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.

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.