on the job. A recent education department survey showed 86 of the principals of last year’s recipients consider the recruits at least “average” or above, and 90 percent said they’d hire one again.

“They’re willing to learn; they don’t come off like they know all the answers,” said Michael Fung, the principal at Boston’s Charlestown High School. “This year, the [recruits] are better than the ones from schools of education,” he added.

But many of last year’s participants also initially had their confidence knocked down several notches as they faced the realities of managing their own classrooms. “You come from situations where you’ve been used to being successful,” said Jennifer Arenson, who entered the program last year after earning a master’s in educational administration from Harvard. “And suddenly, you’re in a situation where you’re putting more work into something than you ever have before, and you’re feeling more incompetent than you ever have before.”

Six of last year’s bonus winners are not returning to the classroom this fall—an attrition rate that’s close to the national average for all first-year teachers.

Ms. Faliks, who last year taught a self-contained 6th grade class, decided to leave, meaning she forfeited any additional bonus, but did not have to return the $8,000 she’s received so far. Although offered a renewed contract, she said she found the task of mitigating her student’s poverty and other challenges to be overwhelming.

“I felt like I was working so hard, and it just wasn’t making a difference,” she said. “I don’t think it was the program. I think I was placed in a school and a situation that wasn’t good for me.”

Other candidates last year had similar feelings, but pulled through with help from veteran colleagues. Yvonne Powell, a former business and financial planner from General Electric, found her first few weeks at a Boston high school to be so difficult that one day she let her students know she wasn’t sure she’d be back this fall.

“I came to the school expecting that I had learned a lot, and what I found was that I wasn’t as good at it as I thought I’d be,” said Ms. Powell, 55, who holds degrees from Harvard, Brown University, and MIT. “My idea of classroom management was, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, quiet please.’ ”

But along with her commitment to serving urban children, Ms. Powell credits the support she received from two mentors at her school—one her school assigned to her, and one whom she “adopted"—with enabling her to get her classroom under control. She said recently she plans to be a teacher for at least 10 years.

“I think people who are mature, and who have worked in industry, and who have a commitment to kids, are probably better able do this than many 22-year-olds getting right out of college,” Ms. Powell said. “I’m not saying they won’t be good teachers, but if I had to, I’d bet my stock on the midcareer person.”

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