Alternative Paths to the Classroom

Our Board of Regents recently approved programs for prospective teachers to get their Masters. Our new Commissioner is the former Dean of Hunter College School of Education as "is best known for his leadership of the national effort to transform teacher preparation and improve teacher quality." In one of his first speeches to the State, he said his and the Regents' focus would be on remaking teacher prep colleges and the requirements to be met for hopeful teachers here in New York.  So, the news from the Board really shouldn't come as a surprise.

Here's the part of the story that makes me pause:
Teacher education programs are infamous for overemphasizing gobbledegooky theory rather than useful knowledge and skills.
Newbie instructors too often emerge from ed school stuffed with the ideas of everyone from Thomas Dewey to Brazilian Marxist theorist Paulo Freire (author of "Pedagogy of the Oppressed") - but clueless about how to help kids learn.
I understand the drive to practical skills. Heck, I've hosted student teachers who could quote researchers and literature going back a hundred or more years, but couldn't manage a classroom if his degree depended on it.  There should be a way to make teaching about teaching more practical. I've heard the idea of making prospective teachers more like medical interns a few times- longer period of training under the direct watch of some sort of mentor.  My own training in Albany was more practical than theoretical. I had tons of hours of field experience before student teaching, and my Methods professor refused to answer some of our more abstract questions, forcing us to figure them out in real time.

But I hope we don't lose the theory and history.  Understanding the history of public schools matters when you are trying to figure out why you shouldn't always lecture the large group.  Understanding the developmental psychology of students of different ages matter when you are creating projects and asking them to focus for X number of minutes at a time. Reading theorists and historians forces a candidate to think.  Teaching is a thoughtful, scholarly vocation. No one method is ever going to always work.  We should constantly be figuring out how to do better, to build on what the past as taught us.  That starts with names like Dewey and Freire and Bloom and Maslow.

Teachers shouldn't be just practitioners.  The best teachers think and reflect and research and experiment and share their findings and, of course, manage a classroom as well.

Rural Dropout Factories

EdWeek ran a piece recently that doesn't get much air time: the rural schools with dropout issues.  I've always said that we have just as many problems as urban districts, but often we have fewer resources.  I think we also get overlooked because out populations are so much smaller.  From a sheer numbers point of view it seems to make sense.  Go solve the problems in areas with the densest populations and you've truly made a difference.  But imagine how great a difference you could make directing resources to the smaller districts.

There are 2,000 high schools in the U.S. that are "dropout factories." 400 of those are rural. I was curious about the similarities between these schools and my own.  The town in one example has "a convenience store, a dollar store, three churches and a gas station." Check. "We have generational poverty, a lack of aspirations." Check. An online credit-recovery program similar to our TAC, Alt High and strong CTE programs- check, check and check. Hmmm...

The generational poverty is a hard one to overcome; certainly will take at least a full generation of hard efforts to improve.  The lack of aspiration certainly goes hand-in-hand.  A child is raised in uneducated poverty with a mindset that this is enough.  There is no city center nearby as an example of striving and achieving. There are no or few older relatives who are in college or in a white-collar profession.  Getting by is enough. It is certainly evident in school- C and B grades are ok; losing sports teams are ok.

The alternative paths to a degree are easy to put in place if the district is willing to dedicate staff.  An Alt High program and a TAC program each need staffing.  CTE at BOCES is available but expensive.  Making these options available shrinks class size significantly- occasionally too small to justify other classes (good-bye electives, anyone?). The scary thought is the cycle this could start: the school caters to the neediest, inadvertently neglecting the "top" students. The top students' families find better placements leaving behind a proportionally more needy population...

The dropout factories are focusing on the graduation rate (which is actually cohort-based).  This is so hard to overcome. For example, a district that could potentially graduate 70 students, each student who falls short changes the graduation rate by 1.5%.  In this example if only eight of the 70 students find alternative paths to graduation- a fifth year, a GED, an IEP cert- the school's graduation rate falls below 90%.

So what are some ways to turn around and prevent this much dropout?  At least one school is using a Practice Guide from the What Works Clearing House at ED.   How does my schools stack up to what works? They recommend six things: utilizing data, assigning adult advocates, academic support and enrichment, improve student behavior and social skills, personalize the learning environment and engage the students with rigor and relevance. If we talk about explicit efforts, I give us a B. We use data, especially at the lower levels where intervention is critical. We "hot list" out at-risk students with mentor teachers. We definitely provide academic support even if we're lacking on enrichment.

Our learning environment is very personalized currently- class size at the HS is well under 20 and for a small school we have many offerings. But that is all changing.  And we are getting better at raising the levels of rigor and relevance (I know, I ran the HS session on this topic). Our faculty is getting better and differentiating instruction, using PBL and thinking differently about assessments.

Overall, we don't qualify as a dropout factory per se, although we do share a lot of traits.  The trend in the past few years here has been more pro-education, but let's see what the affect the much smaller budget will have.