Teaching teachers

Regents discuss revamping New York state teacher certification requirements

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Memphis teacher Tanya Hill encourages a student at Kate Bond Elementary School.

New York may ease the burden on prospective educators by overhauling what critics contend is a difficult and costly teacher certification process.

On Tuesday, the Board of Regents discussed a set of recommendations proposed by a group of education officials and experts charged with evaluating the state’s current requirements. The state began to discuss strengthening certification exams in 2009 in an attempt to raise standards for those entering the teaching profession.

But some critics say those changes went too far and have become roadblocks, particularly for low-income aspiring teachers and those of color.

Prospective teachers in New York state have to clear four certification hurdles, demonstrating teaching skills, content knowledge and reading comprehension.

The proposed changes, which the policymaking body will likely vote on at a future meeting, include reviewing the passing score for the certification test, providing more vouchers to cover the exam’s cost, and possibly eliminating an exam that has produced significantly lower passing rates for black and Hispanic aspiring teachers.

Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said the students who stand to benefit are often high-quality applicants faced with unfair testing constraints.

“These are students who have gotten very high scores … Their GREs [a graduate school entrance test] were through the roof,” Rosa said. “These were exceptional students and many of them students of color”

The state’s teachers union quickly praised the recommendations for maintaining rigor and eliminating unnecessary obstacles.

“The task force recommendations strike the right balance. If the Regents adopt them — and we urge them to do that — the new requirements will help to ensure that aspiring teachers know their subject area and how to teach it,” said NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino in a statement. “At the same time, it reduces some of the costs associated with these Pearson tests and eliminates an unnecessary and duplicative exam.”

The group called for state officials to potentially “recalibrate” the passing score on the edTPA, a test that requires prospective teachers to submit portfolios of work including lesson plans and a video of themselves teaching. And instead of relying entirely on test scores for those on the bubble, officials recommended considering additional factors like grade point average or a professor’s recommendation.

Part of the goal is likely to increase passing rates, since only 77 percent of aspiring teachers have passed the edTPA since its rollout in New York. Those who fail the test are still allowed to take the state’s previous exam, which reportedly yielded much higher pass rates.

Some Regents expressed concerns the changes could come across as lowered standards.

“We spent a lot of time talking about raising the bar,” said Regent Andrew Brown. “As I sat here and listened, it does sound like, at times, we’re talking about making it easier.”

But Regent Kathleen Cashin, who chairs the board’s committee on higher education, argued that revising the standards is fair since the exam is new and requires a slow, more deliberate rollout.

“Phasing in and implementation is wise,” she said. “It’s not weakening.”

The Regents discussed giving prospective teachers more time to prepare for assessments and to practice their craft. Currently, only 40 days inside a classroom are required.

“In medicine, if we had 40 days of internship we wouldn’t make very good doctors,” said Regent James Cottrell, who is a medical doctor.

The task force also recommended taking a hard look at — and possibly eliminating — another certification exam, known as the “Academic Literacy Skills Test,” while exploring other ways for teachers to demonstrate their literacy skills.

That exam, which tests things like writing and reading comprehension, has proven disproportionately difficult for aspiring teachers of color to pass. In the 2013-14, only 48 percent of prospective black teachers and 56 percent of prospective Hispanic teachers passed the exam, compared to 75 percent of prospective white teachers.

Both the Board of Regents and New York City have launched programs to increase the number of educators of color, particularly men of color, entering the teaching profession. Creating a test that discourages those students is antithetical to the state’s mission, Regents said.

“Diversity is not an option,” Regent Cashin said. “It’s essential.”

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

PHOTO: TN.gov
Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.