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Screening for teachers with the right stuff

How alternative certification programs ensure that their hires are ready for urban teaching.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Please see this note for a correction to this article.

Success as a teacher in urban school systems like Philadelphia requires, among other things, respect for low-income students of color and their families – and respect for these students’ capacity to learn at high levels.

But how do school districts measure “respect” as they interview prospective teachers? What are the qualities that are the predictors of success with urban students? Can harmful stereotypes be identified in the screening process?

The alternative certification programs that provide teachers for Philadelphia also provide a new source of strategies for ensuring that teachers are a good match for urban students.

While skin color is no guarantee of teaching success or failure, some research indicates that having an African American teacher increases the likelihood of success for African American students. Conversely, there is considerable evidence that racial stereotypes negatively impact student learning. As a result, screening all candidates for attitudes and values is widely practiced. A variety of screening methods have been derived from studies of the characteristics of successful urban teachers.

Some school districts use commercial instruments like the Haberman PreScreener, (used in Philadelphia) and the Gallup TeacherInsight Assessment to help them evaluate the attitudes of teacher candidates. The Haberman consists of 50 questions and seeks to assess 10 dimensions, including one’s ability to deal with at-risk students and persist in the face of learning and behavioral problems.

Hundreds of Philadelphia teachers now bypass this process [Editor’s note: see comment from Mike Wang below] because they come to their positions through two alternative certification pathways, Teach for America (TFA) and The New Teacher Project, known locally as Philadelphia Teaching Fellows.

Through TFA, college graduates make a two-year commitment to teach in urban schools. Philadelphia Teaching Fellows recruits people who want to shift careers to teaching. Both programs are highly selective and target qualities associated with teaching success in urban schools.

Respect for communities

TFA’s Philadelphia director, Mike Wang, says that an essential quality for their teacher corps is having “the desire to work relentlessly and to give children in Philadelphia exactly the same opportunities as students elsewhere.”

TFA looks for five core values it believes are predictors of teaching success in urban schools; these include commitment to the organization’s mission of closing the racial achievement gap and respect for families and communities.

TFA has been criticized for a missionary model of educational change in which an elite and dedicated teacher cadre rescues downtrodden students. But Wang says TFA “rejects those who have the mentality that they will save these kids.” Rather, the organization promotes an “asset-based perspective” in which TFA members “understand they have a lot to learn from students and families.”

The selection process for Philadelphia Teaching Fellows relies on identifying and measuring key “competencies.”

“One of the competencies we’re screening for is commitment,” says Sarah Almy, who oversees the program. “We’re looking for individuals who are able to articulate clearly that they are committed to all children achieving at high levels and [believe] that regardless of a student’s background, they can be as successful as their more affluent peers,” she said.

A red flag, Almy says, is “any comment or indication that standards should be different” for students in high-needs schools. The program also places emphasis on respect and ability to interact with everyone within the school community, including parents and teaching colleagues.

Intensive interview process

TFA and Philadelphia Teaching Fellows rely on an intensive one-day interview process, as well as a written application to assess candidates. Group discussion, a one-on-one interview, presenting a model lesson, and responding to different classroom and school scenarios are also elements of the screening process.

Both organizations monitor the effectiveness of teacher interns based on student achievement data and are committed to tweaking their selection model based on the findings. Nationally, 88 percent of TFA members complete their two-year commitments, while 83 percent of Philadelphia Teaching Fellows are still on the job after two years.

There is little independent research to validate the screening instruments examined here. But one recent University of Michigan study found a significant correlation between high marks on the Haberman and student achievement. Both TFA and NTP have data to support their claim that their teachers are effective, in some cases more effective than traditionally certified urban teachers.

Some critics argue that testing for attitudes is purely subjective, and we should stick to measures like degrees, grades, and test scores when screening candidates. But another view would question the value of a 4.0 grade point average in a prospective math teacher who doesn’t think inner-city children need to learn algebra.

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