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Building a better teacher in Denver

Denver Public Schools has won $8.2 million to expand its urban teacher residency program, the latest in a string of big-dollar grants aimed at boosting educator quality in city classrooms.

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In the past five months, DPS has received funding for three initiatives:

— $8.2 million, announced Thursday, from the U.S. Department of Education to expand the Denver Teacher Residency, the nation’s first district-based teacher training program modeled on a medical residency, over five years.

— $10 million, announced in January, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund a three-year effort between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association to create a new way of measuring teacher performance.

— $880,000, announced in November and also from the Gates Foundation, to study the performance of 176 teachers in 17 Denver schools over the next two years to identify and define effective teaching strategies.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced the latest grant Thursday in a press conference at McMeen Elementary in southeast Denver before rushing to a school board meeting with Patricia Loera, a senior program officer with the Gates Foundation.

“One of the reasons that we selected Denver was because we were very impressed by the work you had already accomplished through ProComp,” Loera said of DPS’ groundbreaking performance pay plan.

“You were the first in the nation to demonstrate you can, in a collaborative way, create a compensation system that rewards teachers.”

Videotaping teachers at work

The $880,000 study, called the Measures of Effective Teaching or MET Project, is Gates’ national attempt to identify specific teaching strategies that boost student achievement.

To do that, the foundation is videotaping 3,700 teachers in six school districts across the country this school year and next year. The videotapes will be reviewed by researchers.

In addition, the teachers are being asked to reflect in writing on their lessons and fill out surveys about their working conditions. Their students also will fill out surveys about their classroom experiences.

Participation was voluntary and each DPS teacher, and their school, is receiving $1,500. The study is limited to English and math teachers in grades 4-8 and English, algebra and biology teachers in grade 9.

“When we get the data, we’ll be able to say to DPS teachers, here’s the data that says this is what is effective with kids and our DPS kids are part of that research,” said Tracy Dorland, DPS’ executive director of teacher effectiveness.

A new way to measure teacher performance

The bigger Gates grant – at $10 million, it is the largest in DPS history – is focused on overhauling the district’s teacher evaluation system. Fewer than half of Denver teachers say it accurately assesses their performance or helps them improve.

Goals for the new system include clearly defining expectations of teachers, using multiple measures that include student growth and adding peer observations from other teachers.

Henry Roman, the president of the teachers’ union, told board members that improving principals’ ability to evaluate instruction is “an essential component” of the plan.

“The current evaluations system is based mainly on principal judgment,” he pointed out.

Adding teachers as peer reviewers also is key, Roman said. DPS plans to pilot peer review in ten to 20 schools starting in January 2011.

Some of the more controversial pieces of the overhaul, such as exactly how much weight will be given to student growth and which tests will be used, have yet to be determined.

But Loera said that, of the seven districts participating in the national project to overhaul teacher evaluation, most plan on combining student achievement with principal and peer observations.

“The student achievement piece will be about 40 to 50 percent,” she said. “What most districts are struggling with is … what does that mean? Do we really want a test to be the only measure? Should we be looking at a portfolio? There’s great debate.”

DPS’ timeline calls for rolling out the new evaluation system to at least 80 percent of teachers in August 2011.

Growing a teacher residency model

The newest grant of $8.2 million is part of $99.8 million in federal stimulus dollars awarded to reform traditional teacher prep programs and to expand residency models for non-traditional applicants.

Denver’s residency program, built to resemble hospital training for doctors, pairs new teachers with a veteran teacher for a year. The newbies receive a stipend and also begin work on a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Denver.

In return, they’re expected to teach in a high-poverty DPS school for another four years.

The program has drawn far more applicants than it can serve – more than 250 people applied for the first year of the program, 2009-10, and 27 were selected. With the federal dollars, DPS will gradually expand the seats to 75 per year.

Part of its goal is to recruit diverse teachers to work in high-needs areas. This year’s class is 51 percent minority, in a district where three-quarters of current teachers are white. Six are training to work with English language learners.

JaMese Stepanek, 25, a former classroom aide in Omaha, came to Denver for the residency program. She’s spent the past year in a first-grade classroom at McMeen, a school where 69 percent of students are minority and 83 percent are poor.

“I come from a place very similar to the children that I serve in DPS and it means a lot to me to show them that we can make it,” she said in a testimonial for the program Thursday. “We can come from … poverty and we can smile, and hold our head up high, and contribute.”

Click on the video to hear Stepanek talk about her experiences in the Denver Teacher Residency program.

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