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No teacher left behind? Bush Foundation looks at how to improve preparation programs

One of the more intriguing ideas floated by foundation President Peter Hutchinson is having teaching programs keep education majors enrolled for four years after they graduate to receive ongoing coaching and mentoring. Further, those teacher prep programs would agree to be accountable for their students' success.

Hutchinson made his comments recently to an ad hoc Achievement Gap Committee hosted by former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser and open to anyone interested in the topic. Hutchinson characterized his comments as ideas, not proposals. (Disclosure: I have attended these committee meetings on and off since 2007 when I was immersed in researching a variety of children's issues. In recent months, I have had a small contract as committee note-taker. I missed this meeting but got the tape.)

The Bush Foundation is getting ready to announce a new experiment to partner with — and overhaul — teacher preparation programs.

Having new teachers return to school for ongoing training after graduation would have the added benefit of keeping their professors grounded in real-world classrooms, Hutchinson said. "It pushes those professors in direct contact with the actual teaching that is going on, so they can learn about what is working and what isn't working."

Bush gave away more than $38 million in 2007, ranking seventh among all state foundations, according to the Minnesota Council on Foundations. Earlier this year, Bush announced plans to refocus its giving in three areas: developing courageous leadership; supporting the self-determination of Native nations; and increasing educational achievement.

Schools and teachers are under the microscope of No Child Left Behind. The Bush Foundation approach seems to expand that accountability lens, asking whether teacher prep programs are doing their job, too.

Ultimately, Bush's goal is to increase by 50 percent the students in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota who are on track to earn a degree after high school, and eliminate disparities among diverse student groups.

A tight focus
I wanted to talk to Hutchinson how his thinking had evolved since his days as Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent (late 1993 to mid-1997). He declined an interview, as Bush anticipates making an announcement in the next month or two about the initiative and the person who will lead it.

Listening to the tape, an exchange between Hutchinson and a longtime teacher struck a familiar "it-takes-a-village" theme. The teacher said improving teacher training was a no-brainer, but people are expecting teachers to do it all. The solution has to include more people supporting kids: "It is a bigger picture than what we are hearing today," she said.

Hutchinson was superintendent when city leaders (himself included) were pushing the Search Institute's 40 developmental assets, a broad approach to youth development. He was at the MPS helm when the School Board approved the 1995 report, "Eliminating the Gap: Ensuring that All Students Learn." It included the following comment: "The learning gap will not be eliminated in school alone. A culture of achievement in the community is essential."

We've seen any number of big initiatives come and go. Remember Gov. Arne Carlson's Children's Cabinet? How about America's Promise? The big picture stuff is tough to do.

Hutchinson said his board has chosen to work for 10 years on this one thing, teacher effectiveness, and that leaves out a lot of other things that could support achievement.

"That is not to say that whether parents read to their kids doesn't count. It's not to say that the neighborhood doesn't matter. But what goes on in classrooms is what this is about. When we take our eye off of that, we get what we got," he said.

Quick data
Here are some of Hutchinson's comments that jumped out at me.

Minnesota trains twice as many teachers as are actually hired. New teachers have a one-in-four chance of still teaching five years later. "You are paying the system to produce four teachers but you are only getting one," he said. "That isn't a very good investment." (That bolsters his argument for raising admissions standards and accepting fewer students.)

He defined effective teachers as those whose students get a year's worth of learning in a year's time. He cited Dallas Public Schools data, which showed that if children had three effective teachers in a row, nearly all passed a statewide math test — regardless of where they started academically. But if they had three ineffective teachers in a row, the lowest-performing students were the most adversely affected.

As he did as superintendent, Hutchinson is pushing the education system to measure students' relative learning year to year.

"We keep measuring whether kids can pass a test," he said. "We refuse to ask ourselves, how far are those kids moving? It is the movement that matters."

Best friends
Run a foundation and you're everyone's best friend, Hutchinson said. And when Bush announced its new direction, it got a new set of best friends.

Creating the new vision for teacher training won't be easy. Bush is looking for three or four partners willing to experiment. Hutchinson describes the process as locking everyone in a room, challenging one another's ideas and no one leaving until they hash things out.

"If you don't want to do that, don't be my best friend," he said.

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Comments (1)

This proposed project points to a key challenge in teacher education--retaining top flight teachers during their first few years of teaching.
While connecting back with a teacher preparation institution is certainly important to keep teachers informed about current teaching methods and to provide an arena for debriefing and reflecting on their teaching, it is also important for schools to provide supportive environments for beginning teachers.
One primary reason for leaving teaching is the lack of mentoring or support provided to beginning teachers. Teachers often operate in isolation, operating in their own classroom spaces, so without opportunities to share problems and receive advice or suggestions, they often struggle. When teachers can turn to helpful mentors or receive additional support, they can survive their initial years of teaching.
Beginning in the early 1990s, our College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota, began working with Henry High School, Minneapolis, as they established a "residency program" designed to support beginning teachers. These teachers were assigned mentors, met weekly in brown-bag lunch sessions, and had a reduced teaching load. Many of the teachers who started teaching there in the 1990s had initial positive experiences and continue to teach at that school.
The idea of a "residency program" has been considered for adoption in all Minnesota schools to assist new teachers, but each time it's proposed in the legislature, the costs of such programs leads to rejecting the idea. One can only hope that individual schools or districts consider creating these programs, as well as linking them to the Bush Foundation's attempts to connect new teachers back to their teacher education programs.