Thursday, September 15, 2016

City teaching-training effort didn’t have state approval

For many aspiring teachers, it seemed too good to pass up: The chance to run their own classrooms while earning a teachers license through a new program that the Boston Public Schools was starting up this year.

Nearly 500 fledgling teachers applied for spots in the Boston Teaching Fellowship program, which promised that successful candidates could earn an “initial license,” a highly desirable credential for new teachers, in just one year.

But just two weeks before the program was set to begin in June, the school system notified the more than three dozen fellows who were accepted into the program that it would not be able to award the licenses because the state had not approved the program.

The stumble represents a setback for a new program with the goal of increasing the diversity of Boston’s teaching force. School systems nationwide have been creating their own licensure programs because teacher colleges are turning out low numbers of graduates who are black or Latino.

About half the applicants who were offered slots in the Boston program self-identified as a person of color. The Boston Teaching Fellowship is designed for aspiring teachers with deep roots in the city who never attended a teacher college.

The school system appears to have violated state guidelines that prohibit would-be licensure programs from enrolling candidates before receiving state approval, a rule established in the spirit of consumer protection.

The lack of state approval means the candidates will move on a slower path in securing an “initial license,” which indicates a certain mastery of teaching methods and is one step below a professional license, a state requirement after 10 years of teaching.

The school system defended its handling of the recruitment and enrollment of candidates into the program while approval was pending with the state.

“This status was made clear to candidates throughout the application and enrollment period, which included a prominent note on the fellowship’s website, and a few participants left the program when this information was shared,” the department said in a statement.

Boston plans to reapply for state approval next year. If the state grants the request, the applicants can earn the initial licenses within two years instead of one. If the state rejects the application again, Boston will pursue backup plans, such as giving applicants grants from AmeriCorps, a community service organization, so they can earn their initial licenses at a teachers college.

In the meantime, the applicants have been taking part in a scaled-back version of the program that includes classes and teaching assignments in summer programs, and the waiving of tuition. That kind of teacher preparation program does not require state approval because it is not awarding licenses, according to the state.

The applicants also have been taking the state teacher licensing exams, with most of them passing, enabling them to secure preliminary licenses from the state, which can be obtained without going through state teacher-preparation programs. Those licenses are considered less desirable than initial and professional licenses, which require formal training.

Of the 39 fellows who began the Boston program, 33 successfully completed it and 21 landed full-time teaching positions. Another was hired as a paraprofessional.

The school system said the numbers signal a success.

“We were able to bring in a diverse cohort of new teachers and get them ready on a pretty ambitious timeline to be really competitive for jobs across BPS,” said Thomas Maffai, director of special projects for the school system’s Office of Human Capital.

But some applicants criticized the quality of the program. For instance, they said applicants training to teach students who speak English as a second language were placed in summer programs for students with mild to moderate disabilities and were not provided appropriate training.

Schools were short on paper, pencils, markers, and other basic supplies, prompting some applicants to buy their own, they said.

“It was frustrating,” said one, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing a chance of getting a permanent job in the system.

The school system disputed those assertions, saying the applicants were provided the necessary amount of training and time with the kinds of students they would be teaching. They also said the schools had enough supplies.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in rejecting the school system’s application in May, cited “significant deficiencies,” including a failure to demonstrate an overall understanding of the training that would need to be provided in order to license teachers in Massachusetts, according to a copy of the state review.

The state also questioned the financial sustainability of the program after a federal grant that is helping to fund it expires.

“Finally, and most significantly,” the review stated, “there was a lack of evidence to demonstrate that candidates would receive the necessary preparation and support in order to be successful during the program as well as in employment.”

However, the state did agree with Boston that a need exists for such a program in Boston.

The school system is running the program in partnership with TNTP, a national nonprofit that used to be called The New Teacher Project. Funding is being provided through a $137,000 grant over three years.

Boston received 490 applications for the teaching fellowship program.

Despite the findings by the state, Maffai said, the state told the school system it could enroll candidates as long as it was clear that it did not have state approval yet to award initial licenses.

“The practical impact for those teachers is nonexistent,” Maffai said. “In the end, it doesn’t change anything for them in the short run and we are committed to supporting them in the long run and hopefully we can do that through our own program.”


Why Universities Are Failing

“For some families, sending a child to a private university now is like buying a BMW every year—and driving it off a cliff.” So writes Charles Sykes, a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, in the introductory chapter to his new book, Fail U.: The False Promise of Higher Education. The BMW in his example not only serves as a useful metaphor for the cost of putting a student through a year of college, but for the collective sanity of American higher education. Indeed, the antics of the ivory tower denizens detailed in Sykes’ book often seem about as sensible as driving one’s newly-purchased luxury vehicle over a cliff.

Just 44% of faculty spend nine hours or more per week teaching, down from 63% twenty years ago.

Academia has become a bubble ready to burst, as Sykes’ thesis goes. Populating its ranks are professors who teach fewer students and publish more unread research, administrators who undertake expensive vanity projects, and students who obsess endlessly over trigger warnings, microaggressions, and other unwieldy portmanteaus. All of it is subsidized by the taxpayer with little regard for value or cost.

Less Teaching, More Administrative Costs

Particularly alarming are the chapters on college professors’ flight from teaching. Not only do professors frequently contrive to lower their teaching loads, but administrators and academic departments encourage them. Just 44% of faculty spend nine hours or more per week teaching, down from 63% twenty years ago. Teaching assistants or poorly-paid adjuncts replace the absentees in the classroom; the professors themselves have cranked up the volume of their research output. However, up to half of published articles are never read by anyone (save editors, and sometimes not even then), and up to 90% never receive a single citation.

Compensating for the lack of teachers in the classroom, at least, is the ever-increasing amount of resources devoted to nonacademic expenses. Shiny new dorms, state-of-the-art gyms, and expensive athletic programs have popped up on campuses nationwide.

One student in a level 3 Swahili course was not able to say the word “hello” in Swahili.

Sykes brings attention to what he terms the “law of more,” which is referred to by economists as the “revenue theory of costs.” Essentially, institutions of higher education are economically unique in that they have no good way to measure unit costs, and can theoretically spend limitless amounts of money in the name of providing an education. Give a college access to more money, and it will find a way to spend it. Governments that subsidize higher education have not yet caught on to the if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie economics of college campuses, and so the bloat continues.

Scandals and Political Correctness

Guaranteed to make your blood boil is the chapter concerning the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill “fake classes” scandal. The school’s African-American Studies department allowed students to enroll in “classes” which they were not in fact required to attend. One student in a level 3 Swahili course was not able to say the word “hello” in Swahili. Yet students were virtually guaranteed As and Bs regardless. Lest UNC-Chapel Hill be considered an isolated incident, Sykes cites evidence of comparable (albeit less extreme) scenarios occurring at Duke, Stanford, and beyond.

Low-cost, easily-accessible MOOCs have the potential to give the college establishment a run for its money.

Readers will alternately laugh and cry between Sykes’ descriptions of the politically correct “trigger warning” culture on many college campuses and the startling zeal with which administrators and federal regulators enforce the new normal. One anecdote describes a tenured professor at Marquette who was threatened with termination for defending a student’s right to oppose same-sex marriage in the classroom. A professor at Northwestern faced a Title IX inquisition for…writing a column critiquing Title IX.

Competition From MOOCs

Sykes places his hope for the future of higher education in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), or, as he calls them, “Netflix U.” “Almost no institution in the modern world has proven to be more impervious to reform than the modern university,” he writes, but low-cost, easily-accessible MOOCs have the potential to give the college establishment a run for its money.

These concluding chapters are where Sykes could have laid out a more detailed roadmap for higher education in the future. MOOCs will certainly have their place, but I doubt they will ever replace all or even most of the current college system. Other innovations will—and should—complement the MOOC. Sykes alludes to ideas such as a three-year bachelor’s degree, but misses some opportunities to lay out a positive agenda for change in higher education.

Fail U. is a startling rebuke to the higher education status quo. While many will not agree with all his conclusions, the evidence Sykes lays out should make every college administrator, professor, student, and trustee stop and think about what they can do to improve their schools. Higher education cannot ignore its problems forever—similar to the rest of the economy, it too must innovate, or fail.


It’s not a dorm, but school rules apply

The new six-story building on Commonwealth Avenue wasn’t built to be a dorm. But during the last week, 180 Boston University students have moved in.

The arrangement is part of a two-year deal BU made with the building’s developer to lease out the space as student housing. It’ll be like any other dorm, complete with RAs and university housing rules, while BU renovates its Myles Standish Hall in Kenmore Square. Once those upgrades are complete, the plan is for 1047 Commonwealth Ave. to go back on the city’s rental market.

Emerson College is eyeing a similar deal in the Fenway while it renovates a dorm downtown. And Boston College this summer converted an apartment tower it owns in Brighton into a dorm, part of a plan to make up for student housing it’s tearing down for a new recreation center.

Call it a side effect of Boston’s student housing boom.

As schools get to work on the 3,500 new dorm rooms the Walsh Administration has approved in the last two years, construction is knocking some of their existing dorms out of commission. So they’re cutting deals with developers and landlords to put students in regular apartments, for now at least.

It’s a temporary fix, they promise, but one that has some housing advocates nervous in a city where the rental market is so tight that every apartment seems precious.

“This neighborhood doesn’t need any more student housing,” said Rich Giordano, a community organizer at the Fenway Community Development Corp., which is opposing Emerson’s plan. “We’d much rather see that building used as mixed, open-market housing.”

Off-campus student housing isn’t unusual in one of the nation’s biggest college towns. BU has long put students in hotels when its dorms overflow. A handful of schools rent a few dozen apartments here and there. But taking large buildings, whole, would be a new development.

At 1047 Commonwealth Ave., on the western edge of BU’s campus in Allston, Cambridge-based developer Urban Spaces LLC just finished converting an old office building into 180 “micro-units” — 300- to 400-square-foot studios each with a full kitchen and hardwood floors. Their plan, said CEO Paul Ognibene, had been to market the apartments to graduate students, young professionals, and others who wanted a place in the city but couldn’t quite afford new buildings downtown.

Then BU came calling.

The university needed a place to put students during the two-year update of Myles Standish Hall, and knew the Commonwealth Avenue building was set to open this summer.

“It dovetails nicely with our schedule and beginning the project at Myles Standish,” said BU spokesman Colin Riley. “We can do construction on half the space there and house students who are displaced.”

It works for the developer, too. Filling a new building with rent-paying tenants often takes a year or more. And every month apartments sit empty is money the developer never sees. But a university can rent the whole thing all at once.

“It’s great swing space for them. And it’s a great deal for us,” Ognibene said on a recent tour. “This place is going to fill up immediately.”

Neither party would disclose how much BU is paying for the dorm, where students will hand over as much as $17,160 to live for the school year. Riley called the deal “a win-win situation” for both the university and Urban Spaces. When the two years are up, there’s an option to extend for another two years.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens after two years,” Ognibene said. “But our plan is to return it to market-rate housing.”

For some other projects, there’s fear the arrangement could become permanent.

Emerson College is asking the Boston Redevelopment Authority for permission to rent a 56-room building on Hemenway Street in the Fenway. It’s now a hostel, and Emerson would turn it into a dorm for two years while it renovates and expands its 748-bed Little Building residence hall downtown.

But Emerson’s plan faces pushback from neighbors who worry it could turn the building into a de facto dorm for good, taking another piece of the neighborhood essentially off the market.

“The Fenway is currently being squeezed in an economic vise, which is squeezing affordability and vibrancy from the neighborhood and driving out longtime residents,” 10 Fenway residents wrote in a recent letter to the BRA.

That’s not Emerson’s intent, said Peggy Ings, the college’s head of government and community relations. The college wants to uphold its housing commitments to the city, she said, and settled on the Hemenway building after more than a year of scoping out apartment buildings and hotels downtown.

“We’re not an institution that wants to turn our back on the city and our students and let these 115 kids go out on their own,” she said. “That’s not what we’re about.”

City officials say they’ll weigh the neighborhood concerns against the need for more student housing. Each case is a little different, said former BRA spokesman Nick Martin.

“It’s kind of a push and pull situation,” said Martin, in an interview before he recently left the BRA. “Generally we want schools housing more students on campus. But you can’t really do that without having places for students to live temporarily during construction.”

The key word is temporary, said Sheila Dillon, chief of housing for Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the point-person on his dorm push. As long as the schools’ deals with private buildings have an end date, she said, the city is generally OK with them.

“We have assurances that [1047 Commonwealth Ave.] goes back into apartments,” when the work on Myles Standish is done, she said. “That’s kind of an important piece of this.”


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