Do new exams produce better teachers? States act while educators debate

NORTHRIDGE, Calif.— It took less than a minute for Mario Martinez to finish the first six questions of the algebra exam that his professor, Ivan Cheng, had just handed to him. The high school-level test was supposed to be a good example of an exam, so that the graduate students in Cheng’s math methods course at the California State University, Northridge’s school of education would better understand what rigorous high school-level questions look like, and how to write tests for their own lessons.

By the end of the first page, Martinez had already learned an important lesson: “Beware of redundant problems,” he scribbled on the side of his paper before flipping it over to finish the problems on the back.

Martinez has until the fall to hone his skills before he will be sent into a classroom to practice as a student teacher. And he has at least a year before he will have to prove that he can not only teach math, but also create tests and analyze student results. It is a skill that many educators say is a sign of a good teacher, and one so important it was included in a lengthy exit exam that all aspiring teachers must take before they receive a teaching credential from the state.

Aspiring teachers videotape themselves teaching a lesson and write several lengthy reflections. California introduced the performance assessments in 2001 to adhere to a 1998 state law. Teachers must pass them in order to receive certification.

Every teacher preparation program in the state must choose one of three versions for students to take, each of which centers around the teaching and self-reflection activity. The Performance Assessment for California Teachers, or PACT, is the test of choice for Northridge and more than 30 other teacher preparation programs in the state, and many classes, like Cheng’s math methods course, design curriculum around the assessment to ensure students are prepared to pass.

Although it is largely untested and debated amongst educators, the PACT has served as a model for a national exam, known as the edTPA, that at least 25 states are introducing. Developed by 12 California institutions in 2001, the PACT was put on hold when the state suspended the performance assessment requirement in 2003. Three years later, the requirement was reinstated, and in early 2007 the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing approved the assessment.

The multi-part test, which often takes a semester to complete and results in dozens of pages of essay reflections, tries to assess whether an aspiring teacher is able to teach multiple learners in real classrooms. It has been tapped as a nationwide model because supporters say it presents a complex picture of a candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and classroom readiness.

But many educators hesitate to say that the new performance assessments are creating better teachers or that passing them is a sign a teacher will be effective, partly due to the lack of more evidence.

Martinez says that Cheng’s class has spent extra time on designing and grading tests for lessons they have created because it is typically “the part of the PACT that math teachers do the worst on.” While some say this practice of designing teacher preparation curriculum around the PACT bears resemblance to K-12 teachers “teaching to the test,” many educators at Northridge say the PACT is focused on critical areas of good teaching, like planning lessons with strong student assessments, and modifying lessons for English language learners and students with disabilities, and that it therefore only reinforces what candidates should learn anyway.

“The PACT certainly has forced us to give greater attention to certain aspects of what it means to teach and to deliver a lesson more effectively,” said David Kretschmer, chair of the Department of Elementary Education at California State University, Northridge. “We are churning out a better product, if you use that expression, than before we adopted PACT.”

That was the intent of the creators of the PACT, educators from teacher preparation programs in California who wanted to ensure that all pathways to teaching in the state were centered on research-based teaching practices that would produce better teachers.

Some research has found that high scores on performance exams like the PACT may signify that a teacher will be more effective in the classroom. One study out of Stanford University, which helped design the PACT, found that for each additional point an English Language Arts teacher scored on the exam, which is scored on a 44-point scale, students averaged a gain of one percentile point per year on California standardized tests. But the study only looked at 14 teachers and their 259 students.

If passing the PACT means teachers are prepared for the classroom, then by pass rates alone it would indicate that programs using assessment are, for the most part, producing teachers ready for the challenges of the classroom. In the 2009-10 school year, 33 percent of aspiring teachers in the state applying for their credential took the PACT. Ninety-four percent of them passed all sections of the exam on the first try.

But according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the PACT’s pass rates are much higher than those on the California Teaching Performance Assessment (CalTPA), taken by a majority of teacher candidates in the state, and the Fresno Assessment of Student Teachers (FAST), taken only by candidates at California State University Fresno. The CalTPA had the lowest pass rate, with only 77 percent of candidates passing all sections of the exam on the first try. The FAST has a first-time pass rate of 87 percent.

The high pass rates have skeptics wondering if the performance assessments are rigorous enough. All three versions of the assessments are usually scored by the institutions themselves, and students can retake them if they fail the first time.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University who helped design the edTPA, the national test, says the high pass rate on the PACT is expected. Teachers in California take up to three standardized tests, including a basic skills assessment and several subject matter tests, even before they take the PACT or one of the other two versions of it. Darling-Hammond says each exam knocks out about 10 percent of the aspiring teacher pool in the state. (In the 2009-10 academic year, 78 percent of candidates passed the state’s basic skills assessment, and 81 percent of applicants passed the reading instruction exam.)

“This [pass rate] is only the people who’ve made it through all those gauntlets, that managed to get into the program, and haven’t caved when they were asked to do the PACT,” said Darling-Hammond.

She added that the preparation programs that use the PACT, including the University of California system, Stanford, and several schools within the California State University system, have the highest selectivity in admissions to their preparation programs. “If this were statewide,” added Darling-Hammond, “the pass rate would certainly be much lower.”

A report from the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing cautioned against comparing the pass rates. Unlike the PACT, which is taken at the end of the preparation program, candidates take the four sections of the CalTPA at different times throughout their programs. Some programs counsel students out before they take the performance assessment, meaning only the top students may end up taking the exam.

Opponents of performance assessments say that preparation programs, and the state, are missing the point by relying on an assessment to determine if teachers are prepared for the classroom.

Ann Schulte, associate professor at California State University, Chico, says that preparation programs should be focused on working with and assessing teacher candidates in the field, so they receive frequent observations and feedback during their student teaching experiences from someone with extensive knowledge of their abilities and classrooms.

Schulte cited research that found alignment between the results of those who pass the PACT and the observations of educators supervising those candidates in the field. “It begs the question then, ‘why are we doing it?’” Schulte said.

Elsewhere in the country, some educators and students have asked the same question, and subsequently refused to administer or take the national version of the assessment. In 2012, all but one student in the secondary-teacher training program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst refused to participate in the exam, arguing that mentors who observed them in a student teaching setting for months would be better judges of their teaching ability than Pearson, the education company administering the exams.

More concerning to some schools is the idea that pass rates on performance exams could be used to determine the quality of teacher preparation programs. Since 1998, the federal government has attempted to increase the accountability for preparation programs by requiring states to collect and report information about the programs, including completion rates, average scores on state and national teaching tests, and the number of student teaching hours required.

California includes pass rates from performance assessments in its own annual analysis of this data, and uses that data as one of many measures that determines if a school of education is “low-performing.”

In California, there is general consensus that the performance assessment, which encourages students to focus on how they would teach a variety of students, has at least created more thoughtful teachers, even if the research isn’t clear that the tests are improving the quality of the teaching force.

“It’s hard to imagine that the exercise isn’t raising their expertise level,” said Julie Gainsburg, associate professor at Northridge. Gainsburg says that the assessment is requiring students to reflect on their teaching and planning in ways that are more sophisticated than before the PACT.

“Does PACT make a better teacher? No,” said Nancy Prosenjak, a professor at Northridge. “But I think we have a substantial program that’s research based, we have the PACT,” she added. “So with all of those, maybe we have better teachers.”

California struggles to assess teacher training programs

NORTHRIDGE, Calif.—On a recent afternoon at California State University, Northridge, Nancy Prosenjak was attempting to quiet the graduate students spread out across conference tables in the back of her classroom. She was still missing nearly a third of the class, but she was eager to debrief with her students about their first day of student teaching.

“You’re still smiling, this is good!” she told her students as the chatter died down. A few stragglers trickled in, wearily making their way to their seats.

The 17 students had spent the morning in classrooms spread across North Los Angeles and would devote the rest of the afternoon to discussing their experiences in Prosenjak’s supervised fieldwork course, a class dedicated to student teaching. The class is a requirement in the university’s post-baccalaureate teacher preparation program.

“Who taught for one hour?” Prosenjak asked.

Nearly all students raised their hand.

“Who was in charge for more than an hour?”

Only five hands remained.

“How did that feel?” Prosenjak asked.

“It went quickly,” responded one student. “I liked it.”

For the rest of the semester, the students will gradually take over more responsibilities in local classrooms, many of which are in low-performing schools in high-poverty districts. Then, after a year of coursework, including an average of nearly 500 hours of practice in schools, most can seek out jobs running their own classrooms by this fall.

A high-quality teacher can make all the difference to a student who is struggling, according to a growing body of research that has found teachers are the largest in-school factor affecting student achievement. And there’s an emerging consensus that how teacher candidates are chosen and trained can make all the difference in developing teachers with the knowledge and skills to propel their students ahead.

But even after students leave schools of education, and after years of reforms, the institutions often have no way of ascertaining if their programs produced strong teachers. In 1998, when only 20 percent of the California’s fourth-graders tested at or above proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, lawmakers in California passed ambitious legislation meant to strengthen teacher preparation programs. The legislation allowed for multiple routes to the classroom and introduced uniform design standards for those programs. It also created new tests to ensure aspiring teachers were ready for the classroom.

Schools of education adopted the reforms and adapted their programs beginning in 2002. In California, there are various routes to becoming a teacher, all requiring attainment of a bachelor’s degree, passing several competency exams, and spending time in a classroom. Yet nearly 10 years after the reforms, there is little more than anecdotal evidence—and no hard data—to show whether programs, and graduating teachers, are better than those who graduated before the reforms. Student test scores, which are increasingly used to assess teacher performance, have shown little improvement. By 2011, the number of California students proficient on the national reading exam had increased only five percentage points, to 25 percent from 20 percent.

David Rattray, senior vice president of education and workforce development for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, co-chaired a transition committee in the wake of the reforms, and says that there is still a need for changes throughout the arc of the process, from recruiting students to continuously developing experienced teachers. “Of course all of us are concerned with making sure what we put out there does become reality,” Rattray said. “But we’re also humble enough to know this is tough work.”

The need for quality teachers is especially urgent in California, where experts anticipate that thousands of teachers will retire in the next few years even as fewer people are attracted to the profession. (Between 2006 and 2011, enrollment in the state’s teacher training programs fell by 33 percent, most likely due to lack of job certainty, educators say.) The retirement figures, combined with a large number of teachers currently teaching in subjects they are not certified in, and an ongoing shortage of teachers in areas like math, science, and special education, have researchers estimating that California could lack nearly 33,000 teachers by 2015.

The declining number of students studying to become teachers has forced programs to try new recruiting tactics, including expanding to online programs that can draw in students from rural areas or distant parts of the state. More new California teachers are also earning their degree through district-run programs where education students start teaching in classrooms almost right away, and take classes at a local university in the evening. But for aspiring teachers in California, enrolling in a traditional teacher preparation program through a private or public university is still the most popular route to the classroom.

At Northridge, Michael Spagna, dean of California State Northridge’s college of education, says that the school of education underwent extensive changes after the reforms were passed in 1998, which he says was a “seismic shift” for California.

Many say that the biggest change to teacher preparation was the introduction of a mandatory performance assessment, a multi-part exam meant to assess how prepared teachers are for the classroom. The exam is required for certification, and is taken either at the end of the program or at certain points during the program, depending on the version of the test the training program uses. Schools of education created classes solely focused on preparing students to pass the exam, which centers on the “teaching event” where teacher candidates videotape a lesson and analyze it in a series of lengthy essays.

In education classrooms across California, just the mention of the performance assessment elicits groans. “They think it’s this giant, big thing that they’re writing,” said Nancy Prosenjak of Northridge. “Actually it’s what teachers do every day,” she added. “But they just don’t write down 50 pages about it.”

Programs were also asked to make uncomfortable changes. After the passage of legislation in 1970, students could no longer become teachers after only completing an undergraduate program. Schools of education had to shrink what had been multiple-year courses of undergraduate study into a year-long post-baccalaureate offering. And while aspiring teachers could still begin taking education courses in their undergraduate years, they now had to stay for a fifth year. When the 1998 reforms were passed, schools suddenly had to fit even more required coursework, such as health and technology education, into the year. The reforms brought an emphasis on teaching English language learners, which meant programs had to infuse strategies to reach these students throughout their courses.

“We were struggling,” said David Kretschmer, professor and chair of the Department of Elementary Education at California State University Northridge. “It was a matter of squeezing other things out.” The school discarded courses focusing on generic methods of teaching, instead offering methods courses specific to subject areas. Kretschmer says that many courses improved, and the emphasis on English learners has mostly been seen as a success. But other courses didn’t drill down as deeply as they used to. “That was just an untenable position, because we couldn’t do what we needed to do,” he said.

As schools of education tinkered with their courses and focused on preparing teachers for the new test, experts began to realize that there was no accountability system to make sure the reforms were working.

In 2006, Sharon E. Russell, a professor at California State, Dominguez Hills, published one of several reports that highlighted the difficulties in tracking the impact of the teacher preparation reforms and argued for creating a system to connect teacher performance with student achievement as a way to see if they were working.

Officials at teacher preparation programs say they are eager for guidance, and they point to flaws in the state’s current accountability system for teaching programs, which looks at factors like admissions requirements and class offerings before approving programs. Julie Gainsburg, associate professor at California State University Northridge, was part of a research team that in 2009 attempted to study the classroom performance of recent graduates. The team found that it was hard to disaggregate the teacher preparation program’s impact from other factors, like a teacher’s own philosophies about teaching, or professional development they receive while teaching at their school.

“Unfortunately we don’t know a lot about what happens to our graduates when they go out,” Gainsburg said.

Several other researchers from Northridge have attempted to study the performance of their teachers after graduation by using student test scores from the classrooms of recent graduates, however. In 2007, David Wright, the director of the California State University system’s Center for Teacher Quality analyzed how graduates from Northridge compared to those from other teacher preparation programs in the state by looking at student achievement data.

Wright reported that in reading, graduates from other programs tended to slightly outperform CSU Northridge graduates. But another study found that teachers trained by California State University programs appeared to be more effective at teaching math to English language learners than teachers trained elsewhere.

The Center for Teacher Quality has produced annual reports since 2010 that compare student test scores of teachers within various California State University campuses against those from other programs, but the center cautions that test scores must be supplemented with other data because California’s tests don’t completely measure all aspects of what a student has learned.

Debating the use of student data

Spagna argues that student test score data is the key to helping teacher programs—and the state—figure out whether they are succeeding. “No institution of higher education, no teacher preparation program, is ultimately going to be able to tell how successful they were without pupil learning [data],” Spagna said.

The problem is that while the college sends out surveys to graduates and employers, Spagna says it does not receive information from local school districts about how effective graduates are in their classrooms. “The right side of the equation is still missing,” he added.

Besides the surveys, programs can also look at the results of the performance assessments, which candidates take before receiving their credential. Teacher educators mostly praise the test because they say it helps them develop thoughtful teachers, but some question the rigor and credibility of the tests, which can be taken twice in California and which are scored by the institutions training the candidates. One of the performance assessments, taken by about 30 percent of all teacher candidates in the state, has a 94 percent pass rate for first-time takers.

And some say success on that exam does not guarantee a teacher will be strong. “It’s problematic,” said Gainsburg. “To imagine that this test given at [this] time…in their teaching career should correlate to what their kids are doing five years later, it’s so indirect,” she added.

California is not alone in grappling with how best to improve the development of new teachers. Elsewhere, education schools are under fire and also dealing with new competition, as online programs and alternative pathways vie for a shrinking population of people interested in becoming teachers.

In 2006, Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, published a lengthy report on the state of teacher education, calling it a “troubled field” and criticizing schools of education for having low admission and graduation standards, and “wide disparities in institutional quality.”

A national debate has raged for the past few years about whether student test scores can provide a reliable and fair measure of teacher performance. Using those scores to examine a teacher’s academic training is also complicated.

In California, experts say it is difficult to tie a teacher’s performance directly back to the school they attended, in part, because another aspect of the 1998 reforms required teachers to receive additional training on the job. “There are a lot of factors that go into a teacher’s performance in the classroom, and certainly some of those do happen after teachers leave the preparation program,” said Sarah Almy, director of teacher quality at the Education Trust, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group that pushes for more accountability in education.

James Wyckoff, director of the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness at the University of Virginia, agrees that it can be complex. But he says that some researchers have found that it is helpful to compare the success of teachers from different programs. “The information we’re getting from this is better than nothing, which is sort of what we’ve had before,” he said.

Other states have increasingly embraced the use of student test scores for measuring teacher programs. Louisiana has used student test score data since 2006 to determine which teacher training programs are most effective. While some say it has raised accountability for schools of education, some education schools have pointed to flaws and called the systems unfair.

The federal government has also tried to regulate quality in teacher training. In 1998, the same year California passed its reforms, Congress passed a new version of the federal Higher Education Act that required states to identify, report, and help low-performing teacher preparation programs.

But like California’s law, the impact of the requirements still isn’t clear more than a decade later. Each state can determine its own criteria for evaluating programs, and in the past decade, only 25 states have identified a program as “at-risk” or “low-performing.” And among the 42 states and the District of Columbia, which provided a detailed description of their criteria to the federal government, 17 states and the District of Columbia used only a single criterion to evaluate teacher preparation programs, such as the program’s completion rate or its pass rate on state certification assessments.

Recruiting the best and brightest

At 12:15 on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Lynne Goldfarb began the last day of the semester for her master’s level humanities class in the University of Southern California’s education program. This was not a typical USC classroom; Goldfarb’s class is held weekly online, with just two students logging on from Los Angeles and Phoenix, Ariz.

“Today we’re going to look at how the two of you, in your own individual ways, in your own individual classes, have applied what you’ve learned in this class,” Goldfarb said, looking into her laptop’s camera.

With a few quick clicks, Goldfarb made of one her students the host of the online classroom, which would allow the student to share what was on her computer desktop with the class.

“This is sort of a game changer,” Goldfarb said, referring to the platform that USC uses for its online program, which allows students to see each other, share their computer screens, and chat live during class. She says that one of the benefits of the online program is the ability for students from across the country to share experiences and strategies with each other. “It’s a cross- pollination of sorts,” she said.

The online class is the product of USC’s evolving college of education, and a distant byproduct of the 1998 reforms. With fewer students enrolling in schools of education, an increasing number of traditional programs have started online components to draw in students who may find distance learning more convenient. The programs with the biggest enrollment numbers in California are now institutions with extensive online offerings, according to federal data.

But Karen Gallagher, dean of USC’s Rossier School of Education, says that although the online program has high enrollment rates, there’s no data to show if the teachers trained online are better—or worse—than those trained in brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Both education schools and would-be reformers of teacher training have also embraced the idea of reaching out to a new population of potential teachers, because critics of teacher preparation programs say their biggest problem may be the kinds of people they recruit to become teachers in the first place. For years, colleges of education have battled reputations of attracting students with low test scores and grade point averages.

According to a 2011 College Board report, SAT takers planning to major in education scored an average of 480 in reading—above some, but below most disciplines, including law, engineering, and psychology. And among teacher preparation programs, admissions requirements vary greatly.

California requires a minimum score on the entrance exam students must take before they enroll in any teacher preparation program, but it’s extremely low. The cut score on the California Basic Educational Skills Test is 123 out of a top score of 240, or 51 percent— a percentage that would be considered a failing grade in most classrooms.

The test is split into three sections, which can be retaken as many times as needed, and scores from individual sections can be cobbled together to make a passing score. “If you are an intelligent ninth grader, you can probably complete it with very little problem,” said Kretschmer, the Northridge professor.

And while some schools have chosen to raise the cut scores or GPA required for admission, not everyone agrees that tougher admission requirements will result in a better teacher. “People say that’s a no brainer; you’re going to get better teachers if you increase the GPA,” said Spagna, dean at Northridge. “I would say that’s not a no brainer.” Spagna said some traits, such as having a cultural connection with students, may also have a positive effect on a person’s ability to be a good teacher.

At Northridge, students say the many requirements needed to graduate, and the packed programs that often require long days of student teaching followed by evening classes, have served them well.

Austin Trujillo quit his job in entertainment to enter the program, and says the program takes dedication and self-discipline—and that he is more confident about his job prospects than if he had chosen a newer, alternative program. “If you’re in competition and you have a degree from Northridge’s teaching credential program versus someone with an online degree, I think they’re going to assume you have a better-hands on experience,” he said. “It will be more respectable.”

Nancy Prosenjak’s class is filled with others like him, who were attracted to the program because they say it has a strong reputation among area principals. For these future teachers, it was all the data they needed to judge whether the program was working or not.

Alternative routes to teaching become more popular despite lack of evidence

INGLEWOOD, Calif.—In the back of a tenth-grade geometry classroom on a recent morning at Washington Preparatory High School, nine miles southeast of Los Angeles, Landon Yurica and Alycia Jones bent over the papers in front of them. At 23 and 24, respectively, the two could almost blend in as students as they tried the assignment the high school students were working on: finding the surface area of a geometric shape.

Yurica and Jones are teachers-in-training with the Urban Teacher Residency, a partnership between the Los Angeles Unified School District and four southern California universities, which provides an alternative route to the classroom.

The program takes three semesters compared to an average of six semesters in traditional programs for students who start as undergraduates, and two for post-baccalaureate programs. It also demands a commitment of at least three post-preparation teaching years from its participants. It is one of an expanding pool of alternative programs capitalizing on the belief that the more experience an aspiring teacher has in a classroom, the better. The number of alternative programs nationwide has skyrocketed, rising from 70 programs in the 2000-2001 school year to 658 in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and these programs now make up 31 percent of all teacher preparation programs in the nation.

Yet experts on teacher preparation acknowledge that little is known about which strategies actually work best for developing high-quality teachers. In 2008, James Wyckoff, a professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, was one of several researchers who looked at components of teacher preparation programs in New York City to determine which seemed to impact student achievement the most.

“I think what is remarkable is how little we know about teacher preparation,” Wyckoff said.

His study found, however, that one feature that can make a difference in outcomes for students is the amount of time aspiring teachers spent engaged in meaningful work in classrooms before they graduate from a training program.

In California, as in many states, the number of hours required for student teaching varies greatly by program and the state has no minimum. Some schools, such as Loyola Marymount University, require as many as 1,600 hours, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Others, like Chapman University and Fresno Pacific University, require less than 500 hours. A handful of programs require no more than 200 hours. Nationwide, traditional teacher preparation programs required an average of 514 student teaching hours during the 2008-09 academic year, according to the U.S. Department of Education, far less than the average of 901 required that year by alternative programs that are not based out of universities.

Emily Feistritzer, president and CEO of the National Center for Alternative Certification, says that nationwide, alternative programs tend to place aspiring teachers in the classroom from the very beginning, so these numbers naturally would be higher. Those new teachers are often the teacher of record immediately. By contrast, in traditional training programs, students observe and then are observed by a mentor teacher. “Student teaching, that terminology, has very little relevancy in the alternative routes,” Feistritzer said. “An alternative route program is generally a field-based program.”

What constitutes an alternative route varies widely, however. Every state determines its own definition for alternative programs, meaning a program that one state has classified as alternative may be classified as traditional in another state, despite having many of the same characteristics. One example is Teach For America: In some states it is considered a preparation program, in others, a recruiting organization.

In California, alternative programs are called “intern programs” by the state, and refer to programs where participants teach in classrooms during the program, usually as the teacher of record. And most so-called alternative routes are actually run by traditional university programs, although that may be changing.

The Urban Teacher Residency Program falls into a small category of alternative programs in California run by school districts. These programs tend to have partnerships with local universities to offer education classes to participants, but emphasize time in the classroom as a crucial component of the training. Many of these programs were created to address teacher shortages in specific subject areas, or to attract candidates who historically have been underrepresented in the teaching force, such as males or minorities. Others were created in the hopes of developing better teachers, either through the program’s methods of training teachers, or by attracting candidates with subject matter expertise, like those with degrees in math or science.

Between the 2008-09 and the 2009-10 school years, the number of students in both traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs in California dropped, most likely due to lack of job security, educators say. But according to the U.S. Department of Education, alternative programs based at universities across the country saw a 3 percent increase in the number of people completing them during that time. Alternative programs not run by universities, such as school district programs, saw an 18 percent increase.

The increase is likely due to more programs and candidates embracing the idea that time spent working in a classroom is more beneficial than time spent reading a textbook about teaching. “We find that the closer you get to the classroom, the teacher training is better,” Feistritzer said.

Alternative routes may also be more convenient—and less expensive—than a university. The Urban Teacher Residency program at California State University Dominguez Hills pays its participants a stipend of up to $20,000 over the course of the 18-month residency, while others offer perks like free master’s degrees. (At California State University, the graduate and credential programs cost about $6,800 per year for state residents; private schools like Loyola Marymount University can cost upwards of $30,000.)

But just as little is known about the effectiveness of traditional routes, there is little evidence that alternative routes are doing a better job of effectively preparing teachers.

During the 2009-10 school year, teachers prepared through an alternate route accounted for 10 percent of those attempting to pass a performance assessment in California, a requirement before earning a credential. These teachers also had the lowest pass rate on their first attempt to take the exam of all candidates.

California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing says that teachers in some routes take parts of the exam early in their program, however, perhaps accounting for lower pass rates than those who take the exam at the end of the preparation program. Different versions of the test also have lower pass rates than others.

The Urban Teacher Residency program, begun in 2009 to fill critical teacher shortages in urban Los Angeles schools, has embraced the limited research suggesting that more classroom experience, especially when it replicates what teachers will be expected to do in their own classrooms post-graduation, produces better teachers. Teachers in the residency program spend an average of about 1,300 hours in the classroom in student teaching, more than the average number completed in nearly 90 percent of the alternative programs in the state.

Unlike some alternative programs, though, the program gradually introduces candidates to full-time teaching. Teachers-in-training, called “residents,” spend a summer semester taking classes through a university partner, then immediately enter a classroom to become acclimated. For one semester, the residents observe an experienced teacher nearly full time. The residents say this allows them to build relationships with students before the second semester, when they begin teaching a few classes on their own with mentoring from a more experienced teacher.

Jones, who is in her third semester of the residency program, says that she doubts she could learn the same lessons about managing a classroom and keeping students engaged through courses at a university. “You can’t talk about it, you can’t have conversations about it, you can’t see videos about it,” she said. “You actually have to see it and you have to be in it.”

Alternative programs are often designed to address another frequent weakness of traditional programs. Both nationwide and in California, schools of education graduate an overabundance of elementary school teachers. The Urban Teacher Residency program is focused on producing only teachers who will fill some of the shortage areas that have plagued California schools for years: math, science, and special education. Residents are placed in urban, low-income schools and teach only secondary math or science.

To ensure the program is meeting school district needs, HR administrators of the Los Angeles Unified School District sit on a selection committee to interview candidates for the program, and the two entities share data frequently.

“They need information from us, and we need information from them,” said Kamal Hamdan, program director of the Urban Teacher Residency at California State University Dominguez Hills.

Specifically, the district shares student achievement data with the residency program, which Hamdan says is crucial for determining how effective the program graduates are in the classroom, and ultimately, how the program can help. “It shouldn’t be only the district’s obligation,” he said. “It should be our obligation to step in and say, ‘wait a minute, this teacher might be struggling, what are we going to do as an institute of higher education?’”

There’s not enough data yet, however, to show that the residency program is producing high-performing teachers who outshine graduates from traditional routes, something Drew Furedi, the executive director for talent management at the Los Angeles Unified School District, acknowledges. “We’ll see if that’s a model that prepares people in a demonstrably different way,” he said.

In Mississippi, Generations Still Fighting Illiteracy

PASCAGOULA, Miss. — Rosie Corn barely remembers the few years she spent in school before her mother pulled her out. It was the mid-1940s, and she was only through the first half of fifth grade. While her father worked on the family farm and her mother served food in a local hospital’s cafeteria, Corn spent her days cooking meals for her four younger siblings and washing clothes for white families in her hometown of Forest, Miss., just east of Jackson.

The 79-year-old, now a resident of coastal Pascagoula, is trying to make up for years of lost education. It’s taken her more than a quarter-century—interrupted by health problems, jobs and family commitments—to get to a second-grade reading level. She has yet to read a chapter book and will never have a driver’s license. Up until a few months ago, Corn couldn’t read the labels on the clothes she was buying.

In the largely poor and rural state of Mississippi—which has historically struggled with high rates of poverty and lagging test scores—this is a common narrative for many adults. Nearly seven percent of adults in the state have less than a ninth-grade education, which is two percentage points above the national average. As of 2003, the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, at least 15 percent of adults in Mississippi were found to be illiterate, with rates soaring as high as 30 percent in some of the most impoverished and rural counties. Nationwide, 14 percent of adults can’t read or write basic words—a figure that has held steady since the early 1990s.

Despite the discouraging numbers, Mississippi has improved since the first Adult Literacy Survey was given in 1992, when the state had a smaller total population yet 25 percent of adults were found to be illiterate. “We have made a lot of progress in Mississippi, both racially and educationally,” said Andy Mullins, chief of staff to the chancellor at the University of Mississippi. “We’ve had the deepest, darkest hole to climb out of, of any state in the nation,” he added. “We’ve probably made more progress than any state in the nation, based on how far we’ve had to come.”

The not-so-distant past

In Mississippi, decades of racism and segregation have plagued a public school system that many argue is still inherently separate and unequal. As recently as 1951, there were still more than 1,400 one-room schoolhouses in the state, almost all for black students, where black teachers juggled multiple grade-levels for a fraction of what white teachers were paid. Federal orders for schools to integrate made no difference, as many whites fled to newly created private schools, often referred to as “segregation academies,” that maintained a tense separation of the races. School attendance wasn’t even mandatory in the state until 1982, the year then-Gov. William Winter signed the state’s Education Reform Act.

“There was just no emphasis on education,” said Mullins, who worked for Winter. Mullins said that for many years, schools were open when cotton was not being planted or chopped, meaning many black students often had school years lasting just four months. “We had 150 years of slavery, and 150 years of second-class citizenship,” he said. “We refused to educate about 50 percent of our population because we wanted to keep them in a servant’s role.”

For Corn, as for many illiterate adults in the state, the odds of receiving a quality education haven’t improved much. Ambitious efforts have been made in the past. In 1990, then-Gov. Ray Mabus proposed an initiative to combat adult illiteracy, proposing $13.5 million in state funds to start a series of literacy programs over the next three years. The proposal was so promising that The Atlantic Monthly published an article titled “Mississippi: Literate at Last,” claiming—unfortunately, not prophetically— that the new adult literacy programs “will be studied as models and inspiration elsewhere.” Those programs went unfunded.

The present, the future

One of the greatest recent developments in Mississippi is the increasing availability of and enrollment in adult basic education classes run by the state’s Community College Board, which has been in charge of planning and paying for state-funded adult education since the Department of Education handed that task over in 1992. While there are hundreds of classes across Mississippi, they are mostly aimed at individuals reading between a fourth- and seventh-grade level, said Eloise Richardson, director of adult education for the Community College Board. “The people that are on the lowest level are the hardest to get to come,” she added.

Last year, only about 10 percent of Mississippi adults who dropped out of school before ninth grade were served by basic education classes at a community college. The least-educated “really need more one-on-one volunteer tutoring,” Richardson said. “We don’t have the dollars for it. The word ‘volunteer’ is just unheard of now.”

The classes are funded by a mix of state and federal dollars, and run by community colleges and public schools across Mississippi, but even as enrollment in adult basic education classes has slightly increased, funding for the Community College Board has decreased over the past year.

For adults like Corn, who can’t read at a high enough level to benefit from a community college class, the only other help often comes through nonprofits like the Jackson County Literacy Council in Pascagoula. Run out of a modest brick building tucked away next to the town’s prison, the council offers adult literacy classes for adults at all levels. But getting to such classes can be a challenge, especially if individuals lack a driver’s license and live in a rural part of the state with few public-transportation options.

Corn, who relies on a city bus to get her to tutoring twice a week, is typical of students who come to the literacy center looking for help, according to the council’s director, Claire Albright. She said that many older adults in the area have found themselves alone after their spouses die and children leave. “They get mail that they can’t read. They can’t pick up a newspaper,” Albright said on a recent weekday as she observed Corn attempting to complete a reading exercise on a computer. “They have no personal life, because they have to depend upon others.”

The Jackson County Literacy Council managed to help nearly 140 adults in 2012, with only nine volunteer tutors and a $30,000 budget. Albright says that finding dedicated tutors is a challenge, which forces her to turn away dozens of adults looking for help each year. Some of these adults are trying to earn their GEDs—a certificate of high school equivalency—but they’re not yet at the fourth- to eighth-grade reading level needed to test into a GED program. Others are new to the country and learning English for the first time.

“We are strictly goal-oriented,” Albright said. “If you stay with me, I will do everything I can to help you.”

A new start

When Eddie Joseph came to Pascagoula by way of Texas after Hurricane Katrina, he left behind a life of instability and academic failure. The 39-year-old, who grew up in the ninth ward of New Orleans, arrived in Mississippi nine months after his neighborhood was destroyed in the storm. By then, he’d decided it was finally time to become literate. On a recent winter evening inside the Jackson County Literacy Council, Joseph recalled his years as a special-education student in some of New Orleans’ worst public schools. “I was afraid to ask” for help, he admitted, looking down at the desk in front of him. “If you tell a person that you cannot read, they’re going to laugh at you, you know, criticize you.”

For 15 years in New Orleans, Joseph bounced from job to job, able to apply only for positions that had short and easy applications. As a child, he says he wanted to be a police officer or doctor, but his inability to read stopped him from pursuing those dreams. Instead, he has worked minimum-wage jobs in private security and grounds-keeping. For work that required him to read, he did his best to learn new words and conceal his illiteracy from coworkers. “Certain people have their own way of hiding,” Joseph said. “I just kept on going.”

An inability to get and keep jobs is one of the biggest challenges and most dire consequences of adult illiteracy. Each year, efforts to improve adult literacy cost the U.S. government about $500 million for basic-skills classes that reach 3 million adults across the country—which is only about 10 percent of the adults in the country who can’t read. By building up skills in reading and math, these programs aim to get adults into the workforce. A 2010 study by the National Institute for Literacy found that an increase in literacy skills would lead to an increase in employment and earnings. A lack of education has long been tied to lower income; nationwide, high-school dropouts only make about 65 percent of what high-school graduates earn.

It is an issue that can trickle down to younger generations, says Eloise Richardson. “If the parents are not educated, then they’re not going to push their children to remain in school,” she said.

Whether it’s the result of poverty, parental influence, or some combination of both, many schools across the state—especially in the most impoverished areas—are still failing to prepare students for success after graduation. Just 62 percent of Mississippi students complete high school within four years, and many of those who do graduate are underprepared for college or careers. In the 2010-11 school year, only 57 percent of students in the state were deemed proficient by the state’s high school English test. And for those who attempt to find work, there’s little cause for hope: Mississippi leads the nation with the highest unemployment rate among young adults.

Experts say the lack of a literate workforce has stunted Mississippi’s economy. Although several companies have opened factories in the state over the last decade, Richardson of the Community College Board said that well-educated adults are needed to encourage more economic growth. “We have automotive companies that want to come into our state,” she said. “The first thing they want to find out is, ‘what kind of skill does your workforce have?’ ”

For an under-educated adult, getting a job may be just the first step on a ladder of other challenges. Claire Albright said that the biggest proportion of students at her center are middle-aged men who can’t read well enough to pass the health and safety test required to work in manufacturing, which dominates southern Mississippi’s economy; in Pascagoula, nearly 25 percent of employed adults work in the industry.

For those who do get help, Albright said the tutoring can work. After a year and a half, Eddie Joseph was reading well enough to start a GED course. He now has a driver’s license and a well-paid job with a local school system. And Rosie Corn—who has started from square one after a recent stroke—is now able to go to the bank alone and can read her mail without help. Her ultimate goal, she says, is to be able to write a letter to her brother and read her Bible.

“She told me, ‘I became a human here,’ ” Albright said, referring to Corn. “And I thought, ‘That’s right.’ She became a human, because now she can function on her own.”

This story also appeared in the Biloxi Sun Herald on March 9, 2013.

The Literacy Crisis: Searching for Solutions in Mississippi

GULFPORT, Miss. — On a recent Friday morning in the gym at Gaston Point Elementary School, Tracy Jackson was growing impatient. It was the monthly awards assembly, a morning dedicated to recognizing students who were excelling in school, but several students were hesitant to get up and accept their awards. Jackson knew exactly why. “They don’t want to be different,” said the principal, who has worked in local schools for nearly a dozen years.

It’s a cultural problem, Jackson says, that only compounds the other issues facing many schools in southern Mississippi—like poverty, unstable home lives and high mobility rates, as families move in and out of assignments at the local Air Force base.

Students at Gaston Point Elementary in Gulfport receive certificates for reading and math achievement. The school has seen scores improve since targeting low readers and providing tutoring for more students. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Despite the obstacles, Gaston Point Elementary is by all accounts a success story. Nearly 85 percent of its students live in poverty, which is 20 percentage points above the district average. Four years ago, the school’s test scores were typical of a low-income school: just 52 percent of fourth-graders were testing at grade level. But the school has since adopted a focus on literacy, and the results are promising. Nearly 70 percent of fourth-graders tested at grade level for reading on the 2010-11 state tests, despite that grade having more economically disadvantaged students than any other grade at the school.

The school’s focus on literacy comes at a time when Mississippi lawmakers are considering legislation that would require third-graders to repeat the year if they’re not reading at grade level. Ohio, Tennessee and at least a dozen other states have already enacted such legislation. The measure is one of the more controversial in of a series of education reforms by Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, who in November asked the state for $15 million to help solve what he calls Mississippi’s “literacy crisis.”

Mississippi has long struggled to develop a strong education system, posting some of the nation’s lowest test scores and highest rates of child poverty. Extensive research has found that low-income children tend to start school behind their more affluent peers. Children living in poverty hear fewer words and typically have less access to books and educational experiences. This means they’re less likely to enter school with basic math, language and literacy skills, such as the ability to recognize letters in the alphabet or know how to hold a book.

SERIES
This story is part of our Mississippi Learning series, which is examining why the children of Mississippi start behind — and stay behind.

Read the entire series

“You have kids who come into school in kindergarten and don’t even know their name. They start out with this tremendous gap,” said Angela Rutherford, director of the Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction at the University of Mississippi. “That third grade is such a pivotal year. If you’re not on grade level at that point, then the likelihood that you ever catch up to your peers is extremely low.”

The need for improvement is urgent in Mississippi, where only about 52 percent of third-graders, and 50 percent of eighth-graders tested at or above grade-level in reading assessments during the 2010-11 school year. National test results reveal an even bleaker reality: 78 percent of Mississippi’s fourth-graders are below proficient in reading, which is 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

Research shows that students who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are less likely to graduate from high school, which could have major implications in this state with one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates. Nearly 40 percent of Mississippi’s high-school students do not graduate in four years; about 30 percent never graduate at all. Fourteen percent of adults in the state are illiterate, but in some of the poorest and most rural counties the percentage climbs to almost 30.

These numbers have left lawmakers with no choice but to focus on education in this year’s legislative session, considering a series of proposals inspired by policies that Florida has enacted. Gov. Bryant has touted a third grade “gate” as key to improving schools. “We only hurt our students when we shuffle them through the system before they are ready,” Bryant said in his January “State of the State” speech.

Looking to learn from Florida

Florida has had some success with a series of school reforms implemented since 1999, including a third-grade reading level requirement and a new school rating system. Between 1998 and 2007, the state moved from the fifth-lowest in reading scores for fourth-graders to the eighth-highest, making especially large gains with Hispanic students. Some critics have suggested that Florida’s scores have risen because children who would struggle on the exams are being held back so that only proficient readers are being tested. One study found last August that Florida students who are held back perform at higher levels than their peers in the years after repeating third grade.

Kim Chrestman, superintendent of the Water Valley School District, walks through a classroom at Davidson Elementary. Chrestman visits both schools in the district on a daily basis. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

“We were very close [academically] with Florida, then all of a sudden, there’s this wide divergence,” said Mississippi State Sen. Gray Tollison, chairman of the State Senate Education Committee. “We’ve given lots of money and yet the results are flat-lining,” he said. “We have limited resources. But we, more than any other state with limited resources, need to target that money where we’ll get the most effective use.”

Opponents of the third-grade legislation doubt that Mississippi can fully adopt Florida’s reforms, considering how much the two states differ in history, demographics and funding. Florida relied on local taxes to fund a 19 percent increase in per-pupil spending, which could prove nearly impossible in Mississippi, considering the state has only fully funded its school system twice since 2002. Florida also put literacy coaches in every elementary school and trained all K-3 teachers in literacy strategies.

Others are pointing to research that shows mixed results when students are held back, including lower graduation rates, a higher likelihood that retained students will experience bullying, and negative self-esteem.

Skeptics also point to another hurdle to reform: Mississippi’s poor track record of following through with new policies. In the late 1970s, George McLean, then publisher of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo, gave over $1 million to bring reading aides into first- and second-grade classrooms in Lee County. The rest of the state adopted the program with the 1982 Education Reform Act, led by then-Gov. William Winter, which also established mandatory schooling and made kindergarten available at every elementary school. But under the state’s reading improvement program, reading aides were only required to have high-school diplomas.

“Immediately, two problems arose,” wrote Andy Mullins, former special assistant to Gov. Winter, in an article for The Journal of Mississippi History. “The pay rate for the reading assistants was barely above the minimum wage, and increasingly the districts began to use reading assistants as teaching assistants.” By 1996, the measure was rewritten and the assistants were allowed to be used for more than just reading, effectively dismantling the reading aide program.

Lessons from Water Valley

Despite a lack of state support for reading reforms in the past, schools across the state have found ways to overhaul their reading programs. Some of the best results can be seen in schools that serve the poorest students with the lowest test scores.

Charla Stark’s kindergarten class eagerly awaits the chance to correct a sentence in the morning lesson. Stark says that since starting a new curriculum, her students are more advanced than previous years. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Walking into Charla Stark’s colorful kindergarten classroom at Davidson Elementary School in the rural town of Water Valley, an hour outside of Oxford, there’s a frenetic energy from the cluster of children on the carpet in the middle of the room. But the excitement stems from an unlikely source—the morning sentence correction lesson.

“I would have never dreamed that they would have been able to pick out the noun, the adjective and the verb,” Stark said, as children eagerly raised their hands, desperate for the chance to add a capital letter at the start of the sentence on the white board. Stark watched carefully as one child after another walked up to the board and meticulously made changes to the sentence. First, a period was added at the end; next, the noun was circled and the adjective was underlined. “We’re going to start on adverbs later,” Stark said.

It is an unexpected scene, district superintendent Kim Chrestman acknowledges, in a town that has long struggled with poverty and poor academics. Fifteen percent of the town’s adults are unemployed, and nearly 60 percent of children live in poverty. But Chrestman says the school’s culture has dramatically improved after it switched to a research-based curriculum, aligned to new nationwide core standards. He also credits the addition of a reading specialist, whom he hired to work with teachers and tutor struggling students in small groups.

Chrestman took over the district a year ago, at a time when 35 percent of third-graders were testing at proficient or advanced on state tests. “We actually have seventh- and eighth-graders that cannot really do what these children are able to do,” Chrestman said, as he watched the kindergarteners in Starks’s classroom clamor for the next turn. “We’ve just been teaching where we thought they could get it, instead of teaching up there and having them reach.”

Despite working with a small budget, Chrestman has written grant proposals and shuffled funds to pay for the new curriculum and materials. And he encourages his reading specialist, Patricia Treloar, and her team of assistant teachers to test kids frequently to ensure they’re making progress.

“We’re trying to get rid of the ineffective stuff that we’ve done for so long,” said Treloar, as she examined print-outs of student test scores to identify students in need of tutoring. Treloar, who has more than 20 years of experience and has trained the teaching assistants, says that since starting daily tutoring, more students are reading at grade level. Nearly 140 kids needed intervention time each day at the start of the year. Now, only halfway through the year, that number has decreased to 40.

Same reforms, same success

In Gulfport, both Gaston Point Elementary and the nearby Twenty-Eighth Street Elementary, have adopted reading reforms similar to Water Valley, including funding a reading coach position with federal money, and creating a new 30-minute class that struggling readers attend four days a week.

A kindergarten student in Charla Stark’s class thinks about how to correct a sentence written on the white board. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

At Gaston Point Elementary, students in this class have averaged two years of reading growth in less than a year. At Twenty-Eighth Street Elementary, principal Lea Bellon says the class has helped to build skills that many of her students, 84 percent of whom live in poverty, enter school without. “You’ve got to close those gaps somehow,” Bellon said on a recent weekday afternoon, as she met with Samantha Benson, the school’s reading specialist. “If you can’t do it in reading, they’re going to struggle.”

Scores have soared in the three years since Twenty-Eighth Street Elementary started its reading class. In the 2009-10 school year, only 19 percent of third-graders tested proficient on the state reading exam. One year later, nearly 42 percent of third-graders tested at or above grade level. Halfway through this year, students in all grade-levels are testing at or above the national average, according to a national fluency test.

“Data drives every decision that we make,” Benson said. Every Friday, she gathers the school’s five teaching assistants, and they assess every child in kindergarten, first and second grade, ensuring that they’re able to catch children before they fall further behind.

Despite the success these schools have seen in implementing reforms similar to Gov. Bryant’s proposals, skeptics wonder if programs can be successfully scaled up—or even whether they are missing the point. “There are counties in Mississippi where poverty is just the norm,” said Rutherford, of the University of Mississippi. “It’s hard to attract good teachers there, and good principals. As a result, it just continues, this vicious cycle,” she added. “It never gets any better.”

Rutherford says that these issues must be addressed for literacy to improve, starting with training teachers to teach reading more effectively. It is a reform that both Alabama and Florida have invested in, and while Gov. Bryant has expressed a desire to do the same, only one of the three literacy bills moving through the legislature includes a measure that would train teachers.

It is a need—and a challenge—that lawmakers are aware of as they move forward with legislation. “The hardest part of this is implementation, and getting people out in the field,” said Tollison.

“We want to have an education revival, and say this is a top priority for our state,” he added. “I want people to know in the rest of the country, we’re focused on this and trying to make meaningful moves in moving Mississippi forward academically.”

Should integration be a measure of school quality?

More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education legally ended segregation in public schools, many districts have struggled to integrate, leaving some schools as racially divided as they were in the 1950’s. In Mississippi, private schools, often referred to as “segregation academies,” were established in communities across the state in response to actual or anticipated desegregation orders. There are more than 35 private academies in the state that opened between 1964 and 1972, and all of these schools enroll fewer than two percent black students. Many of the high-poverty, mostly black public schools in Mississippi are underfunded and under resourced, and some experts say this can affect children in a variety of ways. Can integration improve schools?

Hechinger’s Jackie Mader appeared on MSNBC to talk about this issue.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

As Mississippi moves closer to passing legislation that would expand charter schools in the state, the debate has created a racial divide. Advocates say charter schools can provide a quality education for children in a state that consistently posts some of the lowest test scores in the nation. But opponents of the publically funded, privately run schools say that charters, which can be racially unbalanced, could become another form of segregation academies.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The nutrition gap: A fight for quality food for Mississippi’s littlest learners

A version of this article also appeared at Time.

Debbie Ellis remembers the instant potatoes, chocolate pudding and classic Southern fried foods once served at the child care centers she owns in Greenwood, Miss. Watching kids eat was a joy—even though spending $800 a month on groceries for meals that could hardly be called nutritious was not.

These days, Ellis has a caterer preparing meals with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and plenty of low-fat milk and 100 percent juice, all approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Children are healthier and the quality of care has greatly improved, and the new diets save her hundreds of dollars a month—while guaranteeing healthier food in a state with the nation’s highest rate of childhood obesity.

“We don’t have that [joy] now,” Ellis joked, “but we do have good quality.”

When the USDA passed new nutrition requirements for school lunches in January, more U.S. students gained access to healthier foods—like it or not. The food served in public schools represents an important statement “about how seriously we take learning,’’ said Colorado State Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, who wrote a book about his experiencing teaching in the impoverished Mississippi Delta.

“It impacts student achievement, and yes, it impacts how engaged students’ minds are in the afternoon,” said Johnston, who has worked to bring more nutritious foods to Colorado schools. Serving healthy foods is even more critical for the youngest learners in high poverty areas like Mississippi—which has the highest rate of child poverty in the U.S.— Johnston said.

In places like Greenwood, efforts are underway to help kids form better eating habits before they even reach elementary school, while the new diets at Debbie Ellis’s day care centers are a result of the federally funded Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which reimburses centers for the cost of serving children a more nutritious diet.

Ellis enrolled her two centers six years ago and has not looked back. Yet despite obvious health and financial benefits, less than half of child care centers across the United States participate in the 44-year-old federal program. The USDA has acknowledged the systems surrounding the program can place an undue burden on child care centers. In 2007, a federally-commissioned group of experts attempted to simplify some of the more cumbersome requirements by recommending changes to the program. Some of the recommendations were put in place three years later by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

But experts say the program is still a logistical challenge, involving extensive travel for training and detailed documentation to claim reimbursement. Some say this has scared child care centers away.

“It is extraordinarily difficult for a small rural center in an underdeveloped area without much administrative capacity,” said Warren Yoder, executive director of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi.

Although participation rates in Mississippi have increased 93 percent since 1996—the year welfare reform created eligibility guidelines for the program—it’s far less than advocates had hoped. In 2011, only about 38 percent of Mississippi’s 1,800 child care centers participated, even though nearly all were eligible, according to Lenora Phillips, who directs the program for the Mississippi Office of Healthy Schools.

Nationally, participation rates have only increased 59 percent over the same period.

Even more discouraging are participation rates for family day care homes—largely unlicensed programs that do not have to comply with child care center regulations—which have plummeted in Mississippi and across the country. In a 2003 memo, the USDA attributed this to complicated changes in the program. Since 1996, the year these changes were implemented, the number of family day care homes enrolled in the food program has dropped nearly 60 percent.

A scattered but growing network of Mississippi nonprofits has been leading the efforts in the state to bolster participation, by convincing centers of the federal food program’s value and supporting them through administrative tasks.

The need to improve nutrition is urgent in Mississippi, where more than two-thirds of adults could be obese by 2030 if current trends continue, according to a recent report by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Obese children may face long-term health problems and are at higher risk of social, psychological and academic problems. Obesity has been linked to lower math scores, for example. Last spring, retired generals complained that far too many of the Mississippi’s students aren’t fit to serve in the military; the state leads the nation in the percentage of overweight 18- to 24-year-olds.

A report released in early September suggests that recent school-based efforts to combat childhood obesity in the state have been relatively successful. In 2006, Mississippi established nutritional standards for food sold in school vending machines. A year later, a state law was passed requiring public schools to provide more physical activity time. Since then, obesity has decreased 13 percent for school-aged children.

Child care centers are in a unique position to combat the problem since obesity usually begins between the ages of 5 and 6, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. That’s why it’s essential to introduce children to a healthy diet as early as possible, says Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C.

“They’re in child care the majority of working days, and that’s where they’re really going to get nutrition and learn good eating habits,” Henchy said.

A complex program

In Leland, a town where 67 percent of children under five live in poverty, Deloris McWright works to boost enrollment in the federal program. McWright has helped eight centers in the Mississippi Delta—the poorest part of the state—make it through the application process; seven more are on a waiting list for her support.

McWright says that it is easy to explain the benefits to financially-strapped child care providers, who get reimbursed for grocery or food preparation costs through the program. But a lot of questions arise during the enrollment process. Directors must attend two days of training, usually held in Jackson, more than 100 miles away from many Delta towns. Then comes a trial period, monitored by the state. Afterwards, providers must submit daily attendance records, meal logs, and grocery receipts to get reimbursed.

Youngsters are placed in six different age groups, and each age group requires different types and amounts of food. Even just serving a smoothie can be a complicated process. A four-page memo released in July details what needs to be in the drink to qualify for reimbursement. Reimbursement rates also differ by meal and a child’s family income.

And the program only covers food if the child shows up to eat it. If a youngster does not attend on any given day, providers must swallow the costs. And if child care centers make a mistake, such as giving a child the wrong food, they will owe money.

“Your thought is, I don’t want to deal with another agency and red tape,” said Donna Nicholson, owner of Kids Konnection in Richland, Miss. The child care center has been open for 16 years, and enrolled in the food program in April. Nicholson says that the paperwork involves a lot of math, and she is nervous about making mistakes that would prevent them from being reimbursed.

But Lenora Phillips from the state’s Office of Healthy Schools says the program doesn’t require much more from centers than the paperwork already required to gain a license.

“I don’t agree that it’s difficult,” she said. “I agree that the first time you do it, it takes more time.”

Centers that don’t participate in the federal program have been known to serve more affordable, but unhealthy meals of hot dogs, chicken nuggets, potato chips and fruit punch. In Mississippi, centers are required to submit menus to the state Department of Health whether or not they participate, but nutrition advocates say no one monitors them.

“These are small centers with very limited resources, just frightfully limited resources,” said Yoder, of the public policy center. “They’re feeding children a very inadequate diet.”

Yoder said many parents end up leaving their children in centers with few resources and poor instruction—as well as unhealthy meals—because they have no other choice.

Thousands of low-income families in the state cannot even access quality child care, much less ensure their children eat nutritious food. Only 35 percent of working families who qualify for federally subsidized child care are being served, said Carol Burnett, director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative.

And in a state where the median income is about $24,000—and even lower for single parents—there is no guarantee of quality at all centers.

Many centers cannot think about joining the USDA food program because they struggle to pass basic safety inspections, said Yoder. “I think we’ve probably gotten as far as we can go,” Yoder said. “And now, we’ve got to look for another model to make [participation] happen.”

McWright thinks better communication about the financial and nutritional advantages of participating would encourage other centers to enroll. She still owns her own center, and spends time every morning making sure all is running smoothly, even though it’s not easy.

“It is a passion for me because I know how hard it was for me when I started,” she said.

Annie Gilberston of the Southern Education Desk, a consortium of public media stations reporting on education issues in the south, contributed to this story.

This story also ran on Time.com as part of an exclusive collaboration. Reproduction is not permitted.

Pass the carrots, pass on the chips: America’s obsession with school lunches

With the passage of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010 and new school lunch requirements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2011, America’s school menus are healthier than ever – even if kids aren’t always happy about it.

School lunch was at the forefront of news and media in 2012, as students complained about being served new foods they say lack flavor. The attempt to serve healthier meals in U.S. schools is aimed at combating obesity, with more fruits and vegetables served and a daily cap on calories. It has also meant smaller servings, prompting students in Wisconsin to boycott school lunches, and leading kids in Kansas to make a music video suggesting that they aren’t getting enough food at school.

Despite disdain from kids, efforts to improve nutrition in schools seem to be helping, especially in states suffering from high child obesity rates like Mississippi.

A recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that in school-based efforts, including more physical education time and nutritional standards for snacks sold in vending machines, have led to a 13 percent decline in child obesity in Mississippi over the last six years.

Mississippi has the highest child obesity rate in the nation, a distinction that prompted child care centers to join the fight, even as they struggle to navigate a complicated government system.

In 2007, California set new nutritional standards for school snacks, and two years later the state eliminated sugar-sweetened beverages in high schools. The number of children who are obese has since leveled off at 38 percent, and dropped in Los Angeles. In San Francisco, some schools have outsourced their food production to companies that use chefs and local suppliers to offer healthier options and combat obesity.

In December, the USDA responded to complaints from students and schools, and announced it would tweak the food guidelines by eliminating daily and weekly limits on meats and grains. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter to Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) that the flexibility will grant schools “additional weekly menu planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week.”

More than 30 percent of adults and 17 percent of children in the United States are overweight or obese, a statistic that the Pentagon has referred to as a national security issue.

Giving teachers more power helps in turnaround of Boston schools

Six low-performing Boston schools participating in a pilot program that gives teachers more training, support, and leadership roles are showing higher growth on state tests than other low-performing city schools according to a report released Monday by the non-profit Teach Plus.

The T3 Initiative program, a collaboration between Boston Public Schools and Teach Plus, began training and placing groups of experienced teachers with track records of raising student test scores in a set of three failing schools in 2010, after a dozen city schools were deemed underperforming by the state in 2010 for chronically low test scores. The pilot expanded to three more schools the following year.

The report, an evaluation by Teach Plus of its own program, shows that at the first three schools to use the program, the percentage of students earning advanced or proficient scores on their state tests increased by nearly 13 percentage points in English language arts on average over the course of two years, and 16.5 percentage points in math on average. The second group of schools saw similar growth at the middle school level over the course of one year.

In addition to training and hiring new teachers, the six schools in the T3 Initiative, provided health and wellness services for students, and intensive teacher professional development over the summer. Teach Plus teachers make up 25 percent of the school faculty at T3 schools, and serve in leadership roles to help other teachers improve.

Six other Boston turnaround schools did not participate in the T3 pilot, but did experiment with longer school days and staffing changes. A report by The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education found that state-wide, less successful turnaround schools, including those not part of the T3 program, tended to provide more generic professional development, infrequent coaching and teacher support, and struggled to create a safe school environments. Test scores at those turnaround schools have remained relatively stagnant.

Among the T3 schools, the biggest gains were in the middle grades at Orchard Gardens K-8, which doubled the number of seventh graders scoring proficient in English and math over the course of one year. At the elementary schools participating in the program, growth has been high in math, but more moderate in English language arts. There was only a 0.3 percentage point increase on average in English language arts scores during the first year of the pilot. The elementary school that joined the program during the 2011-12 school year saw only 4 percentage points of growth, although math scores jumped by 18 percentage points.

The Teach Plus program is among several types of reforms that Boston has tried since the 12 city schools began receiving federal funding to undergo a turnaround process. Principals were replaced in five of the 12 failing schools, and staff members at six of the schools were asked to reapply for their positions, including three schools that participated in the T3 project. One school closed in 2011 as part of a massive school closure and consolidation plan intended to save the district more than $36 million. Nine of the remaining 11 schools extended their school day by an hour, and two added two hours.

Research suggests that school turnarounds are extremely difficult. Most schools in the federal School Improvement Program, which the Boston schools were a part of, made gains on test scores in the first year, but more than a third did worse after receiving federal funding to make improvements.

“If we’re going to make lasting change in our schools, we need to look to teachers to lead that change,” said Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson. “We’re thrilled with the progress these schools are making.”

Research has shown that teachers are the most important in-school factor that influences student achievement, yet inexperienced teachers are more common in urban and low-income schools. A 2010 study commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education found that during the course of two school years, half of Boston’s public-school teachers were never evaluated, and a quarter of the city’s schools didn’t turn in teacher evaluations to the district.

Districts in Massachusetts have three years to turn around failing schools before they could face a state takeover.

Will school computers be able to handle new testing technology?

Schools in about 25 states set to roll out new online standardized tests in the next two years can now find out whether the computers they have on hand will be able to handle the new technology. The state-led Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium released guidelines on Tuesday with specific requirements for devices.

The consortium, which is one of two groups receiving federal funding to develop tests that match the Common Core State Standards, said that in addition to computers, iPads, Android tablets, and Chromebooks running on newer operating systems will be able to be used for testing. All devices must have a 10” screen, a keyboard, internet access, and the ability to disable features that could be used to cheat during the test.

Some school officials have worried about whether current technology will be enough to handle new tests, or if schools will be forced to find the means to upgrade. In addition to the specific requirements released by the SMARTER coalition, the non-profit State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) also put out guidelines that outline how schools should prepare in order to administer tests beginning in the 2014-15 school year. SETDA has worked with both SMARTER and a second test developer, The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, to gauge how prepared districts are for the new tests. In total, the two groups represent 44 states and Washington, D.C. that will adopt online testing by 2014.

According to the SETDA guidelines, schools that have purchased technology recently, especially mobile or portable devices, will most likely be able to implement online testing easily. But the guidelines bring into question how feasible online testing will be for all schools, especially those with older technology and smaller budgets. SETDA warns that schools spending less than 5 percent of their budgets on technology will have trouble meeting existing and future needs for online testing. And additional money will also most likely be needed for technology coaches, technical support personnel, software, and new computers or tablets as older ones wear down.

At least 33 states are already offering one or more state tests through technology, with challenges and varying levels of success. Chaos ensued when Wyoming switched to online testing in 2010, leading to a lawsuit against Pearson, the company hired to administer the test. But some experts contend that online testing will prepare students for 21st century jobs, and can help teachers. “Adaptive testing is really beneficial and can pinpoint a student’s learning level more closely,” Gerri Marshall, supervisor of research and evaluation for a Wilmington, Del. school district that piloted digital testing, told Education Week.