The 2014 Teacher Prep Review: YES Prep’s Teaching Excellence Program gets graded

Recently, the National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released the 2014 Teacher Prep Review, a report on the quality of teacher preparation programs, including alternative certification programs. Our teacher preparation program, Teaching Excellence, was evaluated this year for the first time and NCTQ’s feedback has given us much to consider.

YES Prep’s Teaching Excellence program was the highest rated alternative certification program in Texas.

While that confirms for us that our program is moving in the right direction and we’re serving our teachers and students well compared to our peers in Texas, on the national standards NCTQ used to rate programs, we earned a ‘C.’ Almost all of the programs in Texas earned failing grades and only one program in the nation earned an ‘A,’ the Massachusetts region of Teach For America.  This is important context for us to consider. The Texas requirements for alternative certification are significantly less rigorous than most other states and while we surpass the requirements in most areas, there are areas where our requirements mirror the states’ and we could push ourselves and our teachers to a higher standard. At the same time, we invest a tremendous amount of resources into developing our newest teachers and we feel that our strong student achievement results are the most telling evidence in favor of our program and the quality of our teachers.

A Primer on Teaching Excellence

YES Prep’s Teaching Excellence program (TE) is first and foremost a teacher development program. Our goal is not simply to certify teachers, but to develop excellent instructors. The core tenets of our program are a comprehensive professional learning model combined with a rigorous instructional coaching model.

TE teachers participate in a two-week Induction program focused on developing the skills needed for the first few weeks of school and then also receive trainings one Saturday per month, including over 20 hours of content-specific support above and beyond what they receive on their campuses. It’s important to also note that our Teaching Excellence program does not hire teachers directly. Teachers are hired by a YES Prep Public Schools campus or a school in one of our partnering school districts, KIPP Houston and Spring Branch ISD, and if they don’t have their certification they automatically participate in TE. Depending on the year, 20-40% of the teachers we support and certify are Teach For America corps members and we work closely with TFA Houston to align support and training for those teachers.

In addition to comprehensive, practice-based professional learning throughout the year, a key component of our program is our instructional coaching model. Each teacher has an instructional coach who provides them with on-going support through at least 15 coaching interactions totaling a minimum of 24 hours of one-on-one time. Our coaching is differentiated so that a struggling teacher will receive more support and excelling teachers are able to work on more sophisticated skills.

A Push for our Program

Selection criteria
In NCTQ’s review, our program was highlighted for emphasizing “the importance of recruiting talented applicants…at more selective IHE’s…” and for requiring auditions for our teachers. Because of the rigorous selection our teachers go through at the campus level and often through Teach for America, the average GPA of our Teaching Excellence teachers has been 3.4 for the past two years. On paper, though, our program only requires a GPA of 2.5, the state requirement. By stating this lower expectation, we definitely run the risk of attracting lower quality candidates to our participating schools and so it’s definitely something for us to consider changing.

Certification areas
Another area where we’ve followed the minimum state requirements and fallen short of national expectations is in our certification areas, specifically science.  Right now, our teachers can choose ‘Science’ as their certification area no matter which particular area of science they are teaching – biology, chemistry, physics, etc. The risk NCTQ points to is a teacher meeting the certification requirements without technically being an expert in their particular field. They rightly point out that the risk of teacher shortages in critical areas like math and science is not a justification for having lower content standards in order to allow more teachers into those classrooms. We appreciate the push in this area and have already begun working towards narrowing our certification options in order to ensure the students we serve have content experts in front of them.

Supervised Practice
NCTQ had some important feedback for us surrounding the “clinical practice” teachers receive and the mentors they are provided. Except for our incoming TFA corps members, our teachers do not teach students prior to the school year as a part of our training. Right now we do not have the resources to make this happen. While we know this would add a lot of value to our program, we feel we have been able to accommodate for this in other ways. For example, our summer Induction training focuses heavily on practice and not theory. Teachers focus on classroom management and culture as well as internalizing their first unit of instruction. During the monthly Saturday trainings, teachers receive differentiated training on increasingly rigorous instructional topics as their skills in the classroom improve, including a total of over 20 hours of content-specific training. Also, YES Prep, KIPP Houston, and Spring Branch ISD teachers receive significant campus-level support. At YES Prep, teachers receive at least six official observations throughout the year from their administration in addition to more informal support and coaching. It is relatively common for a TE teacher at YES Prep to receive some kind of coaching or support once per week throughout the year. TE instructional coaches and campus-based instructional leaders also collaborate regularly, often weekly, in order to align and refine their support. Even with this high level of support, some level of clinical practice prior to the school year, or a co-teaching opportunity no doubt, would make our program even more effective.

The role and requirements of the mentor teacher were also an area of improvement for us, based on NCTQ’s evaluation standards. Given the intensive support our teachers get from their instructional coaches and campus-based leadership, we have not relied heavily on campus-based mentors to support our teachers. Thinking more strategically about who we select as mentors and how they can be providing unique support is definitely something we’re going to look at moving forward.

A Push for NCTQ

There was one standard in NCTQ’s review that we were not evaluated on – evidence of effectiveness, or whether “the program’s graduates have a positive impact on student learning.” Had we been given the opportunity to provide the student achievement results of our Teaching Excellence teachers, we feel confident that our graduates would prove themselves as effective as any other new teachers across the country. In the future, we would love the opportunity to share these results and the other features of our program that were overlooked in this initial study.

We also want to thank the National Center for Teacher Quality for their commitment to bringing more awareness to the field of teacher preparation.  We are heartened that our program was found to be the most effective alternative certification program in Texas and we are also grateful to have a new lens through which to analyze our programming. We look forward to the continuing conversation this report has prompted both within and outside of our organization and the positive impact these conversations will have on all of our schools and students across the country.

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