Reform(ing) School

September 9 2013, 7:36 AM

In Colorado and throughout the United States, educational reform has reached a fever pitch, and one of the more unconventional innovators resides right here in Denver. The Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC) uniquely blends educators and administrators with concerned business leaders to create programs for teacher development and preparation that serve our schools more efficiently and effectively. Earlier this year, we sat down with the PEBC vice president Ulcca Joshi Hansen to discuss some of the nonprofit’s most recent efforts.

5280: What are some of the issues PEBC is focused on?

Ulcca Joshi Hansen: There’s a lot of interesting conversation lately about how we are comparing teachers. It’s something parents talk about, and public policy is going in the direction of how we measure teacher effectiveness. Our main focus is literacy and professional development around literacy. But we define literacy differently than most people. We think about it in terms of reading and writing, but also in terms of how you engage students in context. For example, we work pretty heavily with science and math teachers by explaining what it means to make their kids literate in those content areas. What are they thinking and asking about when they engage with the text? That is where I think we’re really different.

We tend to work in districts and schools, ideally for three-to-five years, with embedded “coaches” who give educators feedback. They work with groups of teachers and study together. It’s very relevant to what the reformers want now: Working together as professionals to make sense of these new standards, think about how you’re sharing the knowledge with each other, and then really engaging kids in meaningful conversations about content.

PEBC has completed an audit of all Colorado statutes, regulations, and rules that implicate ECE-12 education in the state. We've created a searchable database which will be made available online. We've convened a Steering Committee to examine existing policies that have an impact on the human capital pipeline from recruitment and training through induction, professional development, and leadership. This task force will develop recommendations for policies at the state and local level that will support the creation of a more aligned human capital system.  

5280: In your view, what’s the problem with teacher preparation?

Education is one of the remaining professions where we actually don’t act on what we believe in. We usually say people need experience in the field before they enter it, but most teacher programs actually are one year to earn a masters degree, and then you get your certification. If you do it as an undergraduate, you take your course work, do six months of student teaching, and there you are.

PEBC advocates residency-based programs that are based on medical residency models. So teacher candidates spend a full year in a classroom with a specially selected mentor teacher—they have to be good teachers of kids but also great mentors of adults. The residents focus more on how best to implement what they’ve learned in their own seminars. It also intensifies gradually so by the end of the year they are pretty much teaching the class of the mentor. After that our residents spend an additional four years in other schools and classrooms. Right now they’re primarily Title I [low-income] schools. Over eight years of running the program we have had a 92 percent retention rate among residents.

The Colorado Boettcher Teacher Residency launched its first rural cohort in the San Luis Valley area in July 2013.  Twelve residents are being trained in for districts in the area through a partnership with Adams State University. The urban cohort has grown to 23 residents who are being trained in Adams 12, Aurora, Jeffco, and the Denver School of Science and Technology, in partnership with Regis University.  The program plans to grow over the next few years to train 100 residents statewide, with half of those teachers being trained and placed in rural districts around Colorado. 

5280: What’s your stance on standardized testing?

Standardized tests are fine as long as you understand what they are telling you, which is usually a narrow amount of content. I think any educator worth any salt would say you want a more balanced portfolio. A company’s annual report shows where they’re at by the end of the year, but it gives you no sense about what you could have done to adjust what happened. We do interterm assessments, kind of like quarterly reports, that say, Here’s what’s happening right now, and we might want to adjust this for the rest of the year. With our programs, someone looks at what’s coming in every day and adjusts in real time. It will better help teachers notice things like, This kid looks sort of glazed over right now and must not be getting it. Let me see if I could explain it in a different way

When we think about those things in the context of teacher evaluations, we are discovering that when you start measuring teachers based on student growth, that’s problematic. Only about 30 percent of the teachers covered by these tests teach language, math, and reading, so you’re not covering 70 percent of teachers. How do you measure student growth in dance or art? That’s the piece around the teacher evaluation bit that we’re not talking about a lot yet. I still think we should do the evaluations, but we need to be careful about it. We’ll develop better assessments over time, but we’re not there yet. To fulfill the requirements of SB 191 and to ensure that teachers are actually helping students reach the level of academic rigor reflected in the new Colorado Academic Standards, teachers need to better understand how to assess the learning of their students in ways that are rigorous but also meet the requirements of the new law. PEBC's Assessment Literacy Modules will help them learn to do this in their classrooms, with their students and their lessons.

5280: How do you typically work with the state legislature?

There is no other organization that I know of that includes businesspeople and educators to this extent. So we focus on raising awareness and having conversations about different bills coming up. We will stand behind some of them, but not all. We didn’t endorse the READ Act before it passed, even though we’re pro-literacy, because our board felt at the time that it was not going to be helpful and that it might actually be problematic. We will take that kind of general position, but we won't lobby. We do believe that, if implemented well, the READ Act will help teachers, principals, and districts improve the ways they work and improve outcomes for students. We've trained our 50 staff developers and leadership coaches on all of the new reforms within Colorado so they can help the educators they work with (including teachers, principals, staff developers, and district personnel) to make sense of everything they are being asked to do, and to help them see the relevance of these seemingly disparate initiatives to their own classrooms, schools, and districts.

PEBC has also launched a Foundations of Literacy workshop to help early childhood through 12th grade teachers better understand the core components of literacy.  Although the READ Act focuses on grades K-3, the new Colorado Academic Standards (which incorporate the Common Core State Standards) require all teachers to be teachers of literacy.  In our work with districts we have heard that districts are concerned that 10th grade math teachers, 12th grade science teachers and 11th grade history teachers, for example, don't see themselves as teachers of literacy. However, under the rigorous new standards all teachers are responsible for helping students to develop literacy skills. Foundations of Literacy helps educators at all levels understand the six underlying structures of literacy and what they can do to support the development of all six regardless of what grade or subject they happen to teach. 

BONUS: Care about education? Visit 5280.com/livechat at 10:30 a.m. on September 12 to talk problems and solutions with State Senator Mike Johnston. 

—Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad