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.