As students filed into Sharon Leger’s fifth-grade class in Farmington on the first day of school, it became painfully clear that the new teacher was not prepared.
Leger never learned in college how to get, and keep, the attention of her students. She also never learned how to tailor her lessons to teach students who don’t speak English or have special education needs.
“This stuff was never even touched on. I was left with no strategies,” said Leger, now in her third year of teaching at West Woods Upper Elementary School. “Everything I learned, I picked up from teachers here.”
Leger’s experience is common among the 1,200 first-year teachers that begin in Connecticut’s public schools each year.
“One thing we keep hearing from superintendents is that people come out unprepared,” said Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education.
With the state’s public and private colleges graduating about 3,500 teachers each year, two recent national surveys found that, in some cases, nearly two of every three new teachers felt they had been unprepared for the classroom.
Addressing this has become a priority of the administrations of both President Obama and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. On Thursday, the panel that the governor and state legislators created last year to improve the accountability of the state’s 21 teacher preparation colleges is expected to finalize its recommendations. The recommendations are expected to be approved by the State Board of Education in April.
When Lauren Palermino graduated from the University of Connecticut four years ago, her dealings with the school ended there. When she needed help overcoming the teaching obstacles most new teachers face, she turned to those at her school in Farmington for help.
“Maybe if I was in another school I would be in trouble,” she said during her lunch break.
The Board of Regents, which runs the state’s largest public college system and that graduates nearly half of the state’s future teachers, does not follow up with their graduates in a measurable way to find out if they are teaching, how they are doing in the classroom and where college programs could improve. The University of Connecticut was able to provide some details on their graduates.
The school used the results of a recent survey of graduates to create a class for future teachers on instructing students who speak limited English. However, the feedback on their graduates ends there.
“We don’t get to see how they’re doing once they are out there. Are their students improving? We just don’t know,” said Marijke Kehrhahn, the associate dean of UConn’s Neag School of Education.
One of the recommendations to be considered today by the panel would create a system where the state can evaluate teacher preparation programs. This might include how their graduates perform on their annual teacher evaluations and how many go into (and remain) in teaching. It may also include what school officials and graduates think about the quality of individual colleges.
The current system requires that the programs be approved by the State Board of Education every five years. During the board’s most recent batch of approvals last fall, the state’s education commissioner said that the system is too focused on curriculum rather than outcomes.
This shift toward independently finding out how these programs are doing is certain to face resistance.
Eastern Connecticut State University earlier this year boasted about being ranked a top regional university by U.S. News & World Report. But the college system wants to opt out of the magazine’s new plans, starting in June, to rank teacher colleges, and several private colleges also have been reluctant.
Nearly half of those who earn a teaching degree in the state’s public and private colleges each year attended a Connecticut State University.
“We need to track the progress of our teachers post graduation so that we understand what our strengths and weaknesses have been,” Malloy said during an interview this week.
When creating this panel — known as the Education Preparation Advisory Council, or EPAC for short — the Democratic governor tasked members with linking these evaluations to the renewal of accreditation.
The draft recommendations steer clear of specifics on how this evaluation would be carried out; the panel has agreed to work that out during “phase two” of their work.
“The devil will certainly be in the details,” Taylor, the state education board’s chairman, said during the panel’s most recent meeting.
Leger’s results on her journey to become a fifth-grade teacher were above average.
Not only were her grades so good that she got her school completely paid for, but she spent dozens of hours more than Central required student teaching in urban districts.
The in-classroom experience is where she learned the most, she said, versus listening to lectures on campus. Only half her professors had actually been teachers in the last decade, she said.
“Spending just 30 hours a semester at a school is really ridiculous,” she said, referring to what was required of her before her final semester where she was in the classroom full time. “Requiring more hours (working in a classroom) would be helpful, and if that’s not doable then maybe someone’s priorities aren’t in the right spot.”
State legislators last year did pass a law that requires that every college student studying to be a teacher spend at least four semesters in the classroom. However, the actual time they are required to spend is not outlined.
Leger said it would have been helpful for her to be in a classroom full time at the start of a school year so she could see how an experienced teacher sets parameters with her students to keep control of the classroom. Most teaching candidates do their full-time student teaching during the spring semester since it is their last semester, but by then, the experienced teacher has already set those boundaries with students.
“It was a struggle to pick up that stuff on the go,” she said of creating reward systems, behavior charts and other techniques to create incentives to encourage good behavior among students.
But expanding the amount of time these college students spend in the classroom is certain to face obstacles, most notably in finding the experienced teachers willing to take in these students.
“On top of all the paperwork, everything I do, I have to carefully explain why I did it. It’s exhausting,” said Jill Slayton, a longtime teacher who has taken several teachers-in-training into her classroom in Farmington.
It’s also been a mixed bag on the caliber of the students colleges have sent her. Some hit the ground running, while others are a train wreck, she said, forcing Slayton to have to reteach her students everything in a fraction of the time.
And some parents seem to realize this, too.
“I have had parents ask me not to put their child in a brand new teacher’s room,” said Hamden Superintendent Fran Rabinowitz during an EPAC meeting.
With new statewide teacher evaluations set to be linked to student performance, experienced teachers may also be hesitant to sign up for having someone with no experience take over their class.
The college officials on the governor’s panel said they routinely run into problems of not having enough teachers willing to take in their students in need of that experience.
It doesn’t help that the cooperating teachers get paid almost nothing for the extra work. In Farmington, Slayton receives $100.
“Call me crazy, but when people work they like to be paid,” said Sharon Palmer, the former leader of one of the state’s teachers’ union and now the commissioner of the Department of Labor. “There should be a minimum” payment.
But like most things, the question is where the money is going to come from to reimburse these teachers more.
“The amount of work they do is really amazing… I don’t know where that money is going to come from,” said Hari Koirala, the chair of the education department at Eastern Connecticut State University.
The panel had been considering requiring that these teachers get at least $1,000 for the work, but that did not make it into the draft recommendations.
Raising the bar
Ninety-five percent of those who apply to Eastern Connecticut State University’s teaching college will be accepted, and 99 percent who enroll will graduate with a teaching degree. (See a school-by-school breakdown of acceptance and graduation rates here.)
Malloy, and others, think the bar needs to be raised.
“What we really want to do is lift the profession,” he said this week.
Last year, the governor proposed raising the entrance requirements for an aspiring teacher to be accepted into state public and private colleges — from a 2.7 to 3.3 GPA — something he continues to support.
Nationwide, 23 percent of teachers, and 14 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools, come from the top third of college graduates, reports McKinsey and Proof Points, a nonprofit organization that supports state-level education reform.
Included in the recommendations the panel is expected to vote on today is, “Establish[ing] rigorous standards for selectivity and acceptance” into programs. However, precisely what those standards will be won’t be determined until phase two of the process.
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Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe