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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Preparing Teachers for Urban Schools

“Please to God, if you are going to send … [new teachers] into urban schools, prepare them a bit better than I was prepared.” (quoted in Bethany Rogers, pp. 353-354)

If I asked you to guess when this novice teacher said the above words, a good guess might be last week, last month, or last year. Actually, it came from a new teacher who had graduated from a university-based teacher education program in 1967.

I am reminded of this nearly half-century ago quote after reading Dana Goldstein’s book, Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. In one chapter, Goldstein does a balanced job of reporting on Teach for America, a quarter-century effort that has brought liberal arts graduates from top colleges and universities into teaching. She points out the negatives (five weeks of summer training before assuming a full-time post in an urban school; only a two-year commitment to teach; high attrition rates after two years are completed) and positives (TFA secondary school math teachers outperformed a matched group of regular teachers as measured by standardized test scores; the funneling of TFA graduates into policy posts since the early 1990s). She sums up her experiences as an education reporter by saying:

Teach for America recruits are neither the saviors nor the banes of public education. Rather, like novice educators I’ve observed and interviewed, they run the gamut from talented and passionate to lackluster and burned out. What corps members share is the experience of being introduced to teaching through a truncated training process that stresses strict discipline and quantifiable results (p.197).

I had reached a similar conclusion.

Goldstein then goes on to recommend residency programs where newcomers to the profession are supervised by experienced teachers equipped with the expertise to model effective teaching and skills and be both sandpaper and a pillow to novices. Immersion into full-time classrooms is measured and monitored each step of the way over one to two years. These residencies—Goldstein notes that there are now 18 such programs from Memphis to Boston—make a great deal of sense to her, given her rich reporting on teachers and teaching over the past two centuries. And I agree.*

I would like to add another to her list of sensible ways of preparing teachers for urban schools. Look at the largest charter organization in California, Aspire Public Schools. The first 18 highly selective Aspire Teacher Residents in 2012 completed their first year of a four year stint–sounds like medical residents– of a closely supervised internship that includes a stipend of $13,500 and health insurance.

Fifteen have been hired to work full-time in the schools in which they were trained. Aspire has a network of 34 schools. They now step into the classroom as the teacher-of-record with a preliminary credential from the University of the Pacific and a Masters degree while continuing to work closely with a mentor who is paid a stipend to coach. And this support continues in subsequent years with Aspire teacher-coaches working with them until the residency is completed. Here is a district-based teacher training program–as opposed to a university-based program–that is smart.

Why smart?

Becausethey ask for a four-year commitment from novices rather than two in Teach for America. No novice has a prayer of mastering the complexities of teaching in two years–four years is closer to the norm of becoming a competent teacher.

Becausesupport from mentors and peers–they are part of a cohort that meets periodically –during those years they are sailing solo in their classroom– strengthens the chance that such teachers will master the intricacies of the craft and become mentors themselves. After completing the four year residency, they can consider other posts in Aspire network such as Lead Teachers, Model Teachers, or administrators.

BecauseAspire trains and inducts teachers into their expectations (e.g. all poor and minority students will go to college) and standards of teaching and student learning (e.g. how to teach, motivate, and evaluate students) in 34 charter schools. They do not depend wholly on university-based teacher education programs that provide generic course work with a brief time in actual classrooms.

Becausethe residency program is geared to pay for itself once foundation funding ends unlike similar programs elsewhere in the nation.

There is another reason I resonate to district–based (with affiliation to local university) internships and residencies is my experience in Washington, D.C. a half-century ago.

Surely history does not repeat itself since contexts then and now differ, but it comes close sometimes. In the early 1960s, I was a Master Teacher of History in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching that took returned Peace Corps Volunteers and trained them in one year to become urban teachers. Federally funded by the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, the model of a district-based program of teacher education located in a high school (and later in junior high schools and elementary schools) with second-year residencies created during the program attracted national attention for taking young, determined novices and helping them learn to teach in urban classrooms.

In 1966, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson sponsored the National Teacher Corps bill and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. The NTC went through many changes in its life span of 15 years in 700 sites across the nation recruiting and inducting thousands of new teachers to work in low-income minority schools (see National Teacher Corps 1966-1981 ) Many of those NTC teachers went on to become master teachers, principals, superintendents, and academics. Many stayed in the classroom. The experience left them changed people.

And in Washington, D.C., the Cardozo Project morphed into the Urban Teacher Corps that between 1967-1971 recruited and inducted hundreds of college graduates into D.C. classrooms before it was shut down by a new superintendent (see “Personal Odyssey: Becoming a Teacher and Reformer in the 1950s and 1960s,” February 27, 2011).

The D.C. schools scarf up Teach for America novices–recall that Chancellor Michelle Rhee was a TFA-er before serving as head of the district between 2007-2010. To my knowledge, there is no residency program in the district now.

So even with a score of teacher residency programs available now across the country, they are but a drop in the bucket of novices entering urban schools in 2014. Most newcomers come from conventional teacher education programs. The plea of that new teacher in 1967 was not hollow then nor is it now.


*To be clear with readers, Goldstein interviewed me about my experiences with the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching and I provided a back-cover blurb for the book.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has publish...