teacher prep

Department of Education wants the state to let it certify teachers

If the Department of Education gets its way, new teachers won’t have to enroll in local colleges or universities to get certification to work in city schools.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s second in command, said today that the department would ask the state for permission to certify teachers internally by using top educators to train new recruits in shortage areas. Currently, teachers must either have completed an education certification program at a college or university or be enrolled in one.

Traditional teacher preparation programs have not produced enough special education or science teachers to fill the city’s needs, Polakow-Suransky said. Reforms to the way students with disabilities are served this year have pushed the city to offer current teachers an incentive to take classes that would allow them to lead special education classes.

“We don’t want to have to depend on a university in order to train our teachers,” he said this afternoon. “Already, we’re having to retrain many teachers when they come into the system because they don’t have the skills that they need.”

State officials say they will consider the city’s application when it is formally filed. But if approved, the proposal would build on several other changes to teacher preparation rules that the state has rolled out in recent years in response to growing criticism that teachers trained in the traditional way are not always up to par.

In 2009, state officials announced that alternative certification programs such as Teach for America would become eligible to certify teachers without partnering with a college or university to provide training, as they always had. This past June, the American Museum of Natural History became the first non-graduate school to gain state permission to certify teachers.

Last year, a new graduate school of education, Relay GSE, opened with an exclusive mission of training teachers while they are already working in schools; several charter school networks now use it to train their teachers exclusively, and some district teachers attend as well. The state is currently in the process of adopting new certification standards that focus more on real teaching and less on written tests and other benchmarks to prove competence.

But no district has yet been granted permission to certify its own teachers. Such a move would grant an unprecedented level of authority to local education officials while heightening competition with existing teacher preparation programs.

Under the proposal, which the city has not yet made formally, the department would fast-track teachers into the classroom for areas where more teachers are needed, including special education and science. They would work in thriving schools alongside strong teachers who would serve as instructors in an arrangement similar to that of small-scale residency programs that the city introduced last year.

The difference would be that no higher education institution would have to be involved, saving both teachers and the city on tuition while freeing up more of teachers’ time to focus on on-the-ground needs.

Polakow-Suransky announced the proposal while testifying before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission this afternoon during a meeting that was held at a teaching college, Bank Street College of Education.

“While we have some really powerful partnerships with higher education, the capacity to drive teacher development exists within the system,” Polakow-Suransky said. He added, “I don’t think the higher education programs are going away, and that wouldn’t be my intention.”

The program would not award master’s degrees and would not supplant the city’s longstanding Teaching Fellows program, which brings new teachers into the classroom full-time while also requiring them to take classes at local universities. But Polakow-Suransky left open the possibility that a department-run certification program could expand in the future.

“This would be initially small because we have to prove that we can do this well,” he said. “Who knows where it will lead in the long run?”

Jon Snyder, a dean at Bank Street, said during the commission meeting it would be a mistake to let all of the certification power rest with either higher education or the city alone, because a major problem facing teacher training is the fact that pre-service training does not match up with in-service needs. “We are going to recreate our existing problem” if the city gains more authority over teacher certification, he said.

The city has already had informal conversations about the proposal with Commissioner John King, Polakow-Suransky said. “He didn’t say no. He didn’t say yes either.”

Today, King said, “We’ll review what the city is proposing. Our top priority is to ensure that new teachers have content knowledge and instructional skills to successfully prepare people for college and careers.”

But Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said the proposal deserved consideration because it aims to solve a problem — a shortage of teachers in certain areas — that has existed for decades at least.

“You can’t just keep identifying the same problem areas and tread water on difficult questions and say you are moving the system forward,” Tisch said. “Everything needs to be on the table.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.