Moving From Districts To Networks To Better Prepare Teachers

What if networks rather than districts were the primary organizer for P-12 teacher training programs? Here’s a pro guest post by Tom McDermott exploring that solution.

Tom is the former Director of School Support with the Achievement Network (ANet) in Boston, where he supported schools in the execution of Teaching and Learning cycles (plan, teach, assess, reflect and adapt). Prior to ANet, Tom served as a fifth and sixth grade math teacher, instructional leader, and department coordinator at Uncommon Schools in Brooklyn, New York. Currently Tom is a Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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Teachers enter the profession ill-prepared to take on the rigors of the job. The academic, classroom management, and cultural demands of being a nascent educator, feelings of isolation and the lack of coherent support cause nearly half of all educators to leave the profession within their first five years of teaching (Ingersoll, Merril, and Stuckey, 2014). By restructuring PreK-12 schools and teacher training programs into networks aligned by philosophical approach, teacher retention, collaboration, professional growth, along with family and community engagement would be improved, leading to stronger educators and higher student achievement. In addition, it would enable greater differentiation for varied learning styles and more attractive career options for the most talented education school graduates.

Aligning teacher training and PreK-12 schools by philosophical approach enables a coherent experience for educators throughout their training and career. Educators in an aligned network employ common practices, collaborate with like-minded classmates and colleagues, and are exposed to learning and professional development opportunities designed to address the needs of students and educators within a network. With over a thousand different teacher training programs used in undergraduate and graduate degree programs throughout the country, teachers employed in the same building have widely different approaches to preparation and classroom teaching.  An undesirable trend has resulted: wide variances in achievement between students based upon which classroom they are assigned and the quality of their teacher (Sanders & Rivers, 1996). The network aligned by education philosophy (i.e., “no excuses,” blended learning, Expeditionary Learning, Montessori, etc.) model reverses this trend by requiring that each teacher training program adopt an accepted network (or multiple networks), a curriculum aligned to best practices, and incorporate research in the implementation of that network’s education approach. Students enrolled in a teacher training program identify which network they wish to pursue, and complete coursework in that network’s curriculum. Additionally, a significantly more professionalized approach to educating future teachers will be employed through their education and training. Programs will allocate more time to and focus on practice in the field and feedback cycles with current practitioners who have proved themselves effective in implementing the instructional practices of the network’s approach. Currently, future teachers are paired with educators of varied effectiveness, and little or no thought is placed on the educational approach alignment of the mentor and student teacher, or what will be expected of the student teacher at their future school (McIntyre, Byrd, & Foxx, 1996). In addition to monetary and professional status incentives, the role of mentor teacher represents an opportunity for teachers to remain in the classroom working with students, while assuming leadership responsibilities in training future teachers in their network’s approach. Through this structure, network mentor teachers work collaboratively with teacher training program faculty in facilitating the development of future teachers in their application of the network’s approach to teaching and learning.

Under the aligned network approach, each school in a district formally adopts a particular network as its philosophical approach to preparation and learning. All of the educators hired to teach and those in leadership roles must be trained in that particular approach and demonstrate the content and pedagogical knowledge of that network. With all teachers and leaders aligned on a philosophical approach, like-minded teachers will feel less isolated and seek out their colleagues to share resources and ideas, as well as voice concerns. Leaders will provide teachers with ongoing and specific feedback aligned to the best practices for that school’s approach to student learning. School and network leaders will align high quality professional development for teachers and leaders to foster the continued development of all staff in content relevant to the specific needs of the school’s adults and students.

While “school choice” is a common phrase used in education reform conversations, this “choice” seldom represents an opportunity for family input into how their child is educated. Rather, “school choice” most often translates into a choice of where a child is educated in terms of geography (i.e., neighborhood public school vs. local charter). The implementation of philosophically aligned networks presents a “choice” of what, where, and how.  It  is intended to empower families to learn about each of the networks offered in their district and to include families in the process of determining which network’s approach is best suited for the needs of their respective students.

This innovative approach to alignment will not be without significant challenges. Networks could be at risk of creating insular relationships amongst educators in different networks. The rejection of innovation in the field would defeat the purpose of the networks, which are organized to build on existing strengths and continuously improve practice within the schools, district, networks, and broader field. Leaders across networks will need to collaborate, share results, and their network’s research to ensure practices, technologies, and ideas are not siloed in any one network, but rather are shared, adapted if necessary, and applied across networks.

Organization of PreK-12 schools and teacher training programs by itself is insufficient for meaningful impact. Networks will need to develop their own curriculum (PreK-12 and teacher training), assessments, research and processes for continued learning, collaboration rhythms between training programs and PreK-12 schools, and accreditation requirements that reflect the network’s common vision for student learning and quality teacher practice. Failing to establish or uphold high expectations for what constitutes strong practice within the network is another potential obstacle. Each network must establish the infrastructure to enable its members’ success. Essential to this infrastructure is as an internal accountability system in which network members ensure the high expectations established by the network are upheld in the PreK-12 and teaching training settings.

Institutes of higher learning have acknowledged the need to improve teacher training programs. Deans for Impact, an organization consisting of deans and administrators at institutes of higher learning was founded in 2015 to address the need for stronger teacher preparation. The sharing of data, program design, and strategies amongst teacher preparation programs through organizations like Deans For Impact has great potential to improve the knowledge and skills of teachers entering the profession. However, this effort seems to overlook the need for a coherent experience from teacher training to practice within PreK-12 schools for future teachers. I fear that institutes of higher learning collaborating in the absence of PreK-12 schools will do little to address the striking variance in experiences and practices that currently exist among educators within a single PreK-12 building.  Institutes of higher learning do have an important role in informing networks and their practices. Consistent collaboration between institutes of higher learning and PreK-12 school will need to exist and include observations, curriculum audits, identification of highly effective PreK-12 mentor teachers, and research findings regarding networks’ approaches. Through this collaboration, practices in both training programs and PreK-12 schools will continuously inform curriculum, as well as provide multiple opportunities for feedback and improvement for both PreK-12 schools and training programs within a network.

Inconsistent practices within the walls of a school are largely the result of educators’ varying experiences and the ineffectiveness of professional development, which is often incongruent with the needs expressed by teachers (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2014). Restructuring teacher training programs and PreK-12 schools into philosophical networks will produce more collaborative and encouraging school environments where teachers are supported in their development. Ultimately, a more specialized, effective, and professional education workforce will emerge, leading to improvements in student achievement and the family experience. The reimagining of the education workforce through the restructuring into philosophical networks will not only attract the most talented and motivated education students to join its highly respected ranks, but it will enrich their practice so that they embrace being educators as a fulfilling, growth-oriented, lifelong career.

Follow Tom on twitter @TomMcDermott9

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  1. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Seattle, WA.
  2. McIntyre, D. J., Byrd, D. M. & Foxx, S. M. (1996). Field and laboratory experiences. In J. Sikula, T. J. Buttery, & E. Guyton (Eds.), Handbook of research on teacher education (2nd ed., pp. 171-193). New York: Macmillan.
  3. R. Ingersoll, L. Merrill, and D. Stuckey, Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force, CPRE Report (#RR-80) (Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania, April 2014)
  4. Sanders, W. L., & Rivers, J. C. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement (Research Progress Report). Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center.


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