How Teacher Education (and Master’s Degrees) Make a Difference for Student Achievement

I must say I am little weary of policy pundits who say that schools of education and master’s degree programs make no difference in the lives of teachers and the students they serve. Certainly there are some that do not. As Linda Darling-Hammond said in a recent interview, “probably a quarter of the teacher-education enterprise” is of very high quality. Other programs are “pretty good,” she said, “but they could be a lot better if there were incentives and supports to get them there. And there are some that need to be put out of business.”

One of the high quality programs is at the University of Florida — where a group of teacher educators, non-profit leaders, and children’s advocates have created a Ready Schools Strategy that connects teacher preparation and professional development with health and social services in Florida’s high-needs school communities.

Last week I was fortunate to work with Don Pemberton of the UF Lastinger Center for Learning, Dave Lawrence and Ana Sejeck of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, and Dorene Ross of the College of Education as well as several terrific teachers. During my visit I learned a great deal about their Teacher Leadership and School Improvement Initiative in Miami-Dade and its powerful impact on Redondo Elementary, located in Homestead, Florida. Redondo serves a beautiful multi-ethnic group of Pre-K through third grade students (of which almost 50 percent are English Language Learners and over 90 percent receive free or reduced price meals).
Let’s start with what matters for the kids: In 2005 less than 50% of the Redondo’s students were proficient in reading or math. Since the launch of the Ready Schools Strategy, including a specialized master’s program for a core group of teachers, the student achievement has escalated. In 2008, over 67% of the school’s third graders were proficient in reading; over 92% in math. Rene Baly, the school’s principal, credits hard-working teachers who have learned to teach differently. He also credits working conditions, which give teachers more time to learn from each other and to work closely with health care, social work, and community outreach professionals who help connect the work of teaching to the lives of students and their families.

The school’s health practitioners see 60 students a week – treating a variety of illnesses and eye and ear problems – to ensure students are ready to learn as well as feel safe and loved. Family engagement efforts bring the school to the neighborhood, but also offer tailored training in English and parenting skills to the mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles of Redondo’s children. On a weekly basis at least 25 of the school’s parents attend sessions.

Teacher preparation and support are critical components as well. Don Pemberton’s vision and entrepreneurial skills have brought a fully-paid, job-embedded advanced degree program to the school’s teachers. The UF education school has orchestrated a set of research-focused learning experiences that cultivate new teacher skills related to differentiated instruction, data driven decision-making, culturally responsive teaching, classroom management, and leadership — while giving individual teachers opportunities to specialize in literacy or second language learners. What’s most striking is that the education school program is highly adaptive. It’s equally helpful to a recently minted novice who had little training in how to teach in a high needs school; an alternative certification recruit who knows her content but has few pedagogical skills that enable her to teach it to diverse learners; or a veteran teacher who needs to develop new research-based skills in literacy and assessment.
During my visit I met several outstanding teachers. They were not graduates of elite colleges or individuals enticed with bonuses and performance pay to teach in high needs schools. Instead, most were from the community and represent a new vision for “growing your own” effective teachers for challenging schools. In return for being able to earn a “no-cost” master’s degree, the teachers agree to teach at Redondo for at least 5 years.

Zolia Esteve, an 11-year veteran, says that as a result of the program she is now much more effective at teaching reading. She described a second grader “Julia” who was reading less than 20 words a minute now being able to not just read but comprehend 120 words a minute. She also has the “confidence to challenge” the administration on how to better deliver services to students. Principal Rene Baly is grateful for Esteve’s newly developed leadership skills and the new ideas she brings to table.

I also met Melissa LaRosa, a finalist for Reading Coach of the Year in Florida, who spends countless hours team teaching and providing support and advice to her colleagues, who view her as a “teacher’s teacher.” For Melissa, who proudly wore her Edugator t-shirt during our visit, the University of Florida master’s degree program and its focused inquiry approach made her a better coach, providing her much needed skills in using data and understanding why students were learning or not.

Finally, I was proud to meet Cathleen Caves, another teacher in the program, who actually went to Redondo when she was in elementary school. She began her career as a teaching assistant and is now one of the school’s experts in the use of a variety of formative assessments to drive instruction. Cathleen told me that the UF graduate program “is fantastic.” Pointing to Zolia and Melissa, who were in room with us, she added: “We are more like a family than ever before.” Perhaps most importantly, she asserted, “With my salary I sure could not pay for this degree myself — and now I want to teach here for my whole career.”
The Teacher Leadership and School Improvement Initiative has just graduated its first class. Next year the University of Florida expects to serve 400 graduate students (pending funding). Don Pemberton, at the helm of Lastinger Center’s Ready Schools master teacher strategy, envisions preparing and supporting – and networking – 10,000 Florida educators who are all dedicated to teaching effectively in high needs schools.

Smart teacher preparation and support may just be the solution we’ve been searching for to end the current maldistribution of effective teachers. If so, the University of Florida is blazing a trail that other education schools and master’s degree programs can follow if they really want to make a difference.