The following is a conversation between Peter Shulman, CEO of Urban Teachers, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: One of the biggest challenges in the field of education is to find talented and committed individuals to teach in poor and underserved school districts, most of them located in the urban centers of America. An even bigger challenge is to keep them, to not have them burn out and leave the teaching profession altogether after just a couple of years. One organization that believes that it has found an approach to better train teachers, prepare them for the classroom, and lead them to become lifelong educators is Urban Teachers. And it’s a pleasure to have with us now their Chief Executive Officer, Peter Shulman. Good evening, Peter, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Peter: Thank you Denver. Real pleasure to be here. I appreciate you having me.
Denver: What is the mission of Urban Teachers?
Peter: Our mission is to combat racial and socioeconomic inequality by preparing culturally competent career teachers who improve the educational and life outcomes of underserved public school students.
There’s no silver bullet. There’s no quick fix. And by actually raising the bar around preparation, with deeper and more clinically-based preparation to prepare novice teachers, was something that was essential for the schools in America.
Denver: And you only became the CEO of Urban Teachers earlier this year, having most recently served as the Deputy Commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Education. What sold you, Peter, in taking this job?
Peter: As someone who got in education first in the district level and went to the state level, all of my training, all of my research, all of my experience has proven out or borne out that the most important factor in any student’s education– in-school factor, that is– is the quality of the teacher. It’s to me something that we’re never going to teacher-proof the work that we do, nor should we. We’re never going to disintermediate the need for great teachers. And as we see the inequities play out in the way that access to money, resources, great teachers, namely, in this country, urban and rural students get the short end of the stick. So, Urban Teachers is an organization that I had met my predecessor, the CEO, probably seven, eight, nine years ago when she was getting this off the ground and really believed in the model, and really believed in the idea that this was something that takes hard work.
There’s no silver bullet. There’s no quick fix. And by actually raising the bar around preparation, with deeper and more clinically-based preparation to prepare novice teachers, was something that was essential for the schools in America, I was doing similar work at the policy level; so it was great to see an organization like Urban Teachers doing this in practice, and it was sort of a sliding doors moment. As Jennifer Green, the founder and initial CEO was leaving, and I was transitioning out of my government role, there was an opportunity for me to sort of apply for her job.
I believe teaching is the most important profession we have in this country. Two is, I’m not going to paint the perception with one brush. I think the world we live in likes to create a narrative which is sort of generalizing from the particular. Having spent time with hundreds, if not thousands of teachers in the past 13 years, they’re vastly different, as any skilled worker in any vocation would be. I think that as a country, I don’t think we value teaching in the way that we should. I don’t think we necessarily compensate teaching in the way that should. At the same time, I’m not sure we understand the world of a teacher, and I’m not sure the world of K12 understands necessarily what’s going on in other sectors. At times, it’s a bubble unto itself.
Denver: How would you describe the profession of teaching in the United States today? How it’s perceived by the public, how attractive a career it is for young people, and how even do current teachers themselves view their profession?
Peter: I’ll make two overarching statements. One is, I believe teaching is the most important profession we have in this country. Two is, I’m not going to paint the perception with one brush. I think the world we live in likes to create a narrative which is sort of generalizing from the particular. Having spent time with hundreds, if not thousands of teachers in the past 13 years, they’re vastly different, as any skilled worker in any vocation would be. I think that as a country, I don’t think we value teaching in the way that we should. I don’t think we necessarily compensate teaching in the way that we should. At the same time, I’m not sure we understand the world of a teacher, and I’m not sure the world of K12 understands necessarily what’s going on in other sectors. At times, it’s a bubble unto itself. So, as we think about this, I think in terms of that level of valuing teachers, part of it becomes giving them the right level of preparation, coaching, training, support. To me, I think that’s essential, and I think not only do our teachers deserve it, but our kids deserve it.
Denver: Let me generalize… if I may here… and give you a narrative that I think is in other people’s minds, and it has to do with teaching in urban schools. What happens is, you get a young, idealistic teacher arriving, really wanting to make a difference, but before very long, she burns out; she leaves teaching, and this happens over and over again. And as a result, the schools face instability, and they are the schools that can least afford it. Why does this happen so often?
Peter: I’m not going to give you the scientific reason because I think there’s a variety of answers. Let me give you a couple of hypotheses, and certainly it’s a nice lead-in to Urban Teachers. First is, the job is really, really hard. The work is really hard. So, I think that before we get into thinking about what the ideas are around preparation or compensation or support or mentorship, this is really hard. The way that we’ve structured urban education or education in this country, it’s segregated. It’s fragmented. We have residential housing segmentation. We have structural racism. We have gerrymandering districts. More often than not, as we think about the divide within our classes of economic and races across the country, it manifests itself in K12 education. So, it’s really hard work.
Two is: that I don’t believe the folks are prepared. So, part of the reason that we hear that individuals are leaving – and I did work as the director of recruitment in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and I’ve worked in places like Wilmington, Camden, and Trenton, and Newark– is, they’re not prepared. Oftentimes, the training that they’ve had in their preparation program, whether it be traditional or alternative route, is divorced from the reality of how hard the work is. When they’re put into this typical school district, or school, or classroom, if you will, it can be an isolating profession. And if they’re not supported, and they haven’t had the training, and they don’t have the leadership and the ability… or maybe there’s not a system of support that has set up a lattice of supports, if you will, to ensure that they’re going to be successful, I think it’s a real concern. The other side of it is, should a first-year teacher be given a full slate– given five, six classes with multiple preps, more often than not because of sometimes seniority rules… and sometimes just the culture of the building… novice teachers are put in the most difficult situations. I don’t think that’s right.
Denver: Right. Sometimes it’s like starting a rookie quarterback in the NFL in the first game, and he doesn’t know nothing.
Peter: I think that’s a fair analogy. Exactly.
We have a four-year program. We have an upfront, very, very rigorous interview selection period where we’re trying to identify candidates that not only have the skill set, but also have the “will set” to actually do this work. They bring the growth mindset. They really have an understanding of and passion for making change in urban environments.
Denver: Urban Teachers offers the most comprehensive course work and personalized support of any other teacher training program, at least that I’ve ever come across. Walk us through it.
Peter: I would say that I have come across as well. So, I can’t make that assertion because I don’t know every training program in this country. Our model, which is a joint venture with Johns Hopkins… we’re a nonprofit organization. We have a four-year program. We have an upfront, very, very rigorous interview selection period where we’re trying to identify candidates that not only have the skill set, but also have the “will set” to actually do this work. They bring the growth mindset. They really have an understanding of and passion for making change in urban environments. And our program begins with a full year of clinical residency. The first four years of the program, you are not a full-time teacher of record. You’re in a school building with a host teacher, getting observed, getting coaching, doing course work at night which you’re then able to apply in a clinical setting the next day, and that course work is working towards your master’s degree.
Denver: A little bit like a medical residency, isn’t it?
Peter: Very much so. And I think that for us, it certainly, as you think about what it takes to be… whether it be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, over time these professions have raised the bar, and they feel like more preparation is needed, and we really want to be selective because the jobs are so difficult. But what it’s done is actually, it’s made those professions more attractive as you can see the numbers of folks that want to go into levels of both higher-Ed schooling, and then of course into the vocation.
Years 2 through 4 of our program, that individual becomes the teacher of record in a classroom. They continue to complete their course work and get their master’s degree. They continue to work towards their professional certification in the state that they serve… or the city and the state that they work… and get supported by us. And the idea is that, that certification and degree orientation is only going to be granted if they show they’re effective. So, they have to keep their grades up. We’ll use some level of quantitative data. We use observation data to actually ensure that that novice teacher is not only prepared in terms of what we would think about from sort of an academic viewpoint, but actually in practice can be a great teacher that can be in front of children. Because, again, children deserve it.
Denver: Tell us a little bit more about this residency program. So, I am a teacher-in-training, so to speak, the first year. I am being mentored, would that be fair to say, by the existing teacher in the classroom?
Peter: So, you have mentorship with the existing teacher in the classroom, but we also have clinical faculty that works directly with you; we have folks coming in to observe and coach you in real time. You are then also doing course work at night with other residents going through the program, and you’re working on pedagogical content knowledge. You’re giving mock lessons; you’re learning some of the methods classes, content knowledge to the certification area that you’re pursuing.
Denver: This sounds reasonably rigorous.
Peter: Goodness, it is. I have to say that many of our folks are in their mid-twenties or early to mid-twenties, and looking back, I’m not sure I could have done this program. It is extremely rigorous. I think that as our individuals go through it, some call it a rite of passage, if you will. Some during the residency are very critical of it, how hard it is. But when they reflect on it, and I’ve talked to folks that have been two, three, four years out of the program, they understand why it was needed. They understand why it was needed, and that level of preparation has put them on a path for success.
Denver: Well, our memories are funny that way too. We always have a fondness around it, but certainly not while we’re in the middle of it. It sounds a little bit like working for one of these big consulting firms where you start out, you’re just doing those 70-, 80-hour weeks.
Peter: It is absolutely hard. In my first week on the job, I spent some time with what was called our resident advisor groups. These are residents, and this was probably in May; I was about two weeks into the job. May, they’re in the seventh or eighth inning of their residency year. I spent time and went down to Washington DC, and I met with a small group of seven or eight of them, and they were just spent. I could tell that they were mentally and physically exhausted. One funny piece of this, is that I said,” I’d love to buy you lunch.” It was just that they’d never seen food before. They were ordering extra food to go. They were ordering double…, and I said, “Are we treating our residents well enough?”
Denver: They sound like people in the media when it comes to food.
Peter: I’ll say this. I don’t want to lose that…. It is so inspiring to speak with them! And the passion they have for this work… and the commitment… and the time and the energy that they have devoted to honing their craft… and to really focus their moral compass on a subset of our population that is often notin folks’ front view. It is really unbelievable!
… they’re starting to get a confluence of feedback. In some ways, I always believe more is more, especially at that nascent stage of becoming a teacher. We have high-quality folks that are doing observation, that are giving feedback. It’s rigorous, it’s consistent, it’s actionable. Again, there is no shortcut. There’s no cheap way to do this. That’s part of the reason, again, our program is, as sometimes we call it, a Cadillac model. It’s an expensive, rigorous, high-touch program. It’s what we believe in.
Denver: It also seems very reciprocal because you invest in them a lot. And one of the ways in which you do that is you provide coaching for all four years. Tell us about that.
Peter: This work, again, can be extremely isolating, and I think as you think about Urban Teachers, it’s not the idea of Urban Teachers that can make us successful. It’s about how we execute. And for us, we invest a lot of money in identifying faculty and coaches that are highly skilled educators in concert with Johns Hopkins. They spend a tremendous amount of time observing our folks directly, coaching them and saying, “I just sat through and watched you teach. I watched your lesson plan on algebraic reasoning. I watched you deliver that lesson. I watched how you differentiate instruction.” And we have our own teacher practice rubric across 20 power standards are our main core of it; that we look for certain context clues. We look to see what’s being done in practice, and we’re able to actually record this information to meet with someone to debrief – called a post-observation conference – and see how they’re improving over time.
As they’re getting course work, as they’re working with their peer residents, and as they’re working with their coaches, as well as their host teachers, as well as maybe the principal in the building, they’re starting to get a confluence of feedback. In some ways, I always believe more is more, especially at that nascent stage of becoming a teacher. We have high-quality folks that are doing observation, that are giving feedback. It’s rigorous, it’s consistent, it’s actionable. Again, there is no shortcut. There’s no cheap way to do this. That’s part of the reason, again, our program is, as sometimes we call it, a Cadillac model. It’s an expensive, rigorous, high-touch program. It’s what we believe in.
Denver: How many of your first-year teachers complete all four years of the program?
Peter: As we think about our work, we look at the first year of the residency. We have an attrition of 15% to 20%. Much of that is folks that we either believe were not ready for the classroom, or they themselves said: This is not for us. And let me put that in a positive light. From the view of the 9-year-old, the 12-year-old, we want to make sure that when that individual is the teacher of record, they’re ready for that teacher. They’re learner-ready Day one. So, in some ways as we think about our attrition metrics, our retention metrics, the idea of the residency year for us is getting folks prepared. Then, when we think about how many folks from year 2 through year 4, we’re close to 80%; 78% of our folks, which when we look across our urban districts, we’re talking that’s 15 to 20 percentage points higher than what we see in most areas.
Denver: There’s a good deal of research that indicates that retention rate does affect learning. Correct?
Peter: Absolutely. As we think about from Malcolm Gladwell on downward, teachers improve especially in the first 5 to 7 years of their teaching career. This is where they actually continue to really accelerate the learning curve. So, as we think about really getting folks past that inflection point within the first three years and pushing them towards being career educators, they’re honing their craft. They’re improving their skill. Again, as I said, it’s not divorced from what we see in other professions. Anyone who’s a novice in a certain vocation is going to take some time to become a highly-skilled professional, and that’s what we believe; the same should be true of teachers.
Denver: Let’s go back to the start of the process, and that is: How do you recruit, and who applies?
Peter: Great question. We are continuing actually to better understand our data and our metrics. So, we cast a very wide net. As we look at this, typically, we have a lot of folks that have a little bit of that ideological mentality. These are folks that are coming from Bachelor’s Degree programs all over the country. We also have some career changers. We have some mid-career professionals. But in general, we’re trying to get individuals that reflect the children we want to serve. This talks about in terms of their own diversity, over 50% of our cohort are people of color.
Many of them, I think over 30%, are first-generation college students; 40% of them had received Pell Grants themselves. For us, it’s not only an ideological element. The research proves this. There’s a lot of research saying that as students, especially African-American boys who have teachers that reflect them, it actually translates to drop-out rates. Fewer suspensions. This is real stuff. Real data proving this. So, for us, it certainly aligns again with our moral compass, but it also translates to higher degrees of instructional acumen.
Denver: Men don’t generally gravitate to the teaching profession. So, how have you been doing with men of color?
Peter: I think the number that I read most recently is 2% of our teaching population is African-American men– 2%– which is certainly not indicative when you’re working in a Baltimore or a Dallas, or DC, where you can have classrooms that are 70% or 80% African-American children. So, first and foremost, the road is steep. Certainly, where I came from most recently in New Jersey, 77% of our teachers were Caucasian women. This is where we spent a lot of time recruiting, and this is everything from going to recruitment fairs on campuses, doing search engine optimization, if you will, Google ad words, and all that fun stuff. We do work with folks like Teach for America and City Year–folks that are similarly looking at these types of candidates because we think there are synergies and folks that may not be ideal for their program but might want to be interested in our program. We think there’s some economies of scope there.
For us, continuing to really cast a wide net to get people who are interested and then, the next phase of it is really having a tight funnel to actually figure out who the contenders from the pretenders are. I think in this day and age, a lot of individuals say: That sounds interesting. They’ll float a resume in; they’ll start an application. But as they understand, do you really want to be a teacher? Do you really care about urban children? Are you devoted to this? Do you want to be a lifetime educator? What is your growth mindset? Because if you don’t have a degree of resiliency yourself, where we were going before, we’re going to see a lot of attrition. So, we’ve got to make sure we find the right people. We haven’t cracked this nut. Trying to better understand what the right elements, attributes are of that perfect candidate. It’s going to be accretive over time as we continue to learn.
Denver: It’s always going to be a work in progress, getting better and better over time.
Those cities you just mentioned a moment ago, are those the ones you operate in?
Peter: Right now, we’re in three cities. We’re in Baltimore, Washington DC, and Dallas. Nine years ago, we started in Washington DC and Baltimore. Baltimore probably being our flagship with our partnership with Hopkins. And then about three years ago, we added the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
…we want to impact the lives of children. Children are the unit of measure. As we look at them, we want to be able to track them longitudinally, and the idea is for them to have productive lives
Denver: Peter, how do you view or measure the impact that you’re having?
Peter: It’s a great question. One, and one that we’re evolving. I look at this as the reason that I’m pursuing this work, and I think that all of my colleagues and most of all of the teachers is that: we want to impact the lives of children. Children are the unit of measure. As we look at them, we want to be able to track them longitudinally, and the idea is for them to have productive lives. What are the metrics, the leading and lagging indicators within that? First is that, for us is there’s growing relational databases and state longitudinal data systems that are starting to allow us to track this. Certainly, test scores and graduation rates and starting to understand our folks going through college and eventually gaining employment.
I think probably 10, 15 years ago when I started in education, this data was not within reach. I think it is now. I think it’s for us, it’s certainly an opportunity to actually to better understand where our folks are going, but also trying to figure out what is the causal; not just correlation…but what is the causal relationship between our teachers and these results? For us, what are the set of conditions for success? Is it clustering a number of Urban Teachers? Is it finding the right principal? Is it finding the right school? Is it finding the right district? I don’t believe our program unto itself can be a single lever. We’ve got to be part of a cohesive solution.
On the teacher side, there’s a number of indicators. We talked about retention. We talked about observation scores. We are going to see folks’ GPA. There’s a number of metrics that we’re using. These, we believe, are proxies for quality. Again, I don’t think anyone individually is a perfect proxy, but the compound or the confluence of these elements together give us a hypothesis that we can test against, say: are these teachers effective? And then what are the conditions that we’re going to do to support them to actually elevate their effectiveness; and then track it over time.
Denver: What’s your business model? How much of it is earned income? How much philanthropic dollars? Who have been some of your key supporters and partners?
Peter: Great question. We have a budget of close to $24 million. We are about 60% earned revenue and about 40% – $9 million or so – in philanthropy. This number– just to be clear–is something that we continue to produce over time as a percentage of our overall budget. It’s important for us, as we think about being an officially healthy organization, as we think about sustainability and for the practical nature of wanting to actually do something that can actually over time impact the K12 ecosystem. In terms of our funders, we’re really fortunate again, and I can’t take any credit for this: we have a combination of national funders like the Schusterman Foundation and the Overdeck Foundation, and the Walton Foundation– folks that have really been invested in K12. And for many of them, the human capital is one element within their portfolio as they think about other change agents within schools.
Then at the local level, and I think this is equally if not more important, we have local foundations; in Baltimore, we think about the Abell Foundation or the Bloustein Foundation; these are folks that are very invested in the city, and they put millions of dollars to try and improve the quality of outcomes in that city. So, we’re a part of that portfolio. What’s really exciting to me about that is, as I think about the work when I talk to our team about it, we want to go deep, not wide. Goal is not for us to be in 75 cities across the country. The goal is for us to really go deep in Baltimore, really think about this as part of a generational solution to what are generational problems… and to us being, again, part of a broader emphasis to say: Is there a community movement? Is there a broader K12 push? How are we going to work on this together? For us, that’s where we’re going to plug in. That’s where we want to do work. It’s probably not as sexy or appealing to say, “This work takes time. It’s going to be hard. We want to be there for the long run.” We don’t think there’s any quick fix solution to this.
Denver: I admire your discipline because there is such a temptation on the part of boards of organizations in particular to be in more cities all the time. You have a model here that you’re still proving out. So, before you take it all over the country, let’s get it really, really right, and that does take time. Tell us about your corporate culture at Urban Teachers, and maybe give me a thing that you and your team do in the workplace that you think is particularly cool.
Peter: It’s interesting. I’m still a newish CEO. What’s unique for me in this role is that I’m entering an organization where there’s some level of it being incumbent for me to fit in to the culture. I need to mesh. There had been a culture there. So, I’d say what’s both interesting and challenging – we’re an organization, clearly mission-driven, that talks about diversity, equity, inclusion. We’ve talked a little bit about that today in terms of what our recruitment process looks like, what the composition of our cohort, but these are values that we want to live both personally and professionally. We wrestle with this.
Certainly as a white CEO, I wrestle with this. I think what is unique about certainly where the organization has been– and I think something that we will continue to evolve in– is that we’re going to put the tough conversations on the table. For the last 13 years, I’ve been at district and state government where it probably would be breaking some regulation for us to have some of these conversations because they’re hard to have. And for us, these manifest themselves in not only the spirit by which we do the work, but actually operational decisions. I can talk about it, as we think about our admittance processes, and we see that in our desire to recruit and bring African-American male candidates into our cohort, we see, we hit some barriers. We had put up some gates. As we think about that, how do we remove those barriers? How do we provide additional support? How do we think about equity? Not just equality but equity. Meeting folks where they are and supporting them to actually get over those hurdles to make sure that they are ready to be in our cohort.
I think what’s really impressive about Urban Teachers is not that we have a perfect, inclusive culture, but we have the will to get there. I think we have an outspoken nature where anyone in the organization…and they have done this, and say, “Pete, you’re the CEO. You’re wrong in this case. You need to think about this. Or there’s a teachable moment for you,” and making sure that it’s not just a hierarchy of “ I can’t say this to that person because it’s on the step scale or the ladder; I can’t do that.”
Denver: Yes, feedback can go from any person to any other person.
There’s a lot of folks that have been reading the book, Radical Candor, saying you’ve got to be able to say that. Even if someone is a colleague, a friend, you have to be able to let someone know that what you said or did or how you acted or how you’re thinking about this needs to be rethought, or maybe you didn’t consider X. I’m someone who believes especially, again, I’ll reiterate this, as a white male, I have blind spots, and it’s not just me having the best of intent. That’s not good enough. It actually has to play out, not just in my thinking but my actions.
Denver: Sometimes if you haven’t lived the problem, it’s harder to address the problem. Knowing that is one of the best things you can possibly do, as it keeps you learning. It keeps you open.
Peter: That’s exactly where I was going to go. One of the things that we push our children. We want to talk about this term “ lifelong learners”; we as adults should be the same, and I think for me, that’s got to be part of our culture in Urban Teachers. And I think, again, I’m fortunate to be stepping into an organization that laid the blueprint for this over the last decade.
Denver: Let me close with this, Peter. You’re the new CEO. I would imagine your vision is still being formulated. Where do you see the organization being five years from now? Where would you like it to be?
Peter: I would like us to probably close to – I think we’re bringing in about 300 residents a year now – I certainly want to move us to a conversation more about impact than resident quantity numbers, but I do see us potentially adding maybe one more city, moving the number from 300 to 500 or so residents, reducing our reliance on philanthropy from probably 40% to 20%, and really make a concerted effort to study our impact. Really invest in R&D, really invest in data, and really invest in what I consider continuous improvement.
I would also say the loftier, the aspirational vision here is to really accelerate the dialogue in this country around teacher preparation. We are in, from a magnitude standpoint, we’re a drop in the bucket when we think about the hundreds of thousands of teachers who enter the profession. How can we be a proof of concept? How can we start to change the narrative? How can we actually show that more deeper, rigorous clinical preparation is essential for the profession and start to change policies? Start a change regulation. Start to work with Higher Ed in this country through a different lens, because I think this is something that’s genuinely possible, and that excites me.
Denver: Peter Shulman, the Chief Executive Officer of Urban Teachers, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us what’s on your website and how people can apply for the program if they might be interested.
Peter: Fabulous, I get to do a plug. Urbanteachers.org, you can go there. You can apply directly on the website. Our application is open. You can learn about our program. You can see anecdotes from our residents. You can learn about the cities we serve. You can have access to all of our staff and alumni to really understand what we’re about.
Denver: Thanks, Peter. It was a pleasure to have you here.
Peter: Pleasure to be here. Thanks so much, Denver.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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