Teaching teachers

Regents discuss revamping New York state teacher certification requirements

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

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.”

Here We Go

House education committee greenlights increasing funding for kindergarten, banning corporal punishment

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Kim Ursetta works with a student in her classroom at Denver's Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy.

The Colorado House Education Committee on Monday gave bipartisan blessing to two bills that would increase funding for kindergarten in the state’s public schools and ban corporal punishment in schools and child care centers.

The bill to fund the state’s kindergarten programs in public schools, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, is expected to be short-lived given the state’s fiscal constraints. If Wilson’s bill were to become law, it would cost the state more than $42 million. The state currently is funding schools at a $830 million deficit.

The state currently gives schools about $5,000 for every kindergarten student. However, schools receive more than $8,000 for every student in grades one through 12. Wilson’s bill would work toward closing that gap.

“We say we can’t afford it. Well, guess what? Our districts can’t afford it either,” Wilson said.

Most of the state’s school districts offer full-day kindergarten. However, some rely on charging tuition while others divert federal funds to make up the difference.

The bill passed 12-4 with Rep. Lang Sias, an Arvada Republican, joining all the Democrats on the Democratic-controlled committee. But committee members were well aware of the bill’s likely fate.

A similar bill sponsored by Lakewood Democrats Sen. Andy Kerr and Rep. Brittany Pettersen  has already been sent to the Senate’s state affairs committee, where it’s expected to die. The difference between the two bills: Kerr’s and Pettersen’s bill would ask voters to approve a tax increase to pay for kindergarten.

The bill to prohibit corporal punishment, sponsored by Denver Democrat Rep. Susan Lontine, would outlaw using physical punishment for children in public schools and private child care centers. That would extend to small licensed day cares run out of private homes.    

Colorado is one of 19 states that does not currently ban physical violence used as punishment in schools or day cares. Lontine’s bill, which passed on an 11-2 vote, would end such practices, which are rare.

“If you did this at home, it’d be child abuse,” Lontine said. “But if you did it in school, it’d be corporal punishment and it’d be allowed.”

According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, nearly 500 incidents of corporal punishment were reported in Colorado. However, that data was called into question when Michael Clough, superintendent of the Sheridan School District, said the 400 cases his district mistakenly reported the data.

“We have not and we do not have corporal punishment,” he said. “It does seem like we need work with data collection.”

Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, attempted to amend the bill that would recognize local school district policies. However, that amendment was defeated on a party-line vote.

Pettersen, the committee’s chairwoman, and other Democrats expressed interest in taking a second look at the amendment when the bill is debated by the entire House of Representatives. They want to ensure that every school district was meeting a state standard.

Monday’s meeting of the House Education Committee marked the first time this session education related bills were discussed. The session is expected to be largely defined by the budget debate and how educators respond to the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  

a unifying force

Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver

A crowd estimated at more than 100,000 filled Denver streets and Civic Center Park (Andy Cross, The Denver Post).

Upset about the election result and wanting to act, Cheetah McClellan was excited to learn that women from across the country were planning to march on Washington, D.C., the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Then she checked out prices on flights and hotel rooms, and remembered she was earning a beginning teacher’s salary.

Maybe, she thought, Denver ought to have its own women’s march. After searching fruitlessly online for anyone planning such a thing, McClellan created a Facebook event page, shared it with some left-leaning social media sites and waited.

Cheetah McClellan (photo by Stan Obert).

By the next morning, 800 people had signed up for an event that was more of an idea at that point.

Not long after, McClellan connected with a couple of similarly inspired local women — Karen Hinkel and Jessica Rogers — and plans for the Women’s March on Denver became to take shape.

On Saturday, a larger-than-anticipated crowd of more than 100,000 filled Denver streets and Civic Center Park in a display of what organizers described as a united front for equality and women’s rights after Trump’s ascension to the White House.

McClellan, 42, came to teaching later in life after working as a bartender, waitress and astrologer who did readings and wrote a column about astrology, she said. McClellan completed her teacher licensure through a University of Colorado Denver residency program, and is now pursuing a master’s in culturally and linguistically diverse education.

This school year, McClellan is doing math intervention work on a one-year contract at Colfax Elementary School in Denver, which has a large number of Latino students living in poverty.

We caught up with McClellan after the march she helped lead. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What led you to become a teacher?

Life just kind of pulled me in that direction. I was volunteering at my kids’ school, doing writing groups with kids. The school secretary said, “Do you want a job?” So I became a paraprofessional. Then I decided I wanted to be a teacher.

There is something so beautiful about a child’s mind that is just so wide open and eager to learn. There is nothing more fulfilling to me that hearing, “Miss, I get it.”

Why did you invest so much energy in the organization of this march? What motivated you?

I have always considered myself to be politically aware and informed. I’ve always voted, I try to be vocal and have conversations with people. But I never was super-active. Last year, I was doing student teaching for my residency. Even before Trump was the (Republican) nominee, kids were scared. I was working with fourth graders, and literally every single day a student would ask me a question about Trump that revolved around fear. “Will they really deport us? Will my mom and dad have to go back to Mexico?” While we want students to be aware of politics, they were not just aware of it, they will emotionally affected by it. They were scared. That just really bothered me. The day after the election, the whole fifth-grade class was sobbing.

My son has Asperger Syndrome. So when Trump mocks a disabled person, it irks you. My daughter identifies with the LGBT community. She said she was so scared. All this got me mad.

Have you brought any of your work organizing the march into the classroom, used it in your teaching in any way?

Some of the kids know what I’ve been doing. But it’s not something I have been able to discuss in more of an academic way. Moving forward, I am actively looking for a teaching position next year and I’m definitely excited to bring this into the classroom — especially in Colorado, where we have such a rich history of the women’s movement. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. Continuing to empower girls at the same time educating boys that empowered girls are not a threat: That’s how I’d like to incorporate it into the classroom. This is definitely something that is not ending.

So what does come next?

We are working to create a nonprofit organization out of this. We want to move forward with it but we’re not sure exactly how it’s going to look like at this point. I am hoping it becomes a platform for community networking and — as I have called it — legislative meddling. We want to make sure we have an impact on laws and the legislative process as citizens.

Beyond that, on a broader level what do you hope will come out of the energy and enthusiasm?

I hope to see people just continue to be active in their community. We’ve gotten into a bad habit of hiding behind our keyboard, hiding behind social media. We have tensions in our communities. We still have a lot of racial tensions in our communities. What you saw Saturday was all these different people coming out because they care about a central issue. We have to continue that — to try to find opportunities for people to sit in the same room together and work together on issues they care about.

The march was a sea of signs. Did you have a favorite?

That is a hard question. I loved them all. One of my favorites was a small sign by a man that said, “Gay, Muslim and fifth-generation Coloradan.” I just felt, “Wow.” It was the simplicity of it, and him just saying, “This is who I am.”

What do you say to those who think the marches are sour grapes about a lost election, and that this ultimately won’t make any difference? 

I would say, look at the history books. Take a class on civics. When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, that inspired John F. Kennedy to take a different approach to the civil rights movement.On Saturday, we had numerous state legislators marching with us and on stage. It sends a strong message to those in power. And it also unites the community.

OK, I need to ask. Is “Cheetah” a nickname? Where did that come from?

It’s an old bowling nickname. It has been around for about 25 years. That’s who I am.

Any closing thoughts?

One of the larger messages I’d like to pass along is you don’t have to be someone special or a board member or a politician to impact real change in your community. You just have to be a little bit brave and a little bit crazy.