Tiferes Bnos is an all-girls school located on the first floor of an apartment building near the border of the Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant sections of Brooklyn. It would be unsurprising if the school had a poor academic track record. None of the teachers went to college. All the students speak Yiddish as their first language. The vast majority of the schools 430 students are extremely poor. So are the teachers: the base teacher salary at the Orthodox Jewish school is just $6,000 dollars a year. The students spend less than half of the week studying math, reading, science and social studies; most of their class time is spent on religious instruction.
Yet for the past decade Principal Miriam Amsel, a soft-spoken mother of six who never finished college, has coaxed excellence out of both students and teachers.
In the 2008-09 school year, fourth-graders at Tiferes Bnos took state standardized tests for the first time. According to a state report provided by the school, 87 percent were proficient in English and 97 percent were proficient in math.
Amsel's secret, she said, is in-depth and constant on-the-job training for her teachers, which begins six months before they step foot into one of her classrooms. She sees her school's purpose as more than just educating students.
"We're here to educate teachers," she said.
Retraining the teaching force has become the mission of a national movement intent on raising student achievement in struggling schools. New teacher evaluation systems are ratcheting up accountability in numerous states, including New York, and as a result, principals are searching for ways to help their teachers improve. Little high-quality research exists on the best ways to train teachers, however, and many city principals rely on companies with no independent data on their effectiveness. But researchers have identified some promising strategies, and Tiferes Bnos has embraced them.
Anita Murphy, deputy superintendent in the Rochester public schools who previously worked in the New York State Department of Education, said she was wowed on a visit to the school last year. "She's very planned about how she delivers instruction to her teachers," Murphy said of Amsel. "It's not nonsense professional development."
Teachers at Tiferes Bnos use Socratic techniques to draw their students into heated discussions about the roles of power and money in history. Questions are the basis of education at Tiferes Bnos, Amsel says, for students and teachers alike.
Many of her recruits are teenagers -- young women not much older than the students they teach -- who live at home with their parents. Amsel turns away applicants who fail to ask any questions during the initial interview. The training is somewhat organic, however. She might assign a new teacher a video to watch, but then will wait for them to come to her with questions afterward.
"Training doesn't begin until there are questions," she said. "I like to let them lead the way."
The hallmark of Amsel's on-the-job training program is the monthly evaluation meeting. On an afternoon last summer, the Tiferes Bnos faculty gathered in a first-grade classroom wallpapered with charts written in a combination of Hebrew and English. After a long day, the teachers, modestly dressed in collared shirts and long skirts, pepped up by snacking on kosher candies and singing two rousing songs about the joys of teaching.
The principal started off the meeting, as she always does, with a critique of her own performance. Then, she spent most of the rest of the meeting listening. Teachers went around the circle, sharing obstacles they were facing and asking one another for advice about how to better monitor small-group work and manage their classrooms. More experienced teachers, a couple with several years on the job, shared ideas with the newcomers and offered to lead workshops about the topics that came up. Amsel suggested some books.
"They don't feel forced to grow, but they would feel out of place if they didn't," she said.
Although the school mainly relies on internal expertise for its professional development, Amsel also uses federal taxpayer money given to private schools that enroll low-income students to pay an outside consultant, Australian United States Services in Education. The largest provider in the city, AUSSIE comes in occasionally to help teachers with math, which is not Amsel's strength.
The focus on questioning that Amsel emphasizes in her teacher training is mirrored in the school's classrooms. On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, the hallways during recess were filled with laughter and shouts as a group of older girls in long navy dresses twirled a jump rope while little girls looked on. After the bell, teachers and students got serious. In one fifth-grade classroom, teacher Rivky Fisch led her students in a discussion about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 as a part of a unit on immigration.
Fisch, who is 23 and has worked at the school four years, asked the girls why they thought immigrants would have continued to work at a place where conditions were so terrible. The girls shook their hands in the air enthusiastically, but answered in barely audible whispers: Because they were poor and couldn't afford to buy land for a farm; a factory job was better than nothing; they needed the money. Then the girls, still whispering, argued about what the word "exploitation" meant. In response to Fisch's questioning, students volunteered theories until they landed on a definition.
Unlike at the city's public schools, college and career readiness are not the focus at Tiferes Bnos because Hasidic society strongly discourages its members from attending college. Nevertheless, Amsel and her teachers say that for their girls, a good education is important so they can be productive and thoughtful members of the community.
Many elements of success at the private school would not be easy to replicate in a public school: The students, as members of the insular Hasidic community, are mostly sheltered from the distractions, like television and video games, and problems, like single-parent homes, that many low-income students in public schools face. Girls as a group tend to do better academically than boys. And the songs Tiferes Bnos teachers sing to build cohesiveness and raise morale are not likely to catch on in the city's public schools.
"It turns out to be really difficult to translate school models that seem to work into new settings," said Jason Grissom, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, who has studied school reform and principal success. But Grissom said Tiferes Bnos may still offer some ideas from which public schools can learn.
"High-quality professional development is probably one of the few levers we know we can pull to influence how a teacher performs in the classroom," he said.
Although Amsel says she likes having inexperienced teachers whom she can mold, she doesn't cite work rules or young teachers as keys to her success. "I'm the chief learner," she says. "What's really powerful is they feel like they're the experts."
TEACHING THE TEACHERS: This story is part of a series on how teachers are trained and what we can learn from schools, districts and countries that excel at ongoing teacher training. Read the rest of the stories.
This story also appeared on WNYC's Schoolbook on October 25, 2012 as part of an exclusive collaboration.