Future of Teaching

California ruling prompts reflection about Indiana's teacher protections

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

A ruling against teacher tenure in a Los Angeles lawsuit earlier this week has local advocates considering their own challenges to teachers’ job protections.

The preliminary ruling in the lawsuit Vergara v. California strikes down a slate of that state’s laws around teacher tenure and firing. The judge in the case, Rolf Treu, said data showing that poor and non-white students in California are more often taught by low-performing teachers convinced him that the laws violate the state’s constitution. The distribution of teacher quality “shocks the conscience,” Treu said in his ruling.

The lawsuit was brought by nine families with the backing of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who began supporting education issues after he was unsettled by how difficult it was for his own children’s schools to fire teachers. Its backers include national critics of teachers unions, including Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst, which has an Indiana chapter.

Its critics include teachers unions and others who say that tenure protects teachers from capricious administrators and helps make teaching an attractive profession.

“Today’s ruling would make it harder to attract and retain quality teachers in our classrooms and ignores all research that shows experience is a key factor in effective teaching,” said Dennis van Roekel, president of the nation’s largest teachers union, said in response to the ruling.

The state of California and its teachers unions are gearing up to appeal, guaranteeing a long legal fight before the issue of teacher tenure in California is resolved. Still, their first-round success has Vergara supporters weighing whether to take on teacher tenure laws in other states.

The labor landscape is pretty different in Indiana, which in recent decades eliminated teacher tenure and other laws that some felt advantaged unions over school districts on issues of teacher job security.

Hoosier teachers still have protections against unjust firing, but they are weaker than states like California.

Local critics of teachers unions believe principals should have even more flexibility. But Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith argues Indiana’s system is the opposite of California: it gives the advantage to administrators.

“It’s not fair a system at all,” she said. “It makes it easier for someone to get away with dismissing a veteran teacher simply because they don’t want them any more.”

But Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, thinks Indiana is in a good place when it comes to teacher protections.

“There’s probably better flexibility now,” he said. “The pendulum has come a little more center. There are protections for teachers but when we loosened up the collective bargaining law that re-centered us a little.”

Changes in state law in 2011 further limited teachers unions, which used to bargain on an array of teacher working conditions such as class size and rules for requiring meetings outside of the work day. Indiana teacher unions can now only bargain on issues of pay and benefits.

The 2011 law also called for a redesign of the traditional union step system, under which teachers earn more pay the longer they stay in the district or when they get more education, such as a masters degree.

Just as the California unions argued, Meredith said Indiana teachers need more protections so that effective, experienced teachers aren’t unfairly fired just to save money or for even more unjust reasons.

“We need some sort of process to protect veteran teachers from being fired because someone just graduated from college and is related to someone and they need a job,” she said. “That used to happen all the time.”

But it doesn’t happen anymore, Bess said, and he argued it isn’t likely to, in part because the 2011 law makes hiring and firing heavily dependent on teacher performance. It would not be easy, he said, for principals to rig evaluations in order to unjustly fire teachers just to make room for others different that they prefer.

“I think that would be a pretty small occurrence for a superintendent or principal to direct teacher evaluation for the purpose of, say, trying to hire a relative, especially if a teacher had consistent evaluations as effective,” Bess said. “I don’t see that happening.”

Meredith said she also fears new evaluation and bargaining laws could lead to lower pay for teachers, as ISTA has seen many districts propose pay raises that are paid as one-time bonuses that are connected to performance or depend on teachers taking on extra duties.

“Base pay could remain very low,” she said. “If we don’t see change in legislation it may become hard for schools to get teachers because they won’t be able to pay them very much.”

To Bess, however, basing pay heavily on performance provides good incentives for teachers and for principals, whose own ratings depend also on how well their teachers are able to improve student test scores and academic work.

Principals, he said, should want the best teachers and be willing to pay for top teaching talent.

“If a principal wants to make changes in teachers, that impacts student achievement,” he said,” and the principals’ evaluations too.”

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

Man Up

With Man Up, a new Memphis teacher prep program is training, mentoring men of color

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Founder Patrick Washington discusses his program Man Up with current Relay Graduate School of Education participants. The program aims to partner with Relay to train more male teachers of color.

Patrick Washington has teaching in his blood.  

Washington’s great-great-grandfather, Richard Adkins, was born a slave in Marshall County, Mississippi. After the Civil War, Adkins, who was separated from his parents early on, worked as a sharecropper. Despite long hours picking cotton, he learned to read and write.

Soon after, Adkins taught other former slaves to do the same. He did so just years after anti-literacy laws, which forbade the education of slaves, were abolished. And he did so, Washington believes, because he imagined a better life for his children and grandchildren.

“He saw me,” Washington, a Memphis-based teacher and school administrator, said.

For Washington, 43, teaching is “the best profession on this side of heaven,” and it’s all he ever wanted to do. But he wishes more men of color saw the promise of a career in education. That’s why he’s partnering with Relay Graduate School of Education and Blue Mountain College on a new Memphis-based teacher preparation program called Man Up.

The goal: Train more men of color from various walks of life to become teachers in Memphis, and provide them with mentorship along the way.

According to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Education, black males make up just two percent of the teaching workforce nationwide. Statewide, that number is nearly the same, and in Shelby County Schools, men of color make up about 9.5 percent of teachers.

That lack of classroom representation, Washington believes, is often internalized by male students of color.

“That’s why they raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, I want to play basketball; I want to be a rapper; I want to be a policeman,’” Washington said. “Because that’s what they see.”

He said some are also dissuaded because they perceive teaching as a low-paid, low-status career.

Two years into his first teaching job at Memphis’ Evans Elementary, Washington was the school’s only teacher of color. And, over the next ten years, as Washington took on administrative roles at two other area schools, he noticed a pattern: There were few black male teachers, if there were any at all.

Those experiences, he said, were socially isolating. He also said that at schools that disproportionately discipline black male students, male teachers of color often find themselves in the role of disciplinarian. He said that here in Memphis, single mothers of boys have come to him, seeking behavioral support because they see him as a “father figure.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Man Up currently has seven cohort members for its Graduate Lane, and is seeking three more applicants.

Were schools to employ more teachers of color, they would be less likely to enact the kind of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies that have often fallen on Washington to enforce, he said. A study from the Center for Education Data & Research seems to support that theory; it found that students were 46 percent more likely to be seen as disruptive by a teacher of another race.

Man Up seeks to help diversify the teaching force by providing accepted applicants with a fully funded teacher preparation program, thanks to grants and philanthropic dollars. In exchange for free training, participants agree to spend at least five years teaching. In addition to their salaries, they receive annual $5,000 stipends.

The program, he said, will eventually have five different tracks to help men of color obtain teaching licenses. Those so-called “lanes” are:  

The Graduate Lane: For recent college graduates, this program enables trainees, studying towards their master’s degree in education, to teach alongside a mentor teacher over a two-year period.

The Undergraduate Lane: Man Up is currently exploring a partnership with the University of Memphis, where the program would identify aspiring teachers among undergraduate students and provide them tuition assistance to complete their licensing requirements, alongside their degrees.

The High School Lane: This track would identify high school juniors and seniors with an interest in becoming teachers. It will pair them with non-profit organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, with the goal of helping them develop mentoring skills. They would also attend monthly seminars, similar to introductory education courses, and they would get hands-on practice in the classroom. After enrolling in a partnering college or university, students would move up to the Undergraduate Lane and graduate with up to six years of classroom experience.

The Teach 2nd Lane: This track would be for career changers — specifically retired servicemen or businessmen. They would attend a five-week boot camp, enroll in a partnering college or university, and take part in monthly Man Up sessions while gaining classroom teaching experience over the course of two school years.

The REVERSE Lane: In an effort to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline, Man Up hopes to partner with local Departments of Correction to identify men with expungeable misdemeanor offenses who aspire to teach. These students would enroll at a partnering college or university, where they would be required to attend monthly Man Up sessions, teaching labs, and a summer intensive course before receiving a teaching license.

The only track currently on offer is the Graduate Lane, which currently has three open slots for its ten-member cohort. So far, seven recent college graduates have begun summer training sessions at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis, where they will work with Washington and Relay staff to complete a two-year curriculum.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
David Tillman, right, is a current Man Up participant.

Washington said he intends to expand graduate cohorts by five each year, reaching his goal of training 30 new male teachers of color annually by 2023. By the fall of 2019, Washington plans to roll out the next four tracks in concert with nearby colleges.

David Tillman, who recently graduated with a degree in exercise science  from the University of Memphis, is among the current graduate cohort. He first heard about Man-Up after asking about a teaching position at Promise Academy, a local charter school that was founded by Washington.

Tillman, whose mother is a retired teacher, said he was drawn to teaching because “I understood the struggles of the students, especially students of color in the school systems, and I wanted to find a way to give back.” He remembered how one of his middle school teachers, a black man, saw that a young Tillman had potential but was “hanging out with the wrong crowd.” The teacher, who was also Tillman’s football coach, used to remind Tillman that he was a leader.  

“He actually believed in me,” he said. “He spent a lot of one-on-one time with me, and that meant a lot to me, because I grew up without a father. So, he was that male, father-figure role model for me.”

Tilllman now wants to be that kind of mentor to Memphis students.

“Boys can see that, yes, it is ‘cool’ to be a teacher,” he said.

Alongside their graduate coursework from Relay, Tillman and his fellow trainees will spend two years co-teaching small groups of students and will meet monthly with Washington, who will provide supplementary training in areas such as reflection and feedback, results-driven teaching, and empathy and compassion.

Current Man Up participants are expected to mentor students or color, to identify practices to improve black male academic success, and to develop lessons for special needs learners.

While completing their training, Man Up graduates will be paired with a mentor, who is a male educator of color, which will continue as they begin full-time teaching. 

“With two percent of the classroom population,” Washington said, referring to the percentage of black male educators, “we have a collective responsibility to each other, we have a collective responsibility to our country, we have a collective responsibility to our communities, and we have a collective responsibility to our kids. This is something that we must do.”