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If University of Florida program can revitalize teacher training, Pinellas schools benefit

Orange Bowl. 1967. The Gators are getting whomped. They're beat, uninspired. Even the background music is snoozy. Then, in the classic TV commercial, surprise, surprise: The anemic Gators start rocking and rolling and tearing down the field. Infused with some new elixir called Gatorade, they're suddenly unstoppable.

The University of Florida has gotten a lot of mileage out of its iconic, electrolyte-laced sports drink. Now it's pushing a product that it boldly promises will recharge another group getting blitzed: teachers.

The new Gatorade — and supporters really describe it in terms that brash — is a teacher training program. UF's Lastinger Center for Learning has blended what experts consider the best practices in professional development and wrapped it in the shiniest of labels.

"What has emerged is the new, hot thing in education," said Boaz Dvir, a Lastinger Center spokesman. "(And) we're the only ones on the planet doing it."

Over the past few years, UF has rolled out its promising but unproven teacher training package to a handful of Florida school districts, including Pinellas. The $24 million investment has spanned five counties and involved 11,000 teachers so far. And now, before the results are in, UF is aggressively looking to expand to other states and even other countries.

As teacher quality continues to be all the rage, districts across the country are shaking up the teaching profession. Some are pushing merit pay. Washington, D.C., took on tenure. Hillsborough revamped evaluations.

Teacher training has been almost an afterthought.

But not in Pinellas where teachers swear by the Lastinger program, which includes an on-the-job master's degree. And where superintendent Julie Janssen has made the partnership the heart of the district's professional development efforts.

Her administration calls it "a quiet revolution."

Not everyone is pumping his fist.

With two Lastinger contract extensions coming up for approval on July 26, several School Board members remain unconvinced, and the head of the teachers union is urging a no vote. Tensions flared last week during a workshop as board members posed the big questions: Is it working? Can we afford it?

Janssen's support for Lastinger never wavered. "I believe, heart and soul, this is the right direction," she said, describing an excitement among participating teachers as proof of its success. "I really wish that we would give it a chance."

• • •

It started on the back of a napkin.

Don Pemberton, director of the Lastinger Center, was entrusted with a $4 million endowment from alumni Allen and Delores Lastinger.

A former Pinellas teacher and son of missionaries, Pemberton wanted to seize the chance to create a better learning environment for teachers. So in 2006, he met at a Miami restaurant with Greg Taylor of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and David Lawrence and Ana Sejeck of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation.

The plan that emerged became the Florida Master Teacher Initiative, a pillar of Lastinger's new approach. It's being tried out in five counties — Pinellas, Miami-Dade, Alachua, Collier and Duval.

"More than one person has said, 'This is one of the best things we've done,' " said Pemberton.

It works like this: Teachers in high poverty schools get a chance to earn their master's degrees through UF (a $19,000 value) while on the job and at virtually no cost to them. At the same time, they get extra training, including feedback from UF professors based at a handful of district schools. In return, the teachers agree to stay at those schools for five years (including the time it takes to earn their degree). That's no idle commitment at schools plagued by turnover and saddled with rookies.

The other big piece in Lastinger's model is the "inquiry-based" approach.

On the surface, it's not rocket science. Teachers think about their craft. They see what's wrong. They dig into the research. They talk with their peers to find answers. Bottom-up instead of top-down. Collaboration instead of isolation. Take charge instead of react.

Educators like that. Especially in times like these.

"Inquiry has changed so many teachers," said Natalie Reiser, 28, a second-grade teacher at Clearwater's Ponce de Leon Elementary. "These things have really bonded us as a staff."

Teachers, of course, have always done those things. But under the inquiry model, it becomes a routine part of teaching, not something left to chance.

"I was pretty good at my job before, but now I'm developing more and more than I think I would have without this," said Chris Boulanger, 31, a fourth-grade teacher at Clearwater's Eisenhower Elementary, one of 39 schools in Pinellas that are part of the Lastinger partnership.

"Instead of sitting by, saying 'What can I do?,' we're sitting with other teachers and going over with each other, 'This really worked for me, maybe you guys want to try it,' " Boulanger said.

Professional development experts say the Lastinger program is a good departure from the old way of teacher training.

The master's program, for example, is built into the job, so teachers immediately apply what they learn.

Ken Zeicher, a teacher training expert at the University of Washington, said Lastinger isn't the only outfit that's rolling out multifaceted models. But he said professional development has been overlooked as attention has zeroed in on pay and tenure.

"In the long run, this is the kind of approach that's going to pay off," Zeicher said.

• • •

In May, more than 800 teachers — a tenth of Pinellas' total teaching corps — gathered at Ruth Eckerd Hall. The district called it an "inquiry celebration," but it was more like a gala. Waiters and nice tablecloths. Everyone dressed up.

And then, lots of shop talk about everybody's inquiry projects.

"It was neat to collaborate with teachers you never get to see,'' said Reiser.

In the past four years, $6.4 million has been spent on Lastinger-led efforts in Pinellas, including $3.7 million the district has chipped in from state and federal grants for high-poverty schools. District officials say grants had to be spent on teacher training anyway.

The district's cost climbed from $540,000 in 2007-08 to nearly $2 million in 2010-11. The contract extensions, if they're approved, will cost the district $1.6 million more next year.

Some of the money has paid for a steady stream of conferences, institutes, clinics and workshops. More than 130 teachers have attended Lastinger coaching academies and nearly 80 school teams have attended the center's summer institute.

Culturally, it's the center's focus on inquiry that supporters hope will have the deepest impact. But financially, it's the master's program that's costing the most — and raising the most questions.

So far, 34 Pinellas teachers have earned master's degrees through the program. Another 124 are in the pipeline.

The district's share of the cost is unclear. But some School Board members are not sure that whatever it is, it's worth it.

"I do have concerns, especially with funding being what it isn't," said member Terry Krassner, a former principal. And "some of my strongest (teachers) never had a master's degree."

Janssen has not helped her cause.

Member Linda Lerner asked several times for cost information but did not receive it for months. She finally met with one of Lastinger's professors in residence.

"I still have some questions," Lerner said.

• • •

Janssen said Lastinger offers a departure from years of unfocused professional development, when teachers were going to the Tarpon Springs sponge docks or grabbing coffee in Ybor City for their training.

"This is nationally proven and internationally proven," she said last week. "I will stand by this."

But it's not clear yet if Lastinger's model is paying off, in Pinellas or anywhere else. A handful of studies have analyzed it, all done by University of Florida researchers, mostly in other districts.

One found it led teachers to follow best teacher training practices more often. One found it made teachers better at engaging students. One found a strong relationship between it and higher attendance and fewer suspensions among students.

Yet another found 14 schools in the program had bigger gains in FCAT scores over three years than similar schools not in the program, but the last year analyzed was 2006. It's not clear how the schools have fared since.

In Pinellas, district officials say they are doing a comprehensive evaluation of the Lastinger effort but could not offer any specifics last week. Nine Pinellas elementary schools have been Lastinger partners since 2007. Some, like Sawgrass Lake, have seen modest gains in FCAT scores over that time. Others, like Fairmount Park and Dunedin, have seen painfully big drops.

How much is due to teacher training or shifting demographics or other factors is impossible to say without a serious analysis.

Beyond Pinellas, a more rigorous study is under way.

Using part of a highly competitive $5 million grant it won last year from the U.S. Department of Education, Lastinger hired SRI International to do a four-year study in the Miami-Dade school district. The results should shed light on the effectiveness of the program in all districts, including Pinellas.

Student achievement is among the things SRI will examine. The results on that should be released by 2015.

"I wish it was tomorrow, believe me," Dvir said. "(But) we want to do it right."

In the meantime, Lastinger isn't waiting to hype its program.

Dvir is the one who made the Gatorade analogy. But the center uses similarly glowing terms on its website and in promotional materials: The program is a "national model" and "poised for a national rollout." The center, established just eight years ago, calls itself a "global leader in the teacher quality movement."

And architects like David Lawrence continue to spread the gospel: "This, you know, is a work in progress, but I'm telling you, I've come away from some years of work now as an absolute apostle," he said. "Nothing else I've seen gives me as immediate a sense of excitement."

Staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report.

Two tracks to teach teachers

The Hillsborough and Pinellas school districts are both involved in efforts they hope will become national models to help boost teacher performance. Here's a snapshot of the projects:

Hillsborough

THE GOAL: A new evaluation system that will determine who earns tenure, wins a promotion, or loses a job. And starting in 2013, how much teachers earn on a new salary scale, optional for veterans and mandatory for new hires. The district's 12,500 teachers were evaluated this year by both principals and peer evaluators, each counts for 30 percent of a teacher's annual evaluation. Student test scores over a three-year period make up the remaining 40 percent.

THE PARTNER: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

THE MONEY: $100 million from the foundation; district contributing $102 million in "matching funds" over the span of the seven-year effort that began last year.

Pinellas

THE GOAL: To reshape professional development. Among the components: Teachers in high poverty schools apply to the University of Florida and earn a free on-the-job master's or specialist degree and commit to staying in a Lastinger school for five years; UF professors-in-residence and facilitators support 39 schools; teachers study their teaching and students' work to conduct classroom-based "inquiry" projects; principals examine and adopt practical strategies to maximize learning and work with other principals statewide. 

THE PARTNERS: University of Florida's Lastinger Center for Learning is the leading partner; Tampa-based Helios Foundation is also a contributor.

THE MONEY: In the past four years, $6.4 million has been spent on Lastinger-led efforts in Pinellas, including $3.7 million the district has chipped in from state and federal grants for high-poverty schools.

If University of Florida program can revitalize teacher training, Pinellas schools benefit 07/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 16, 2011 10:50pm]

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