By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009
The high unemployment rate has provided an unexpected boon for the nation's public schools: legions of career-switchers eager to become teachers.
Across the country, interest in teacher preparation programs geared toward job-changers is rising sharply. Applications to a national retraining program based in 20 cities rose 30 percent this year. Enrollment in a career-switcher program for teachers at Virginia's community colleges increased by 20 percent. And a Prince George's County resident teacher program increased enrollment by 40 percent.
In many places, there are more converts to teaching than there are jobs, except in hard-to-fill posts in science, math and special education classes. But the wave of applicants might ease teacher shortages expected to develop as 1.7 million baby boomers retire from the public schools during the next decade.
The newcomers come with a host of unknowns, including how much training they will need before they can handle a classroom full of rowdy or reluctant students and whether they are likely to stay in a profession that is struggling with low retention rates.
About one-third of new teachers graduate from 600 so-called alternative certification programs developed to bring people with no education background into classrooms. The programs vary widely, including two-year graduate degrees and online courses. President Obama (D) is proposing to devote more than $100 million in his 2010 budget to programs that recruit and train skilled mid-career professionals, particularly in poor schools and math and science classes.
Some alternative programs have proven to be "excellent recruitment engines," said Sharon Robinson, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. But training must continue to be retooled, she said, so new teachers are not put "in the deep end of the pool" right away. "It's not fair to them and certainly not fair to the students they encounter," she said.
Career-changers are considered desirable because they bring maturity and outside experiences into classrooms. They also help solve a perennial problem in public education, particularly in math and science: Too few teachers have a solid grasp of the subject they teach.
Sam Rigby, a scientist with three degrees, is among the latest recruits. The 36-year-old District native studied minerals in a Portland laboratory and scoured volcanic rocks on the Pacific Ocean floor as a research scientist. This summer, after a five-week intensive course, Rigby will reinvent himself as a physical science teacher at Charles Hart Middle School, a Congress Heights school undergoing a major overhaul because of chronic low performance and discipline problems.
The educational and economic disparities in the District "always gnawed at me," Rigby said. "I thought, 'What can I do to help?' "
His $45,000 starting pay is a slight raise from his most recent job at a nonprofit agency and a bigger increase from unemployment checks he briefly received. Some of his colleagues have left much higher-paying jobs to teach.
The New Teacher Project, founded 12 years ago by Michelle A. Rhee, now the D.C. schools chancellor, oversees Teaching Fellows programs such as the one Rigby is in. The programs were established to eliminate the achievement gap by recruiting career-changers and college graduates to work in inner-city schools. Applications to the local program are up 80 percent over last year.
Like Teach for America, which places high-achieving college graduates in urban schools and had a 40 percent increase in applications this year, the Teaching Fellows program moves new teachers into classrooms quickly and provides mentors and training on the job.
Many reformers say a fast track is the best way to capture potential teachers. "If you get rid of the hoops and hurdles, you can get some fantastic people to come into teaching," said Michael J. Petrilli, vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a District-based education think tank.
Some initiatives seek to avoid traditional education school curricula completely. The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence approves teachers in nine states through online training and tests. In the District and in Maryland, the New Teacher Project has authority to certify its teachers with a practical, year-long seminar series led by D.C. public school teachers.
Most states require education degrees for certification, but reformers say such degrees should not matter. Some studies have shown that students perform as well or better, on average, with a teacher from Teach for America or the Teaching Fellows program than they do with a traditional education school graduate.
Every minute counts for Rigby in his summer training institute, which will pay him a $2,500 stipend when he finishes. In the mornings, he teaches lessons on mitosis and the water cycle to a dozen summer school students at Cardozo High School in Northwest Washington with another fellow and a mentor teacher. In the afternoons, he joins a dozen other science teachers downstairs to learn the fundamentals of pedagogy and practical teaching strategies, such as how to teach science to students who are behind in reading or math skills.
One July afternoon, the fellows took turns presenting a short lesson. Their instructor, a D.C. public schools veteran, reminded them to project their voices, to "check for understanding" and to "work the room" instead of standing frozen in place.
The other fellows played students, shrugging at questions, texting on cellphones, throwing paper balls in the air. Then they gave feedback on the new teachers' reaction. "It's a lot to think about," Rigby said. "All these different concepts and skills and buzzwords. . . . You are trying to develop instincts."
Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University, said accelerated training programs that put teachers in charge of classes right away can lead to higher burnout rates because teachers become quickly overwhelmed. Her research shows that teachers with more comprehensive training are less likely to leave within a few years.
"To teach kids well, you need to diagnose how they learn" and then apply the right strategies to help them, Darling-Hammond said. "Done properly . . . it's a highly skilled occupation," she said.
One promising training model sets up schools that are similar to teaching hospitals so that student teachers can learn under a great teacher in the same classroom for a year and take coursework to help analyze what they see. Such programs, known as teacher residencies, have been established in Boston and Chicago.
Margot Berkey, director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, said she would like to see such an intensive investment in D.C. teachers. The shorter-term training programs tend to have high turnover and "hit or miss" results, she said. Parents "don't want their kids experimented on," she said.
The New Teacher Project estimates, however, that its retention rates in the first four years are slightly above average for urban school districts. And the program has accomplished something that most traditional teacher preparation programs have failed to do: create intense competition for the toughest jobs.
Until a few years ago, many positions, particularly in urban schools, were filled by teachers with emergency credentials. The 2002 No Child Left Behind law outlawed the practice, and alternative programs sprouted up to give under-prepared teachers a clear path through state-required coursework.
The New York Teaching Fellows program began in 2000 and quickly grew. Fellows accounted for more than 30 percent of new hires four years later. Most work in the poorest schools. This year, the program received about 14,000 applications for what it anticipated would be 700 spots.
Down the block from a burned-down building and a U.S. Army career center, Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx welcomes scores of teachers from alternative programs.
Barbara L. De Pesa, an assistant principal who oversaw the math department last year, said she had the luxury of picking applicants with the strongest math skills.
Two-thirds of her teachers were recruited through Teach for America, the New York Teaching Fellows and Math for America. Her staff consists of graduates from Yale, Tufts and Rutgers. They are former lawyers, derivatives traders and financial analysts.
She teaches them how to teach.
De Pesa pairs new teachers with more-experienced mentors, and the new teachers spend at least one period a day observing veterans teach a class they will be teaching a day or two later. Newcomers learn how to present material and pace the lesson and begin to anticipate questions that students might ask.
Paul Sweeney, 59, a former lawyer and a New York Teaching Fellow, is in his sixth year of teaching. With the extra support from his colleagues at Lehman, he said, he feels he is improving and wants to stick with it.
"As long as I can do a service for the kids, I'd love to do it," he said.
This report was compiled with assistance from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University.