Adult Education

Regents extend "safety net" for new teacher certification test after union lobbying

Aspiring New York State teachers won’t have to pass a new, tougher certification test this year or next year, thanks to a Board of Regents vote on Tuesday that resulted from last-minute negotiations with the state teachers union.

The “safety net” deal means that teacher candidates in graduate schools of education will have to pass the new, video-based assessment starting in the 2015-2016 academic year. Until then, candidates who fail the assessment, called the edTPA, can get certified if they pass an easier paper-based exam, according to the new guidelines.

The delay came in response to pressure from New York State United Teachers, which represents education professors in the city and state university systems. State lawmakers also proposed legislation to force the delay if Regents did not pass one on its own.

State officials have recently revised teacher certification standards as one of many initiatives to improve teacher training. The reforms, tied to federal Race to the Top grants, came in response to widespread criticism that colleges of education were focused too much on education theory and not enough on preparing teachers for the realities of the job.

One change was the introduction of the edTPA, an exam with a focus on practical skills like classroom management that was developed by Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond and now being used in dozens of states. This year was the first time candidates were required to record themselves teaching as part of the assessment process.

But the state teachers union argued that candidates had trouble getting permission to record video in schools, making it hard to collect the large volume of video evidence needed for edTPA. Another issue was that some education schools weren’t making changes to their own curriculum to prepare students for the skills that edTPA measured.

NYSUT also said that New York state has moved faster than other states to implement the new exams, and lobbied Regents to slow down their plans until candidates are better prepared.

The delay is a concession for State Education Commissioner John King, who pointed out on Tuesday that Regents had already delayed implementing edTPA by a year. He had favored a more stringent “safety net” proposal that would have still required failing teachers to pass the new assessment. King’s proposal was to allow teachers who failed edTPA to get an “initial certification” that would expire within two years.

King’s also wanted any proposal only to affect this year’s graduate students, but the union convinced him to extend it to next year’s cohort as well.

King’s acquiescence to the final proposal could also be seen as a gesture of goodwill from the commissioner, who earlier this month received a symbolic vote of no confidence by the NYSUT board. The union now has new leadership, and King said he wanted to get their relationship off on the right foot.

“We certainly want to make sure that we are listening to feedback from stakeholders,” King said. “In particular, we want to make sure that we move forward productively with our partners … at NYSUT, and they expressed a desire for us to try to modify the safety net.”

Of the 3,000 candidates who took the edTPA this year, 18 percent failed, according to the state education department. Just 2 percent failed the paper-based exam that edTPA will eventually replace.

Union officials praised the changes, which include the creation of a task force to monitor edTPA as more candidates take it to determine if further changes are needed.

“This agreement protects students in teacher education programs who followed the rules, successfully completed their teacher preparation programs and feared having their future plans derailed,” said Catalina Fortino, a NYSUT vice president.

But deans in charge of some education programs said delaying edTPA went too far. Deborah Shanley, dean of the Brooklyn College School of Education, said that of all the new certification requirements, her students had the least amount of trouble with the edTPA. Most of them, she said, were struggling to pass the Academic Literacy Skills Test, a reading and writing exam.

“The video performance assessment was one thing that I found the most comprehensive,” said Shanley.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.