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.”

try try again

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Vincent Gassetto, the principal M.S. 343, hugs a staff member after winning the Teaching Matters prize in July 2017.

Teachers at M.S. 343 in the South Bronx had a problem: Their lessons weren’t sticking.

Students initially would test well on fundamental concepts — such as multi-digit long division or calculating the rate of change. But that knowledge seemed to melt away on follow-up exams just months or even weeks later.

The solution that teachers developed, based on providing constant feedback to students and encouraging regular collaboration among staff, has helped M.S. 343 beat district averages on standardized tests. It has also landed the school a $25,000 prize.

This week, M.S. 343 won the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which is awarded to public schools that foster great teaching. Presented by the nonprofit Teaching Matters, the award money will go toward building a digital platform that students and teachers can use to track their progress from anywhere, at any time.

The work at M.S. 343 starts with determining which skills teachers will emphasize and test throughout the year. Working together, teachers draw on what they already know about which concepts are most likely to trip students up, contribute to success in later grades or appear on standardized tests. A key concept could be understanding ratios in sixth grade or mastering scientific notation by eighth grade.

“It’s all in the teachers’ hands,” said Principal Vincent Gassetto.

Students are regularly tested with “learning targets.” But they’re also given three chances to prove they’ve mastered the skills. Gassetto said the approach is backed by neuroscience, which suggests the best way to learn is to use the knowledge multiple times, instead of cramming for a single test.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important. And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable,” he said.

Only the highest score will be recorded, which serves a different purpose: boosting students’ confidence in themselves as learners.

“We’re celebrating their progress, not necessarily the end result,” math teacher Lola Dupuy explained in a video the school produced. “It can be very confusing for a student to receive a failing grade and very discouraging for them if they don’t know … what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to improve it.”

In between tests, each department comes together to analyze students’ answers. They zero in on common misconceptions and come up with a list of questions for students to ask themselves when reviewing their work.

Using the questions as a guide, it’s up to the students to figure out where they went wrong, often by working in groups with peers with varying skill levels.

“Students are more engaged in their work and the outcomes are better because they’re self-reflecting,” Dupuy said.

M.S. 343’s approach also gets at a common knock on testing: The results are rarely used to improve teaching and students often don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. At M.S. 343, teachers spend entire weeks meeting as a team to go over results and fine-tune their instruction. That time, Gassetto said, is a valuable resource.

“Most of the time, when you give a big assessment,” Gassetto said, “you’re testing, but for what purpose? We don’t do that. If we’re going to ask kids to sit down and take an assessment, we need to look at it and get it back to them right away, so it’s useful.”

draining the pool

New York City principals balk at plan to place teachers in their schools; some vow to get around it

PHOTO: Maura Walz
A social studies class at New Design High School, where Scott Conti is principal.

Many New York City principals are unhappy that the city is planning to place teachers directly into their schools — and in some cases, they’re vowing resistance.

Department of Education officials announced last week that they would place up to half of the 822 teachers who currently do not have positions into jobs that haven’t been filled by Oct. 15. Those teachers are part of the Absent Teacher Reserve, a collection of educators moved to the pool for disciplinary reasons or when their positions were eliminated. They remain on the city payroll in an arrangement that has generated political tension for years.

The move by the city reverses Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s promise in 2014 to avoid “forced placement” and raises questions about principals’ already fraying sense of autonomy. The city claims the plan is not forced placement because it would only apply to vacancies, as opposed to displacing teachers who are already employed. Regardless, many principals aren’t on board.

Some say they’ll avoid any attempt to place teachers at their schools, even if that means obscuring open jobs from the city’s hiring systems past October.

“I’m going to make sure my school doesn’t have a vacancy,” said one Bronx principal who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic. “I’m not going to post a vacancy if someone will place an ATR there. I’ll be as strategic as I can and figure out another way.”

Some principals raised concerns about the quality of the teachers in the pool. Education department officials could not readily provide the percentage of teachers in the pool who are there for disciplinary reasons, but a 2014 report estimated it at 25 percent. The same report said another third had received unsatisfactory ratings and half hadn’t held a classroom position in two years or more.

“Many of them have been coming from schools that have been closed down or subject areas that were cut,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “The majority of them were at schools that were highly dysfunctional.” He noted that some may have been out of the classroom for years and not getting proper professional development, effectively hindering their performance as teachers.

Conti said he did hire a teacher from the ATR pool three years ago, through the standard procedure he would use to hire other teachers. He objects to the idea of being forced to hire someone whose effectiveness he could not fully judge.

“It’s never good when somebody from outside a school decides to fill in a vacancy in a school,” Conti said. “ It’s scary that some teacher could be put in your school that you have no choice about.”

Other principals were more harsh. One Bronx principal said multiple experiences working with ATR teachers sent to the school for monthly rotations in the past left the impression that those in the reserve are “not qualified, with very few exceptions.” Other principals agreed, suggesting that if the teachers were high-quality candidates, they probably would have found positions on their own.

To circumvent the new policy, some principals said they might check in with all their teachers early in the hiring period to be aware of potential future vacancies. If there is a vacancy in October, others said they’d consider hiring a long-term substitute to fill the position rather than leaving it open to an ATR placement.

The city says the new approach will be more stable than having teachers in the ATR rotate monthly, and will allow schools to more closely support and supervise the teachers in their building. It plans to work closely with principals on the hiring.

“We will work to find the right fit, and hear and work through concerns that they might have,” education department spokesman Will Mantell told Chalkbeat last week. “But ultimately, we do have discretion to place an educator in a vacancy that exists, and it kind of makes sense.”

Schools will still have final say over whether the teachers are permanently hired. If at the end of the school year, the teacher is rated as “effective” or “highly effective” in the observation portion of their evaluation — performed by principals or other school administrators — that teacher will be permanently hired to that school.

It is unclear if any of the ATR teachers placed into schools this coming fall could have a background of poor disciplinary conduct, or if the teachers placed would come solely from the share that are in the pool because they were excessed.

“The DOE has discretion on which educators in the ATR pool are appropriate for long-term placement, and may choose not to assign educators who have been disciplined in the past,” education officials said.

Last year, the city offered an incentive system to encourage schools to hire from the ATR pool. During that school year, 372 teachers were hired from the ATR pool under a DOE policy that subsidized the cost of the teachers’ first-year salaries by 50 to 100 percent. Those incentives will not be offered with the placements expected this fall.

Daniel Russo, principal of Walton Avenue School in the Bronx, said he has had positive experiences with the two teachers he hired from ATR pool in previous years. He added that though ATR teachers sometimes have a gap because they are coming from a different school — and sometimes not a high-performing school — his school is able to fill that gap and assimilate the teacher to the school’s culture and expectations.

Still, he noted, finding the right fit between candidates and schools could be a “challenging undertaking” for the city.

New Design’s Conti fears that challenge will disproportionately fall on schools like his that struggle with fluctuating enrollment.

“These teachers are not going to end up at Lab, they will end up at places like New Design where the positions will open up,” Conti said, referring to the selective and successful NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies. “Schools with the most unstable populations, serving the neediest kids is where the low-functioning teachers will end up.”