How to make teaching a “zero-fail” profession

Urban Teacher Center CEO Jennifer Green aims to ensure that every teacher makes the grade.

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In 2013, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released a report finding that the vast majority of traditional teacher preparation programs in America were failing to do the job.

For example, the NCTQ found, fewer than one in nine elementary education programs and only about a third of high school education programs were adequately preparing teachers to teach to the Common Core standards adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

This gap in quality is what Jennifer Green, CEO of the Baltimore-based Urban Teacher Center, is seeking to reform. While every school has its share of outstanding teachers, she says, others are ill-equipped to meet the demands of their classrooms. The result is a “teacher lottery” that is especially damaging to high-need kids in urban districts.

To build a better supply of effective, well-prepared teachers, Green’s organization offers a rigorous, four-year residency program to train new teachers. It also offers employer schools something unique: a “guarantee” of quality.

In addition to passing a stringent initial screening, aspiring teachers in the Urban Teacher Center program can’t earn a state teaching license unless they show their ability to improve student performance – as measured through repeated evaluations throughout the program. Candidates must also complete a master’s degree through the Urban Teacher Center’s partnership with Lesley University, and every teacher is dually certified in special education.

According to Green and the Urban Teacher Center, only about a quarter of applicants are accepted into the program, and 23 percent of teaching residents leave during the first year. But the result is a dependable pipeline of highly-trained, effective teachers. After five years in operation, the Urban Teacher Center now works with 36 schools in Baltimore and more than 40 schools in D.C.

R3.0: How did you come to see teacher quality as a problem you wanted to address?

Urban Teacher Center CEO Jennifer Green.

Urban Teacher Center CEO Jennifer Green.

Green: I began as a teacher with Teach for America in 1991 and taught high school in New Orleans for three years. At the end of my first year, I was awarded “best new teacher” in the county – and I was horrified.

I didn’t know what I was doing. I saw literally 150 students a day – all in 9th grade and all below-level readers – and I didn’t serve my students well that year. I thought it was just me, but I realized there was a broader issue afoot.

When I [later] supervised curriculum and instruction for the middle and high schools in Baltimore, it was that role that really solidified my belief that what urban districts need is a large supply of effective and accountable teachers from day one.

R3.0: What’s your approach to making that happen?

Green: The article that crystallized my thinking was by a researcher looking at “zero-fail” industries. He was spotlighting air traffic controllers, and he looked at all the things that have to happen to make sure a plane lands every time: What is the training for air traffic controllers? What are the ongoing redundant systems that reinforce the safe landing of planes? What are the back-end fail-safes that we put into place if things are going wrong?

And I thought: What if we approached teaching as a “zero-fail” industry?

What if we made a commitment as a country that every single first-year teacher would be ready to serve the children that were put in front of her? How would we go about organizing pre-service and pathways into teaching? How do you codify effective practice, particularly at the secondary level and particularly for students who are below level?

So let’s build a new supply of teachers based on four core ideas: one – to find terrific raw talent [among individuals who] want to make a sustained commitment to teaching; two – to provide exceptional clinical practice, paired with the best theoretical backbone that we can; three – to make sure the link between a teacher’s performance and their job is very tight; and four – once new teachers are demonstrably effective, to make sure we keep them.

R3.0: How do you define an “effective” teacher?

Green: An effective teacher is a skilled diagnostician who knows exactly where each student is – especially in literacy, in math and in understanding. He knows what the instructional target is. He’s a master at planning. He’s a master at building a deeply respectful classroom and puts a heavy emphasis on talk in the classroom, and children’s talk in particular. Those are the teachers we want to create at Urban Teacher Center.

R3.0: Are effective teachers born or made?

Green: I have a very strong bias that effective teachers are developed. I saw a lot of very high-will, very highly intelligent new teachers who did not have the skill to teach seventh-graders who were reading at a third-grade level.

That doesn’t take someone with smarts and a real passion for kids. That actually takes a deep level of know-how about language acquisition and diagnostic assessments and tools to move kids in their literacy understanding.

R3.0: How does the Urban Teacher Center impart these kinds of skills?

Green: We take non-certified individuals who have a bachelor’s degree. Most of them are not education majors, and they make a four-year commitment to us.

The first year is 1,500 clinical hours – a first summer, a full year in a classroom and a second summer. Our residents dual-enroll with Lesley University and engage in a master’s degree [program] where they end up with a core [education] degree – for example in elementary ed – but with a dual specialization in special education. All of our teachers end up dually-certified because we have such a high special-ed population.

We provide three full years of faculty coaching in your classroom, and at the end of the third year, we determine whether an individual is ready to become a fully licensed teacher or not.

What I really believe in is a high degree of mutual accountability. Anybody who comes to teach with us is saying that they believe they should be held accountable for a student’s learning. But at the same time, we are totally on the hook to provide all the support that is in our power to make sure these individuals are successful –dual certification; 1,500 clinical hours; four different classroom settings before they become a teacher; three years of coaching; the diagnostic work when we assess their kids; and additional certification in “Tier 3” reading and math interventions so they know how to reach kids who typically get left behind.

R3.0: What outcomes do you point to as proof of your teachers’ effectiveness?

Green: What we know about teachers’ impact on student achievement is that first-year teachers see less gain [in student achievement], and you get ever-increasing gains with students until about your fourth year as a teacher. After that, years of experience don’t have any real impact on student outcomes.

This year, about 78 percent of our first-year teachers had student achievement gains that met the profile of a second-year teacher. And 76 percent of our second-year teachers look like third-year teachers. Our teachers are a year ahead in their student achievement outcomes.

And once our teachers go through the residency year, they really have sticking power. Our first cohort has completed its first four years, and 65 percent have remained as teachers through their four-year commitment. Now we’re seeing these teachers become teacher leaders, and this is exactly what we want to see.

R3.0: What do your teachers say about their experience?

Green: Our residents don’t realize how well equipped they are until they become a first-year teacher. Every year, I get emails from our teachers, and what they find is that they become the “therapist” for the other first-year teachers in their building.

The other thing I’m proud of is that our teachers tell us that their residency year is harder than their first year of teaching. To me, that means kids aren’t having their time wasted because teachers are spending their first year getting up to speed. Our folks really go in ready to serve the kids in front of them.

R3.0: How do you plan to expand your model?

Green: We want to scale to seven more markets in the next five years and [ultimately] supply a third of the teacher pipeline in any district in which we’re working. I also want us to collaborate with other teacher pipelines that are working in similar ways. I see this as very much a shared effort, and we’re one piece of that.

In another ten years, I want to have a handful of proof points in a number of cities showing that teacher prep programs can be held directly accountable for the outcomes of their teachers; that teachers can be highly trained and skilled before they get the privilege of working with children; and that teachers should be accountable for student outcomes in a very fair way.

One of the things that’s most stunning to me is that while a school system’s budget is typically 90 percent personnel, systems are not strategic about their personnel and hiring decisions.

What we want to see is the development of an effective teacher market in every district. Districts should have very clearly articulated reasons for why they’re selecting a particular pipeline for a particular school.

R3.0: What would you recommend to policymakers as they think about improving teacher quality?

Green: One, we need to develop a set of explicit outcomes for teacher preparation programs, whether they’re traditional or alternative, and we should be mandating –some states are already moving in this direction – that teacher prep programs routinely report on their outcomes.

A second challenge is that we can’t access federal dollars directly to support our work. The Department of Education has supported some grant programs, but there is no steady funding for alternative teacher prep. Access to federal dollars is a real challenge and presents a sustainability problem for any organization like mine.

In terms of misconceptions, I really don’t believe in hitting teachers over the head with the accountability stick. Nobody goes into teaching to do a bad job for kids. What happens is that we put [into schools] too many individuals who aren’t skilled, and over time, they either think, “I’m not equipped to do my job” or “These kids can’t learn.” And too many people will default to the latter position.

It’s really incumbent on us to provide a great deal of support to teachers not just pre-service but through ongoing high-quality professional development opportunities throughout a teacher’s career.

And I’d love to see urban districts in particular move to a performance-based compensation system [like the one in] D.C. public schools.

We should expect our teachers to achieve student learning outcomes. That’s their job – bottom line.