Posted Jan. 31, 2017 – Not much flustered Christina Torango as a first-year teacher, not even the troubled third-grader who punched her in the back. She said she found a way to work with the boy, rewarding him with stickers for each good act.
When it came to planning lessons, Torango said, she also felt prepared. She had practiced in her college courses and spent the prior year getting on-the-ground training as a student teacher.
The yearlong residency is a signature of the teacher-preparation program at the University of Houston College of Education. Under Dean Robert McPherson, the college has fine-tuned its teacher-prep program over the last five years, giving students more practical experience, strengthening the coursework and inviting in outsiders to inspect. Notably, in November, the college became the first in Texas to earn accreditation under new, tougher standards set by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.
The distinction didn’t surprise Torango, who graduated from the college in 2015 and went on to win the new teacher of the year award at her east Houston elementary school.
“More than anything, I feel like the program was very realistic,” Torango said in a recent interview. “Some of the teachers I work with from other colleges, they feel overwhelmed and don’t know how to manage the workload.”
Amber Thompson, the Department of Curriculum and Instruction’s associate chairperson for teacher education, said the college’s strong partnerships with local school districts are key.
Seal of approval
CAEP, the sole national accrediting body for educator preparation, describes accreditation as a seal of approval of a program’s quality.
“Accreditation makes sure that educator programs prepare new teachers to know their subjects, their students, and have the clinical training that allows them to enter the classroom ready to teach effectively,” according to the CAEP website.
McPherson said the college purposefully sought accreditation under the more stringent CAEP standards rather than the legacy ones.
“Accreditation is an outstanding accomplishment, but our work doesn’t stop there,” McPherson said. “We at the College of Education are committed to continuous improvement, ensuring we produce educators who are ready to work in the neediest classrooms on day one.”
The accreditation process involved hundreds of hours of work by faculty and staff, preparing reports and data to show the college met a series of standards. The review focused on content and pedagogy, clinical experiences for students, candidate quality, program impact, and capacity for continuous improvement.
A three-day site visit included interviews with current and former students, faculty, and district officials, plus observations of college classes and student teachers.
Amber Thompson, the Department of Curriculum and Instruction’s associate chairperson for teacher education, said the college’s strong partnership with roughly three dozen local school districts is key. The teacher-prep program has roughly 1,000 students enrolled.
“A lot of times, there’s a perception that we’re in this ivory tower, but we’re actually out there involved with the schools,” Thompson said. “We have a lot of discussion. They really help us shape what we’re doing.”
The CAEP site visit report noted: “Survey data, interviews and continued placement of candidates in Houston schools demonstrate mutually beneficial, positive relationships.”
Other highlights of the report include:
- The passing rate on the state teaching certification exam was 95 percent among program completers, according to the most recent data.
- The program mixes field experiences and research. For example, students conduct an action research project during their residency, studying topics such as student engagement and the instruction of English Language Learners, and then present their results.
- An exit survey showed that 93 percent of students said they were prepared to differentiate instruction to meet the academic needs of children with disabilities.
The college’s teacher-prep program also has been recognized by the National Council on Teacher Quality. A December 2016 report from the nonprofit ranked the college in the nation’s top 1 percent of undergraduate programs that prepare elementary school teachers.
‘Professors were amazing’
Torango, a Houston native, said she wanted to be a teacher since the days when she pretended her stuffed animals and brother were her students. Still, she was worried about college. She would be the first in her family to attend. She started at Lone Star College before transferring to UH.
“I was intimidated,” Torango said. “But all the professors were amazing and just ignited a confidence in me. They were always available. If I sent an email on the weekends, I would get an email back.”
Torango said her professors continued to be helpful after graduation. When she needed ideas for teaching number patterns, for example, she emailed Shea Culpepper, director of teacher education and a math specialist, who responded with resources.
This school year, Torango’s third-graders at Jefferson Elementary in north Houston won third place in a district math contest. This was the students’ transition year, moving from Spanish to English instruction. She hoped to build their confidence by participating.
“My dad’s from Mexico, so I understood,” Torango said. “I remember feeling like, ‘I’m not smart. I don’t come from a wealthy area. I won’t win anything.’”
Torango said her students’ success stems from the culture in her classroom. She starts the day with a class hug and tells the kids it’s OK if they make mistakes. They feel comfortable working to solve a math problem, knowing it may take a few tries.
By nature, Torango said, she’s a loving person, but her college professors also preached having patience.
“One thing they taught us is, ‘You’re going to have to repeat yourself. Kids are kids. They need to hear it five or six times, and they need to have it modeled.’”
Role-playing in a classroom management course was especially helpful, Torango said. How would you respond if a student didn’t do his work? If a student refused to listen?
“You actually got to practice how you were going to handle the situation rather than just reading about it,” she said.
Torango admits to complaining about one assignment: dissecting the meaning of the state’s science standards, part of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. If a standard says students should be able to “explore” a certain topic, for example, what exactly should a teacher’s lesson include?
“It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I was like, ‘Wow,’” Torango said. “A lot of teachers read the TEKS but don’t know what those verbs mean and teach things that aren’t aligned.”
CAEP accreditation lasts for seven years, but sticking to a continuous improvement plan is part of the process. Producing more award-winning teachers like Torango, improving the lives of more young children in need, is the college’s goal.
To that end, the college is part of a reform consortium called U.S. Prep, or University-School Partnerships for the Renewal of Educator Preparation. The effort, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, focuses on analyzing data to inform decisions and increased collaboration between school districts and universities.
The College of Education already has partnered with the Houston Independent School District on a pioneering grow-your-own initiative called Teach Forward Houston. It involves recruiting top-ranked students into the teach-prep program at UH, giving them early field experiences such as tutoring over the summer and adequately preparing them to return to the district to teach at high-need campuses. Completers received tuition reimbursement.
“We are being very deliberate in evaluating our program and changing our program according to evidence,” said Jennifer Chauvot, chair of the college’s Curriculum and Instruction Department. “We have strong faculty who are willing to rethink their practices.”
-By Ericka Mellon