In the Classroom

Educators warn dual credit courses could dry up after rule change for teachers

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A glimpse at Bluffton High School’s course schedule shows just how seriously it is taking a mandate to prepare students for college. Students can choose from 18 college courses to take during the school day, and those courses enroll dozens of students at the small school just south of Fort Wayne.

But new rules could knock those course offerings down to just one: precalculus.

The rule change is meant to bolster the quality of teaching in “dual-credit” courses, which can count for both high school and college credit, by restricting who can teach them. But it could have serious unintended consequences in Bluffton and across Indiana.

“We were told, ‘Push for dual credit, push for dual credit, we need to be doing more,’” said Bluffton Principal Steve Baker. “We feel like the rug is being pulled from underneath us.”

Indiana law requires high schools to offer dual-credit courses as a way to ensure that graduates are prepared for college, and high schools partner with local colleges to design the courses and decide who can teach them. Last year, 2,908 teachers — with a range of credentials — taught nearly 3,500 dual credit courses in high schools across the state.

But in Indiana and 19 other states, a third-party group called the Higher Learning Commission governs many elements of the courses. That group recently announced that starting in 2017, dual-credit teachers will have to have master’s degrees in the subjects they teach or have extensive training in those subjects and a master’s degree in another area.

The decision to raise the bar for dual-credit teachers comes at a time when Indiana has veered away from pushing teachers to earn master’s degrees — and when some districts say they are having trouble finding enough teachers at all.

“If it happens and it stays that way, it would just be one of the biggest mistakes and most harm we’ve done to our students in quite some time,” Baker said about the rule change.

Baker is not alone in his distress, according to Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. He said school leaders across the state had told him the change would hurt their ability to offer the college-level courses.

“Every — literally every — principal I’ve talked to, and in some cases superintendent, has said we’ll have a very, very limited amount of teachers able to teach dual credit,” Bess said.

The Higher Learning Commission, one of six organizations that accredit American colleges and universities, said in a statement that the rule change is meant to ensure that college courses are challenging no matter where they are taken.

“An expert faculty member is a critical element in ensuring that dual enrollment students have a college experience that is as rigorous as the college experience they would have had by taking the same class on campus from a college faculty member,” the statement said. “A college or university must assure [sic] that faculty members teaching dual credit courses hold the same minimal qualifications as the faculty teaching on its own campus.”

Indeed, concerns about quality control in dual-credit courses have grown as states have expanded the courses rapidly, inspired by a growing body of research showing that they benefit all kinds of students, including those who might not seem ready for college-level work.

But Janet Boyle, executive director of the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis, said the commission’s focus on teachers’ credentials is not the best way to ensure consistent high quality.

“Does having a master’s make you automatically a better teacher? There’s not a lot of proof on that one,” she said. “But at the same time, more education is always good. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.”

A better approach, Boyle said, is one that many schools operating dual credit programs in the state already take: collaborating vigilantly with university partners on teacher training, curriculum, final exams and even textbooks for their classes.

Boyle said university officials across the state are as concerned as high school principals about the potential impact of the Higher Learning Commission’s rule change. But she said it’s hard to come up with a local solution to a problem introduced by an outside organization.

The Higher Learning Commission responded to questions about why the rule change occurred in a statement. It delivered additional guidance to states today, but Boyle said it wasn’t as clear-cut as she was hoping. Mainly, the updated guidelines reaffirmed the commission’s stance on faculty qualifications.

“There’s still some holes in things,” Boyle said. “This is the begining of Indiana’s discussion … so what do we do about this? Do we push it any more? Do we let it stand?”

If the rule stands, Boyle said another solution could be for legislators to reinstate incentives for teachers to pursue master’s degrees, which they removed in 2011 as part of a broader overhaul of how Indiana teachers are paid. Universities could also develop short-term courses to give teachers with master’s degrees the credentials they need to teach dual-credit courses in their subject, she said.

“I think it’s going to take a coalition of both the (Indiana) Commission on Higher Education and (Indiana) Department of Education and universities and high schools to hammer some of this out,” Boyle said. “There needs to be a leadership group on this to make sure there are policy changes, if we need to go to the General Assembly. I think you’re going to see people pulling together on this.”

Boyle is scheduled to speak to legislators about the issue on Oct. 19, but Indiana’s Commission on Higher Education is expected to hold a meeting of its Dual Credit Advisory Council to discuss the issue further with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz on Tuesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

For now, Baker and other principals are starting to figure out what it would take to get their dual-credit teachers to meet the new standards. Many of them share a feeling of resentment toward the Higher Learning Commission, which they believe failed to consider students, teachers, and families when setting the new rule.

“This is a faceless organization that has handed down some very unfair rules, and now we’re left scrambling on how to deal with it,” Baker said. “I’m not really sure people understand how much this has dealt a blow to high schools who have worked really hard to get here.”

Read to be Ready

McQueen takes stock of Tennessee’s literacy campaign after first year

A year ago, Tennessee began a quest to address its lagging literacy rate.

It started with its youngest readers through an initiative called Read to be Ready. The goal was to change the state’s approach to reading instruction beyond alphabet recognition to “authentic” experiences in which students read to learn — and for fun.

On Thursday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen took stock of the progress after one year, laying out next steps that will focus on classroom instruction and teacher support.

The initiative, she said, must outlive its funding, which includes $4.2 million that pays mostly for a literacy coaching network and an additional $30 million for reading camps to serve 30,000 students during the next three summers.

Year Two will be about “building the framework” that can be used for years to come to teach Tennessee’s youngest students to read.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
McQueen holds up a report detailing the second year of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

“We know the gains that we want to make will not happen overnight,” she said during a celebration event in Nashville attended by about 120 stakeholders. “The reason I’m truly optimistic is the success we have started seeing in such a short period of time.”

Researchers found that schools participating in the state’s new literacy coaching network invested significantly more time in reading comprehension last year in grades K-2 — 67 percent, compared to 37 percent in 2015.

But Tennessee has a heavy lift ahead. Only a third of its fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. The state wants to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

The new network of literacy coaches sprawls across two-thirds of the state’s districts and includes 200 teacher-coaches. Working with other teachers, they select texts designed to engage and challenge students to practice more on reading and writing, and less on filling out worksheets.

“That’s why we’re investing so much in you as teachers and educators, saying your knowledge matters,” McQueen said.

Michael Ramsey, an instructional coach in Grainger County, is already seeing changes at his elementary school.

“With the coaching network, teachers have the opportunity to reflect and take (instruction) to the next step,” he said.

But, “it takes time,” Ramsey said of training the teachers and working with students. He urged state and local leaders to “just stay consistent and give us time.”

How I Teach

When the class is off-task, this fourth-grade teacher knows it’s probably time for Justin Timberlake

PHOTO: Cynthia Rimmer
Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, works with students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

For Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary in Granby, building relationships with students is one of the best parts of the job. She eats lunch with them, reads to them, asks about their hobbies and attends their out-of-school events when possible.

Rimmer is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I love helping kids: to learn, to reach their goals, to realize their dreams, to help them to develop into the people they are capable of becoming.

I had several teachers growing up that made a big impact on my life, but none was more influential than my third grade teacher, Ms. Deanna Masciantonio. She not only taught me about space and fractions, but more importantly, she taught me how to communicate and resolve conflict, and how treat friends. She made us feel special and valued. I still carry her lessons with me today.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a warm and organized space where everyone can feel comfortable learning and working together. Student writing and artwork is displayed on the walls and there are a variety of seating options where students can go to work independently or collaboratively in partners or in groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Sense of humor. Teaching children can be overwhelming at times. It is important to be able to take a step back, remember what is important, and enjoy the moments we have with these incredible young students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Last year, my teaching partner and I worked with our physical education teacher to create a project where students researched topics related to the Coordinated School Health Standards. While the students created their projects, I was able to address a variety of English Language Arts standards, as well as working on the students’ technology and presentation skills.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I have tried to create an environment where students are encouraged to take academic risks and mistakes are celebrated. When someone doesn’t grasp a concept, we work together to understand things in new and different ways, making sure to address the student’s variety of learning styles.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
When individual students are talking or off task, often times they simply need a quick pat on the shoulder or a friendly reminder to refocus. Some students may need a quick brain break or a few laps on the exercise bike to get back on track.

When the entire class is off task, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Often times the directions were unclear, or the students were being pushed too hard, and we all need to make time for a brain boost. But sometimes, we just need to stop and dance. Our favorite class dance break this year is Justin Timberlake’s, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” After a few minutes of singing and dancing, the students are ready to tackle the most challenging math problems.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Building relationships with students is one of the most important and one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. Talking to the students, having lunch together, telling them about myself, reading to them, getting to know about their interests and hobbies, and letting them see that I am a real person all help build healthy relationships. I also try to attend the students’ outside events whenever possible, which I’ve found goes a long way in creating a trusting and long-lasting relationship.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In one memorable meeting, a parent requested that I move her son into a more challenging reading group. Although test scores and classroom observations didn’t dictate this switch, the parent shared some struggles that the family had recently dealt with that she felt were holding her son back from doing his best.

After I changed her child’s grouping on a trial basis, the student began to flourish. He developed more confidence and began to work harder, quickly becoming a role model and a positive leader. Parents love their children and want what’s best for them. When we take the time to partner with parents and understand where they are coming from, great things can happen.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullay Hunt. I enjoy reading the books my students are reading so that we can discuss our excitement for the stories together. I recently started My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I enjoyed his book A Man Called Ove and I hope this book will just as charming.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
About 20 years ago I was considering pursuing another career. A trusted friend and mentor advised me to re-enter the teaching profession. I can’t thank her enough for that wise counsel.