Charter Schools Innovate To Tackle Teacher Preparation

By 06/08/2015

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The United States faces significant, well-publicized challenges in effectively training teachers and, once in the field, supporting them with relevant, useful professional development. These challenges are only likely to grow in the years ahead as the teaching practice changes monumentally with the rise of blended learning.

Teachers will remain not just relevant, but critical; the skills they need to be successful will change, however, and our current institutions that prepare and train teachers are woefully unprepared to support the shift. As a result, we will likely need to rely, at least in part, on new organizations and approaches. How these approaches emerge and gain traction and legitimacy in a field with deeply entrenched players, practices, and regulations is a big question, however.

My colleague Thomas Arnett’s new case study, Startup Teacher Education: A fresh take on teacher credentialing, provides some important clues.

The case study illustrates how three groups of charter management organizations (CMOs)— High Tech High in San Diego; Uncommon Schools, KIPP Foundation, and Achievement First in New York; and Match Education in Boston—saw big gaps in the traditional teacher education programs that left their aspiring teachers with no place to learn how to teach effectively in their specific schools or in a way that would allow them to succeed in working with the country’s most vulnerable students. Accordingly, the CMOs did what all organizations in any sector must do when an adjacent stage in the value chain is not yet good enough or well understood enough such that it limits what the organization can deliver: they integrated backward and created their own teacher certification and master’s degree programs with a curriculum that was tied in an interdependent way with what the teachers would need to be successful.

These CMOs faced a similar situation to what IBM faced in the early days of the mainframe computer industry. At that time, IBM could not have existed as an independent manufacturer of mainframe computers because manufacturing was unpredictably interdependent with the design process for the machines, as well as the operating systems, core memory, and logic circuitry. IBM therefore had to integrate backward through all of the parts of the value chain of its production that were not yet well understood and established in order to succeed in the manufacture and sale of mainframe computers. In other words, it had to do nearly everything to do anything.

Of course, there are many regulatory and quasi-regulatory barriers in place that challenge the ability of a school to create its own teacher certification and master’s degree program. Navigating state policy and accreditation requirements is no simple matter. The case study tells the stories of the efforts these schools went through to launch their programs—the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, the Relay Graduate School of Education, and Match Education’s Charles Sposato Graduate School of Education—to help illuminate the benefits and challenges that schools face when creating their own teacher certification and master’s degree programs. The study also provides recommendations for schools looking to launch similar programs.

My colleague Julia Freeland and I will have more to say about the importance of integrating backward in an interdependent way in schools in a few weeks in an important white paper that we’re releasing on how schools can address the achievement gap at scale, but suffice to say, integrating in an interdependent way past one’s supposed core competencies is a critical tool in any innovator’s toolbox in certain circumstances. As blended learning grows and teachers’ roles shift, more schools may have to follow the lead of these CMOs to varying degrees in the immediate future.

– Michael Horn

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