U of M plans for competing teacher training model come into focus

2014-10-06 | The Commercial Appeal

Oct. 05--The University of Memphis has said little about its plans to create a teacher training program that would compete with its own College of Education, but a "premature" job posting last week on a partner's website shed light on what it is shaping up to be and sent tremors though the department.

According to the posting, The New Teacher Project is partnering with the university and school districts in Tennessee to create a "new approach to teacher preparation." It has an immediate opening for a full-time director of admissions for the "Memphis Undergraduate Teacher Residency."

On Thursday, university President David Rudd said he was unaware of the posting, but said it was premature because a deal with another partner had not been finalized. He would not comment on specifics.

On Friday, Rudd met for two hours with staff in the College of Education to discuss in detail a plan that has been in the works since January for attracting talented college sophomores and juniors who haven't considered careers in education but would if the deal were good enough.

Under the plan, they would "try out" in a low-performing school's summer program, likely just before their junior year. If they got noticed as someone who could excel in troubled inner-city schools, they would be invited to the two-year program, tuition and housing waived.

The centerpiece would be a yearlong residency in a priority school -- a school with test scores in the bottom 5 percent.

Students that rose to the top would be offered a job in the Achievement School District or in Shelby County Schools' iZone. At that point, they would have a year to finish their coursework and start building relationships at the school and across the community.

In return, they would commit to teaching three years in one of the schools. Organizers and donors hope they would stay five.

The program is scheduled to start next fall in classes taught by Relay Graduate School of Education, a New York nonprofit organization that offers master's degrees to meet "today's urgent demand for effective teachers," according to its website.

Relay was founded by a group of charter schools and is funded by the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corp. and others. Neither The New Teacher Project nor Relay would respond to a reporter's questions.

The university effort is the centerpiece of larger effort to turn Memphis into Teacher Town USA, the place in the country highly motivated young people would come to get the certification and jobs that help them make an immediate difference.

Funders include Hyde Family Foundations and Pyramid Peak. Both are keenly interested in public education.

"We are at the beginning of this work here in Memphis," said Sara Solar, Teacher Town portfolio director. "We are really excited about it, but because we are the beginning stages of it, it wouldn't make sense to go on the record at this point.

"Potentially, this is a really exciting thing for Memphis."

For several years, K-12 school leaders have struggled to hire the caliber of teachers they need to make double-digit gains on state tests. With more than 40 charter schools, plus district schools, looking for the same kinds of candidates, school leaders say it's not uncommon to find they have been recruiting the same person.

Initially, the university expects to turn out 50 high-level teachers a year, but in five years, it expects to be producing the 200-225 that principals in high-priority schools have advised it they need.

The university has $24 million in commitments from philanthropists, Rudd told the faculty, but said they are anonymous for now.

Faculty wonder how the university's College of Education will compete with an on-campus program offering the same end product with no tuition. Several believe it spells the demise of the department and their jobs.

Rudd disagrees.

"As you already know, the U of M currently only meets about 10-15 percent of the need for teachers in Shelby County Schools. The problem actually escalates each and every year, with more and more demand," he said in an e-mail Sunday.

The partnership, he said, would bring more attention to the issues facing K-12 education by building a nationwide recruiting network.

"The net result will be growth in both our traditional College of Education teacher preparation program, which is already nationally ranked, along with growth of other partners," he said.

Rudd told the faculty concerned that they have been left out of the planning that they are welcome to contribute ideas to the effort, but must come to the table open to alternative certification because that is what the donors want, according to several who attended the Friday meeting.

Alternative certification programs offer people who want to teach a way to get credentials without completing a teaching degree. Teach for America is the best-known alternative.

For two years here, Teach for America and the Memphis Teacher Residency, plus a few traditional college programs, have outperformed many colleges of education -- including the University of Memphis -- in the report card created by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

It ranks teacher training programs by how their graduates perform as teachers, based on their students' test scores. In 2013, the university was notably behind, particularly in the quality of teachers it produced for middle and high schools.