teacher prep rally

Up next for SUNY chief, finding consensus on a teacher-ed overhaul

Nancy Zimpher has tackled a lot in her four-decade career, but she’s the first to admit she has no business flying a plane.

Yet there she was, strapped into a pilot’s seat in the cockpit at an aviation center at SUNY Farmingdale. To her disbelief, she even got the plane up in the air.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t bring it down,” said Zimpher, who has served as chancellor of the State University of New York since 2009.

Thankfully, Zimpher’s calamitous experience happened on a flight simulator that SUNY Farmingdale’s student-pilots use. But Zimpher likened it to a common practice in education: teachers entering the profession without the experience they need to handle the difficulties of a real classroom. Now, Zimpher is trying to change that, with help from a group of stakeholders who don’t always work well together.

The chancellor’s new “TeachNY” advisory council, which includes a number of researchers, the state teachers union, Teach for America, and the city’s top instructional leaders, Anna Commitante and Phil Weinberg, has been meeting this school year and is expected to settle on new policies for SUNY by June. Their work will be closely watched, as teacher colleges face pressure from federal officials to prove their graduates are successful at advancing student learning and from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wants to close programs with low pass rates on certification exams.

Zimpher, who spent three decades as a professor and dean of teacher education at Ohio State University, sat down with Chalkbeat last week to describe the challenge. She said she was comfortable with increased accountability, but a first priority is finding ways to get colleges and public schools to work together to put more aspiring teachers to work in real classrooms.

“No airline pilot is going to the cockpit without hours of simulated training,” Zimpher said. “But we do not think this way.”

On what ails teacher preparation

Zimpher: I think it’s fair to say that teacher education is, for some, like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s an easy target. It doesn’t have good policy. It’s underfunded compared to other professions. It doesn’t have the structure to do clinical preparation well.

We know from our hospitals that there’s a contractual relationship between the college of medicine and the hospitals where you want your doctors-in-training to get their clinical practice. We don’t have any of that infrastructure in teacher education.

And yet we have a lot of expectations about performance that seem to be driving everything, but nothing really helping us improve the quality of our teaching cadre. Everyone from hair stylists to neurosurgeons have a codified respect for clinical training.

Why public schools don’t want to help teachers in training

Let’s start here: There’s no policy that says, “K-12, you have to take these teachers in training.” It’s all done on a very informal request process. So that leaves colleges knocking on doors and asking, may I please send my teacher candidates to train in your school?

There’s no district incentive for an expert teacher to take on this additional responsibility. For the last 25 years, we’ve been paying a cooperating teacher something like $150 a semester to take a practicing teacher. It’s ridiculous.

Then, enter high-stakes testing. What we see happening is that high-stakes testing has made it difficult for a teacher to say, ‘I can take the risk to have a rookie in my classroom, when I am being the only one here being held accountable for the performance of my students.’

On what kinds of questions SUNY may soon be asking applicants

One very interesting indicator that Michael Allen put on the table today was ‘teaching promise’. This is more intuitive: Do you like kids? Do you respect that children can learn? What is your mindset around whether birth and economic environment or gender limit what you can learn?

So wouldn’t it be good if we had an instrument that would sort of give you a psychological profile of people we want in our teacher preparation programs, what their degree of commitment is?

On Cuomo’s education reform proposals

Since we prepare so many teachers, it’s for us to translate the governor’s message and make it a positive one. So I can’t really control the politics of the situation, but what we can control is the quality of our programs that help us recruit students that really want to come from high quality programs.

I think I’d rather have the governor interested than not. And with that interest comes some regulation that’s controversial and some of it’s hard to meet. But boy, we need to be a player in making things better and I’m OK with that.

On Teach for America

They have a much more abbreviated period of preparation and they have a challenging track record relative to retention. So [TFA] is training — over and over and over again — and not reaping the benefit of a long tenure for those teachers. I think there have been efforts on the part of Teach for America to reach out to higher education and see if we can’t work more effectively together. And I would support that.

I think there’s no benefit in producing teachers who aren’t ready for the classroom and rotate out too quickly. Those are our children they’re practicing on, and I think sometimes we think they’re somebody else’s children. No, they’re our children, and we want to send them the best possible teacher we can.

On using value-added test score growth to measure teacher prep programs

I’ve been convinced by the value-added approach, but I think we’ve not done well at all on the instrumentality. The theory is good. The practice is ailing.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede