Teaching teachers

Regents discuss revamping New York state teacher certification requirements

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Tanya Hill, a Teach Plus fellow and ESL teacher, encourages a student at Kate Bond Elementary School in Memphis.

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.”

Rally

This Tennessee teacher spoke at a rally in support of trans students. Here’s what he wants lawmakers to know.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
More than 100 protestors attended a rally in support of the state's transgender students at the state Capitol.

Months after he began teaching at Tennessee’s second-largest high school, Westlee Walker started a student group for LGBTQ students and their allies in response to a string of three student suicides.

“Students were coming to me, and they needed a safe space (to talk),” said Walker, in his second year of teaching at Nashville’s McGavock High School. “It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. … If a student doesn’t feel safe, they will not be able to learn.”

Walker joined more than 100 other Tennesseans Friday at a rally at the state Capitol in support of the state’s trans students. The Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, with students from across the state, organized the rally over a decision by President Trump’s administration to pull protections that allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.

Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon have filed a bill that would limit Tennessee transgender students to using the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate. Asked Monday about their proposal, Beavers declined to comment, and Pody did not immediately respond. However, some other state leaders have said such a bill is unnecessary, and that decisions about bathrooms should be made at the local level.

Several Tennessee students, parents and educators, including Walker, spoke at the rally. Rep. John Ray Clemmons and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both Nashville Democrats, also spoke, as did Nashville councilman Brett Withers.

Walker said he was glad to see state legislators at the event, and he extended an open for them to visit his class. He also extended the invitation to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

“Before I started teaching, I kind of assumed everyone had the same upbringing I did,” said Walker, who teaches agriculture science. “That’s just not the case. Students come from all different walks of life, not just LGBT students. I have students who are immigrants; I have students who are refugees. If I can just have one lawmaker sit in my class and hear the stories these kids are living at 14, 15 years old, it would completely change their perspective.”

Walker said that laws targeting any group of his students keep him from doing his job.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville teacher Westlee Walker speaks in support of his transgender students at a rally last Friday by the state Capitol in Nashville.

“If I cannot create that environment in my building, where a student who feels like they are alienated doesn’t feel safe, then I am failing as a teacher at a very basic level,” he said.

In light of the Trump administration’s decision, Director Shawn Joseph issued a statement reaffirming Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ policies aimed at protecting students and employees who say their gender identities are different from the ones on their birth certificates.

Shelby County Schools officials said in an emailed statement on Monday that district officials “will continue to closely follow the development of the law on this subject and await guidance from the State’s General Assembly and Board of Education before issuing a formal opinion about whether changes should be made to the District’s current practices.”

Until then, the statement continues, “Shelby County Schools will continue working with families individually to ensure all of our students’ educational needs are properly addressed.”

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”