On a sunny July morning at Washington, D.C.’s Capital City Public Charter School, 30 aspiring teachers sit cross-legged in small clusters on the floor of a brightly decorated classroom. Music plays softly from classroom speakers.
The Post-Its pile up quickly: “Engaging.” “Cares about students.” “Helps overcome obstacles.” “He made history fun,” one woman tells her group. “I was having a hard time in class, and he helped me through it.”
The 30 members of this group are fellows with Center for Inspired Teaching, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit founded in 1995 that’s long been on the leading edge of transforming how both teachers and students are taught.
This is not your traditional teacher preparation program.
There are no lectures, no textbooks, no quizzes. Instead, the members of this group will step into their first classrooms in D.C. public schools in the fall as teaching “residents.” They’ll spend one year sharing the classroom with a “lead” teacher at one of the program’s four partnering schools before they’re assigned to lead their own classrooms the following year. At the end of the 24-month program, the residents (“Fellows”) will have earned a D.C. teaching license and a master’s degree in teaching from Trinity Washington University.
“A lot of teacher training programs will do a 50-slide deck of PowerPoint slides on ‘active learning’ and how to create an engaging classroom,” said Karnani, who manages the residency program with co-director Shannon Kane. “There’s a disconnect there. We teach teachers in the way we want them to teach children – in a way that’s physically, emotionally and intellectually engaging.”
This morning’s exercise, said Kane, was intended to help new teachers translate their own experiences as learners into the classroom. “If you look at yourself as an individual and as a learner, you’ll have the lens to work with 20 individuals and learners in your class,” she said. “We’re not giving you a cheat sheet or a formula – as a teacher, you should do A, B and C. We’re starting with you as an individual.”
As teacher quality gains the spotlight in education reform, programs such as Center for Inspired Teaching are also gaining attention.
Improving teacher quality has been a signature priority for both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “Nothing is more important and nothing has a greater impact on the quality of education than the quality and skill of the person standing in the front of the class,” said Duncan in 2010.
And often, the students most in need of quality teachers are the ones most lacking. A Department of Education report concluded that disadvantaged students were less likely to have effective teachers than students in other schools, and that “the average disparity in teaching effectiveness was equivalent to about four weeks of learning for reading and two weeks for math.”
In 2009 and 2010, Congress and the Administration committed $143 million (including $100 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) to fund “Teacher Quality Partnership Grants” aimed at encouraging state and local efforts to reform teacher preparation.
Among the reforms favored by this funding is the teacher residency approach that Center for Inspired Teaching also offers.
The programs follow a roughly similar format: a two-to-three year program that includes one year of residency, long-term professional mentoring and the award of a graduate degree from a partnering college or university as well as a teaching license. The programs also typically offer a living stipend. In programs such as the Boston teacher residency program and Center for Inspired Teaching, the residents are also considered AmeriCorps volunteers eligible for AmeriCorp’s education award.
Advocates of the residency model say it alleviates one of the biggest concerns about teaching quality: high turnover. According to the Urban Teacher Residency Network, 50 percent of urban teachers leave within three years. But among teachers who’ve undergone a residency program, 85 percent are still teaching after three years. Moreover, according to a Harvard University evaluation of the Boston residency program, former residents teaching in their fourth and fifth years were outperforming both their peers and more veteran teachers when it came to student performance.
“There’s a misconception that we have a teacher shortage problem,” said Karnani. “We actually have a teacher retention problem. When we throw teachers into a classroom and let them sink or swim, we lose people. A residency model provides enough support that teachers can build a sustainable career as opposed to feeling tired and exhausted after a few years.”
Inspired Teaching Fellows, for example, might start the year providing half an hour of instruction time a day, with the rest spent on observation and providing assistance to the lead teacher. Over the course of the year, Fellows take on more and more time at the front of the classroom so they’re ready to be on their own the following fall.
“It’s the medical model,” said Kane. “After you go to medical school, you don’t perform surgeries right away. You shadow good doctors. So instead of going to a classroom and trying to teach on your own, we have you see an expert do it with real-life kids.”
Down the hall from the new teachers’ seminar at Capital City Public Charter School, Center for Inspired Teaching Fellows who’ve completed their first year of residency are teaching summer school to preschoolers enrolled in D.C.’s pre-K program.
Another group of children sits on a rug in front of a chartpad to talk about a story they had just heard. On the chartpad are more questions, written in bright markers. A teacher leads the discussion: “Who are the characters?” “What happens to the characters?”
The atmosphere is cheerful, controlled chaos as students chatter about their work but are focused and engaged.
The many questions directed at the children are integral to another pioneering approach at Center for Inspired Teaching: “learning by inquiry.”
At the heart of this model, says Kane, is challenging the traditional notion of students as “empty vessels” and teachers as the “sage on the stage.”
“This not only takes away what students are bringing to the classroom – their cultural capital, experience and prior knowledge – but it also sets up an interesting power dynamic,” said Kane. “It says, ‘I have the knowledge, and I will choose what knowledge I give to you.’ It makes learning very passive.”
The “inquiry” method of teaching, says Kane, is better suited to how children actually learn. “We have a quote in the room [from Albert Einstein],” she said. “It says, ‘I’m amazed that curiosity and imagination haven’t been killed by formal education.’”
Inspired Teaching in fact refers to teachers as “Instigators of Thought®.”
“We chose the word ‘instigator’ because it sounds like you’re making trouble,” said Karnani. “It really shifts what we expect from teachers so that instead of teachers providing information, they are providing experiences and environments where students can construct their own understanding of ideas.”
The origins of inquiry-based instruction go as far back as 1916, when former science teacher John Dewey first proposed that teachers use the inquiry method in teaching children how to problem-solve in science. In 1996, as Professor Lloyd Barrow writes, the National Research Council published a white paper on science education concluding that inquiry should be the “overarching goal of scientific literacy.”
Karnani and Kane argue that the inquiry-based instruction is the best way to prepare students for a knowledge-based economy – because it teaches students how to think.
“Schools were developed in the Industrial Revolution, and they were designed like factories,” said Karnani. “It’s a factory-based model for raising children, and it’s not best for them.”
“Now that we have Google, you don’t have to memorize the states and the capitals,” continues Kane. “In 30 seconds, a kid can whip out an iPhone or an iPad and tell you what the capital of Alaska is. They may not know what ‘Alaska’ is or what a ‘capital’ is, but they can find that piece of information. The demands and needs of the workforce and society have changed. Very few jobs require just doing one thing all day, and being told what to do. It’s all about complex tasks – analyzing, synthesizing and problem solving. Schools need to be responsive to what kids are going to be asked to do later in life.”
This is not, however, to say that standards – such as the Common Core – are any less important. Accountability and measurable impact are paramount goals, say Kane and Karnani.
“We have to know what our students are learning,” Kane said. “It’s not this free-for-all, wishy-washy, you can do what you want system. There has to be accountability, and there have to be multiple measures so that we as educators and as parents know where our students are and where they need to go.”
According to Center for Inspired Teaching’s data, the program’s graduates – called “Inspired Teachers” – consistently outperform their peers under the University of Virginia’s CLASS teacher evaluation system. Moreover, the program found that math students working with program alumni showed greater gains in overall academic achievement than students working with other teachers.
The combination of innovation and impact – both at Center for Inspired Teaching and at other pioneering programs across the country – is potentially driving a renaissance in teaching.
The admission rate among applicants to Center for Inspired Teaching’s fellowship program is only about 15 percent, says Kane, and applicants must go through a rigorous process that includes interviews as well as a written application.
‘We look for people who can take on leadership roles,” said Karnani. “We find that the people who are the most successful in this program are the people drawn to the profession because of a commitment to social change. That’s something we take very seriously – seeing education as a means to social change.”
Part of the infrastructure of that change is the growing – and tightknit – network of Inspired Teaching alumni.
Scott Fitzmeyer is a 2011 Fellow who taught for three years at Orr Elementary in D.C. and is now teaching at West Elementary with two other former Fellows. He is also working this summer as a mentor for the current class of teaching fellows.
“We’re starting to see clusters of ‘Inspired Teachers’ throughout D.C.,” Fitzmeyer said, “Principals are seeing the quality of these teachers and asking for more.”
What inspires Fitzmeyer the most, however, are the kids themselves.
“The best thing for me is when the parents come and tell me how much their children like school,” he said. “That never gets old.”
Anne Kim is Editor of Republic 3.0. Follow: @Anne_S_Kim @Republic3_0