Early-career teachers in the spotlight: Q & A with Teach Plus founder Celine Coggins

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At the end of last year Celine Coggins was named one of three winners of an "educational entrepreneur" fellowship from The Mind Trust for her work starting Teach Plus. The 35-year-old former research director for the Rennie Center for Educational Research and Policy in Massachusetts, who once worked as a middle school science teacher, is now devoting her time to keeping young teachers in the profession by showing them how to be policy advocates.

celine.jpg All 16 of the teachers chosen for Teach Plus are under 35, with between three and 10 years of experience in urban schools in and around Boston. In addition to their teaching duties, they meet in a monthly seminar to learn about education policy.

This month the teachers released a report, "Ready for the Next Challenge: Improving the Retention and Distribution of Excellent Teachers" outlining their own approach to getting and keeping top-notch teachers -- like themselves -- in schools where many of the children are poor and minority.

Q: What's the aim of Teach Plus?

A: It's to retain great teachers in urban schools. Our specific demographic is the second stage of the teaching career. With up to 50 percent and sometimes more teachers leaving urban districts in their first three to five years, we have to get a handle on which teachers we want to retain and then we need to work really closely with them around what will keep them.

One thing that's really important to the teachers we've worked with is that they're coming to us ready to lead. They are not looking to 15 years from now when they could become a mentor. They want opportunity sooner.

Q: What was your impetus for starting Teach Plus?

A: My parents were both public school teachers and when I told them at age 15 that I wanted to become a teacher, my mom cried and my dad yelled. They said that smart, talented people don't go into teaching. I did become a teacher and then I left for new challenge and growth after three years. I've been in the policy world ever since and felt like there's inadequate representation of early-career teachers' voices.

Q: What are the challenges of getting classroom teachers, however smart, to be able to navigate the policy world?

A: They came in as practitioners, who know a lot about the curriculum for their classes. They came in not knowing the language, not knowing the key issues, not knowing what would be appropriate for policy versus what should be dealt with at the school level. They had to learn how to hook into an issue that engages policy folks and then ask how teachers want to see that done.

What was surprising to me as someone who lives and breathes this stuff, they didn't know about some of the innovations we talk about all the time, like the TAP model and Denver's ProComp pay plan. We shared those with them for the first time and they are like, "Wow! How cool."

Q: An example of an issue hot on the policy scene but where your teachers had their own take?

A: We tried to craft a proposal on performance-based pay where policy folks would be interested but it would still stay true to what the teachers wanted: a working environment that values teacher empowerment and collaboration while it provides recognition and rewards high performance.

Our teachers accepted that they need data to judge their own performance. And they're for the development of value-added methodology to link individual teachers' performance to student test scores, but it can't be the be-all and end-all of judging teachers' effectiveness. The field is moving in that direction, but the methodology is not all the way there yet. Their message is a nuanced one.

Q: So what do they suggest instead to compensate effective teachers?

A: In our teachers' model for turning around struggling schools, they call for at least a third of the staff in a struggling school being designated as members of a specially selected "Excellence Corps." Corps members would receive supplemental pay by virtue of having been selected for this honor on the basis of their past performance. If they also took on leadership roles in these schools, they would be eligible for further supplemental pay. However, should the school improve significantly, all of the teachers in the school, not just members of the Excellence Corps, would receive a bonus.

Teach Plus will launch another cohort this fall in Boston. The group will continue to press its teacher recruitment and retention idea in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, Teach Plus is recruiting for a second program in Indianapolis, where the Mind Trust is located.

You can find "Ready for the Next Challenge: Improving the Retention and Distribution of Excellent Teachers" at www.Teach-Plus.org.