Lesson Plan in Boston Schools: Don’t Go It Alone

The New York Times

Earlier this year Massachusetts enacted a law that allowed districts to remove at least half the teachers and the principal at their lowest-performing schools. The school turnaround legislation aligned the state with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program incentives and a chance to collect a piece of the $3.4 billion in federal grant money.

From Washington this makes abundant good sense, a way to galvanize rapid and substantial change in schools for children who need it most.

In practice, on the ground, it is messy for the people most necessary for turning a school around — the teachers — and not always fair.

Often the decisions about which teachers will stay and which will go are made by new principals who may be very good, but don’t know the old staff. “We had several good teachers asked to leave,” said Heather Gorman, a fourth-grade teacher who will be staying at Blackstone Elementary here, where 38 of 50 teachers were removed. “Including my sister who’s been a special-ed teacher 22 years.”
And while tenured teachers who were removed all eventually found positions at other Boston schools, it’s unsettling. “Very upsetting,” said Ms. Gorman. “A lot of nervousness for teachers.”

Blackstone’s new principal, Stephen Zrike, who made the decisions, agrees. “I’d say definitely good teachers were let go,” Mr. Zrike said, explaining that a lot of his decisions were driven by particular skills he wanted for teams he was assembling. “I wouldn’t doubt a lot will be excellent in other places.”

And how much to blame are teachers for the abysmal test scores at Orchard Gardens, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade turnaround school here, that’s had six principals since opening seven years ago?

The goal of the turnaround legislation is to get the best teachers into the schools with the neediest children, but often, experienced teachers get worn down by waves and waves of change and are reluctant to try again.

“You fear being pulled by the latest whim,” said Ana Vaisenstein, who has taught in Boston for 12 years.

“Sometimes in education, there are so many changes being made at once, the important things get lost,” said Courtney Johnson, a five-year veteran.

Asked about applying to one of the city’s 12 turnaround schools, Lisa Goncalves, a first-grade teacher with seven years’ experience, said, “I’d be hesitant to go alone.”

And that is the simple idea behind a new program that is being used to staff three of the turnaround schools in Boston: you don’t go alone. Rather than have the principal fill the slots one by one, the Boston schools have enlisted the help of a nonprofit organization, Teach Plus, to assemble teams of experienced teachers who will make up a quarter of the staff of each turnaround school come fall.

“It’s like jump-starting a culture at these schools,” said Carol R. Johnson, Boston superintendent of schools. “In turnaround schools, you often wind up with a high portion of first- and second-year teachers, so you need some experience, a team of teachers who are enthusiastic and idealistic.”

Said Celine Coggins, the chief executive of Teach Plus, which developed the idea and is financed by the Gates Foundation: “I think teachers want to know they’re not going into a school alone as a hero.”

The teams will spend two weeks working together this summer. While teaching a full load, they will serve as team leaders for their grades and specialty areas like English immersion. They will work 210 days versus the normal 185 and get paid $6,000 extra a year.
On average they have eight years’ experience.

There were 142 applicants — from as far as Arizona, Florida and Nevada — for the 36 positions. Everyone offered a job took it. Sixty-eight percent came from Boston public schools, 18 percent from charter schools.

Their credentials are impressive. Ms. Vaisenstein, who will teach English immersion at Blackstone, has been in education 33 years, speaks Spanish and French, understands Portuguese and directed a Head Start program in Boston for five years. Lillian Pinet, an 18-year veteran, is fluent in Spanish and Amharic, an Ethiopian language, and teaches an education course at Boston College. Sylvia Yamamoto, who will teach third grade, is a 20-year veteran who taught English to foreign students at Harvard for years.

Mr. Zrike, the principal at Blackstone, said Teach Plus had provided such a strong core of teachers to anchor the school that it helped him recruit other experienced teachers. And it has allowed him to take a chance on three new teachers he can pair with the Teach Plus veterans.

The teachers had their reasons for wanting to come to the most challenging schools (at Orchard Gardens, 9 percent of fifth graders scored proficient in reading and math). Tulani Husband-Verbeek, a reading specialist with seven years’ experience, said she became disillusioned after teaching at a high-achieving charter school. “They bragged all their graduates went to college, but they started with 120 freshmen and graduate 25,” she said. The Teach Plus team approach, she said, “strikes me as a sincere effort to turn around the public schools.”

Ms. Pinet, who will be teaching at Orchard Gardens, where more than half the students are Hispanic or nonnative English speakers, came to Boston from Puerto Rico when she was 6, not knowing English. “I can remember being very nervous in reading group,” she said. “And my teacher saying take your time, Lillian, you can do it. I felt respected.” Ms. Pinet said she wanted to return the favor.

The idea for inserting teams of experienced teachers came from teachers. In 2007, Teach Plus created a group of 15 teaching fellows, searching for ideas for turning around schools. The second most important thing they mentioned was a strong principal; the first, a team of effective teachers.

“We thought like teachers,” said Melanie Allen, a fellow, who’s a nine-year veteran of Boston schools. “We wanted to be surrounded with a group of equally collaborative and dedicated teachers with open doors. We wanted to create a tipping point that would inspire the school culture.”

The original vision was that the teams would be dropped into struggling schools where it’s not unusual to have 25 percent turnover in a normal year. (At Orchard Gardens, with its six principals in seven years, normal turnover was 45 percent.)

Ms. Allen, who is the union representative at her school, didn’t expect that the plan would be used in a way that would hurt the union. “The way we wrote the plan is different from the implementation,” she said

While the Boston union supports the team approach, it was dead set against the Race to the Top legislation, which allowed districts to empty out half the turnaround schools and make teachers reapply for their jobs. But it lost that battle with the Democratic-controlled legislature and Democratic governor, its traditional allies — a sign of how much has changed, so fast.

“Steamrolled?” asked Richard Stutman, who leads the Boston Teachers Union. “There isn’t a union teacher in this country who doesn’t feel steamrolled. Yes, we feel steamrolled.”

When the Teach Plus teachers were asked about their union, they had mixed feelings.

“I feel it should be more proactive,” Ms. Vaisenstein said.

“I don’t like seeing it obstructionist and kvetching,” said Ms. Allen, the building union representative.

Ben Rockoff, a math teacher going to Orchard Gardens, felt that the union spent too much time defending the weakest members.

And yet, with all the upheaval in education, Ms. Vaisenstein said, “I definitely feel I need the union.”

Ms. Gorman said, “It’s important that it’ll help support me.” And Mr. Rockoff said, “I want the union defending me to the utmost.”

[email protected]
A version of this article appears in print on August 9, 2010, on Page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Lesson Plan: Don’t Go It Alone.