National Journal: DMPS an Innovator in Support of Teachers

The National Journal, which reports on politics and policy, is running a series of articles on innovative, grassroots programs throughout the country that help Americans get ahead. And they feature DMPS!

The National Journal features the district’s work to support great teachers, from our cultural proficiency efforts in an increasingly diverse community to our alternative teacher contract, which includes a one-of-a-kind master’s degree developed by our partners at Drake University.

You can read the article below or click here to read it on the National Journal’s web site.

Iowans of a Different Hue: Public schools in Des Moines are teaching the teachers how to teach an increasingly diverse student body.

Iowans of a Different Hue:
Public schools in Des Moines are teaching the teachers how to teach an increasingly diverse student body.

Iowans of a Different Hue

Public schools in Des Moines are teaching the teachers how to teach an increasingly diverse student body.

by Ted Hesson
National Journal

Some days, his stu­dents can’t sit still. First, they get up for a tis­sue; then it’s an­oth­er trip to sharpen a pen­cil. Even when they’re sit­ting in their chairs, they’re fid­get­ing.

This is when Brandon Nat­tress, a sixth-grade glob­al stud­ies teach­er at Weeks Middle School in Des Moines, stops and re­mem­bers to keep per­spect­ive. As a kid grow­ing up in north­west­ern Iowa, he wasn’t al­lowed to mess around in class like that. But some of the chil­dren in his classroom didn’t come from a sleepy heart­land town—they grew up in refugee camps after flee­ing strife-torn coun­tries such as My­an­mar, Nepal, and Su­dan. After years liv­ing in camps, they wer­en’t ac­cus­tomed to the struc­ture of the classroom, and a quick pun­ish­ment wasn’t go­ing to change their men­tal­ity.

“I can’t sit there and talk and ex­pect stu­dents that haven’t had any form­al edu­ca­tion set­ting, where they have to be in a classroom, to just do what I tell them to do,” he says. In­stead, he tries a more act­ive ver­sion of the les­son, pair­ing half of the stu­dents with cards bear­ing a vocab­u­lary word and the oth­er half with the defin­i­tion. They can move around the room and match the cards, learn­ing and burn­ing off en­ergy at the same time.

Nat­tress, now 37, has im­mersed him­self in the shift­ing demo­graph­ics of Des Moines since be­com­ing a teach­er there in 2012, sign­ing an al­tern­at­ive con­tract the city’s pub­lic schools had just star­ted of­fer­ing. It came with a high­er start­ing salary and the prom­ise of a no-cost mas­ter’s de­gree. In ex­change for the free de­gree, he had to com­mit to work­ing for the school dis­trict for eight years or re­pay the cost of the classes. Last sum­mer, Drake Uni­versity in Des Moines an­nounced a part­ner­ship with the city’s pub­lic schools. The well-re­garded lib­er­al arts school began of­fer­ing the first classes this month to­ward a re­shaped mas­ter’s de­gree that will fo­cus on “cul­tur­al com­pet­ency” and on in­struc­tion for chil­dren new to Eng­lish.

The ex­per­i­ment in Des Moines gives the 32,500-stu­dent school dis­trict a chance to train a nearly all-white group of in­struct­ors, many of them born and raised in Iowa, in how to ef­fect­ively serve an in­creas­ingly di­verse stu­dent pop­u­la­tion. The pro­por­tion of His­pan­ic res­id­ents in Des Moines doubled from 2000 to 2014—to 12 per­cent—and the num­ber of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an res­id­ents has also grown, to 10 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al census data. The city weathered the 2008 fin­an­cial crisis re­l­at­ively well, and im­mig­rants—ran­ging from re­settled refugees to Mex­ic­an ag­ri­cul­tur­al work­ers and en­tre­pren­eurs—took no­tice. White stu­dents now make up less than half of the school pop­u­la­tion; His­pan­ics ac­count for a quarter and Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans for a fifth. A fifth of the stu­dents are en­rolled in the Eng­lish Lan­guage Learner pro­gram, hav­ing ar­rived from coun­tries such as Bhutan, Bos­nia, Bur­undi, Er­it­rea, Laos, Mex­ico, and Vi­et­nam.

Teach­ers and ad­min­is­trat­ors in Des Moines are still work­ing to catch up to this new, com­plex real­ity. Schools will al­ways want in­nov­at­ive, caring, hard-work­ing teach­ers—re­gard­less of race—but re­search sug­gests it can also help stu­dents to work with teach­ers who look like them­selves. In a 2001 work­ing pa­per for the Na­tion­al Bur­eau of Eco­nom­ic Re­search, Stan­ford Gradu­ate School of Edu­ca­tion pro­fess­or Thomas S. Dee found that a one-year as­sign­ment of stu­dents to a teach­er of their same race res­ul­ted in high­er math and read­ing scores for both black and white stu­dents of 3-4 per­cent.

“It’s noth­ing unique to Des Moines,” says Isai­ah McGee, the school dis­trict’s equity co­ordin­at­or, but the ad­min­is­tra­tion has real­ized it must di­ver­si­fy its teach­ing ranks. In Iowa, where 87 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is non-His­pan­ic white, when you look at the stu­dents gradu­at­ing with teach­ing de­grees, “it’s not really people of col­or,” he notes. To com­pensate, he is try­ing to re­cruit minor­ity teach­ers in nearby states, hawk­ing Iowa’s qual­ity of life.

The dis­trict is also try­ing to train its ex­ist­ing cadre of teach­ers in what it calls “cul­tur­al pro­fi­ciency,” one of three ma­jor themes in Drake’s mas­ter’s pro­gram. (The oth­ers: ef­fect­ive teach­ing meth­ods; and in-school lead­er­ship, such as design­ing cur­ricula.) The dis­trict star­ted this ef­fort dur­ing the 2011-2012 school year. “We really kept com­ing back to the rap­idly chan­ging demo­graph­ics of our dis­trict,” says Su­per­in­tend­ent Thomas Ahart, “and the teach­ers not be­ing pre­pared really to ad­dress what they were fa­cing in the classroom, with poverty, with Eng­lish lan­guage learners, men­tal health is­sues, et cet­era.”

School ad­min­is­trat­ors real­ized they needed a way to at­tract and keep the best teach­ers, while pay­ing salar­ies on a par with oth­er dis­tricts nearby. They settled on an al­tern­at­ive con­tract, with the in­cent­ive of a mas­ter’s de­gree that the school dis­trict will pay for, start­ing after three years of teach­ing and com­pleted while the re­cip­i­ent con­tin­ues to work. To make the con­tract more luc­rat­ive, the pay scale is front-loaded, with a high­er salary in earli­er years.

There was a prob­lem, though: Ahart and oth­er ad­min­is­trat­ors doubted that a mas­ter’s de­gree in it­self would ac­tu­ally im­prove a teach­er’s per­form­ance. While teach­ers across the coun­try typ­ic­ally re­ceive a pay raise with an ad­vanced de­gree, stud­ies have shown a neg­li­gible im­pact on stu­dent achieve­ment. For the dis­trict to foot the bill for the ad­vanced de­grees, it wanted to cre­ate a mas­ter’s pro­gram with its spe­cif­ic needs in mind, fea­tur­ing an à la carte se­lec­tion of courses that would best serve its in­terests. The dis­trict so­li­cited pro­pos­als from uni­versit­ies around the Mid­w­est, and a com­mit­tee of ad­min­is­trat­ors and teach­ers nar­rowed the can­did­ates to two, in­clud­ing Drake.

From there, price be­came the biggest factor. Drake agreed to a com­pet­it­ive tu­ition rate of $330 per cred­it hour, paid by the dis­trict for teach­ers who signed the al­tern­at­ive con­tract but also avail­able to Des Moines teach­ers em­ployed un­der the stand­ard con­tract. Drake was a good match, con­sid­er­ing its con­veni­ent loc­a­tion and its his­tory of work­ing with the pub­lic schools. Un­der the agree­ment, the school dis­trict and the private uni­versity col­lab­or­ate on the cur­riculum, com­posed half of new, Des Moines-spe­cif­ic classes and half of hand­picked elect­ives use­ful for the city’s teach­ers. “This is really a new pro­gram for Drake,” Ahart says. “It’s not just a re­work­ing of something they already had in place.”

Court­ney Ihnen, a 27-year-old mu­sic teach­er at Hanawalt Ele­ment­ary School, is part of the first co­hort of 50 teach­ers en­rolling in Drake’s mas­ter’s pro­gram. She’s ex­cited. Hav­ing grown up in the sub­urb of West Des Moines, where most of the stu­dents in her school were (like her­self) white and middle-class, she thinks she’ll be­ne­fit from the cul­tur­al-pro­fi­ciency train­ing. Dur­ing her three years in the classroom, she has already ad­ap­ted her ap­proach to stu­dents in cer­tain re­spects. When stu­dents didn’t make eye con­tact with her in class, she learned that, in some cul­tures, it’s dis­respect­ful to look an adult in the eye. In late Oc­to­ber, she wasn’t aware of the 15-day Nepalese fest­iv­al of Dashain un­til an in­struct­or in a pro­fes­sion­al de­vel­op­ment sem­in­ar for al­tern­at­ive-con­tract teach­ers men­tioned that Nepali stu­dents might miss a few days of school and re­turn to class tired or emo­tion­al. The train­ing “helps you be more know­ledge­able about what they’re go­ing through in their life,” Ihnen says.

She has already de­veloped a bond with the oth­er teach­ers in the al­tern­at­ive-con­tract pro­gram, who have been meet­ing on a reg­u­lar basis since they began in 2012-2013. In her eyes, these will be the next gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers with­in schools across Des Moines, all equipped with a surer sense of how to work with stu­dents who don’t al­ways look like the Iow­ans of yore.

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