Nationally and here in Philadelphia, finding and keeping effective urban teachers is an urgent priority and an ongoing challenge. Too often, urban schools serving the highest proportions of low-income students are staffed by the least experienced, least trained teachers.
In Pennsylvania as a whole, one-third of all new teachers leave the profession within three years. Of new teachers starting in the Philadelphia School District in 1999-2000, only 52 percent remained in the District three years later.
Because of the difficulty hiring certified teachers, a number of programs have emerged to provide alternate routes into teaching.
Since 1999, Research for Action, an independent nonprofit group, has been evaluating the Reduced Class Size/Balanced Literacy initiative (RCS/BL). Implemented by the School District of Philadelphia, in partnership with the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF), RCS/BL provides an alternative process for recruiting and training classroom teachers.
The initiative recruits Literacy Intern Teachers (LITs), individuals who are not certified to teach but possess at least a bachelor's degree. LITs are paired with certified partner teachers, receive training in teaching literacy skills, and are required to work towards teacher certification.
Our research suggests that RCS/BL offers a promising route for providing Philadelphia with well-qualified new teachers.
From 1999 to 2003, the District hired 1,513 LITs. After the first year, the District began hiring former program participants as solo teachers. From fall 2000 through fall 2002, 285 former LITs entered their own classrooms.
Of 611 teachers hired for elementary teaching positions for fall 2003, 225 are former LITS.
The objectives of RCS/BL include enhancing children's literacy learning reducing student/teacher ratios; recruiting and retaining new teachers; and providing extensive professional development and support for inexperienced teachers as they work toward certification.
LITs work with their partner teachers to create two-teacher classrooms with a student/teacher ratio of 15:1, rather than the usual ratio of 30:1. Adjunct faculty hired by PEF visit the classroom twice each month to guide LITs in building a successful working relationship with their partner teachers and working effectively with the balanced literacy instructional program.
RCS/BL addresses many of the challenges inherent in recruiting, preparing and retaining well-qualified teachers for urban schools
RCS/BL has opened up a larger pool of teacher candidates. One principal said, "I was tremendously impressed with the general level of knowledge and appearance of the folks who were interviewing (to be LITs).... I strongly suspect that those folks would not be seeking to be teachers in Philadelphia if it were not for this model."
By working with an experienced teacher, LITs can gain teaching experience before they have solo responsibility for a full classroom. They can develop needed skills, knowledge, and confidence.
The program provides long-term, high-quality professional development and guidance, unlike many alternative recruitment or apprenticeship programs. In addition, LITs are required to work toward certification. Thus they can simultaneously learn from direct classroom experience, mentoring, program professional development, and university-based classes.
Since the professional development is linked to specific instructional content (literacy) and pedagogical knowledge, it deepens LITs' knowledge about teaching. In interviews, both principals and teachers praised this aspect of the program.
The partner teachers provided valuable models for the LITS, who carried those images into their own solo teaching. As one solo teacher (former LIT) said, "Being with a veteran teacher was useful because it gave an idea of what different classroom management strategies look like. I was lucky to be with two teachers with very good, but different, management skills."
The RCS/BL model has the built-in advantage of lowering student/teacher ratio. This is valuable both for the students, who receive more individual and small group instruction, and for the intern teacher.
Principal support for any program is essential. PEF and the School Districtfocus on helping principals increase their involvement with RCS/BL. This effort has paid off; by 2002, all of the principals we interviewed expressed knowledge of and support for RCS/BL, a significant change from> previous years.
Both principals and new solo teachers (former LITs) are highly enthusiastic about the program's effectiveness in recruiting and training well-qualified new teachers, interviews conducted during our research have shown.
One principal said, "Our brand new teachers (former LITs) are superstars.... For them to come in, get the (curriculum) training and implement the programs in their classrooms as well as they have — it's incredible." Another principal said,"You can pick them out from the beginning; they are great. They are ready to learn."
Furthermore, RCS/BL appears to bring a more diverse pool of teacher candidates to the District. For example, while District new hires as a whole were 31 percent African American in 2002-2003, 40 percent of 2002-2003 LITs were African American.
The District is currently devoting great effort to recruiting and retaining qualified teachers. To meet a wide range of goals as well as budgetary demands, it has altered a number of elements of RCS/BL for 2003-2004. For example, many interns now spend half the day in one classroom and half the day in another. Also, LITs no longer focus primarily on literacy; they can teach any subject.
It is important to track how the alterations will affect the strong success this homegrown program has had. Research For Action will be monitoring the ongoing results of RCS/BL as part of its larger effort to track teacher recruitment and retention.