First Person

Voices: Reforming teacher licensure

Colorado education researcher Robert Reichardt questions a couple key findings in a report by The New Teacher Project that he believes will play a key role in revamping Colorado’s teacher licensure system. 

A recent Education News Colorado article notes that reforming teacher licensure is on the governor’s priority list for the upcoming legislative session. The focus on licensure has been building for some time and makes sense given state’s new model teacher evaluation system. I expect a core part of the agenda for licensure reform will come from a report on Colorado’s licensure system called Making Licensure Matter by The New Teacher Project (TNTP).

The report identifies several important challenges facing our licensure system. These include outdated licensure standards, the wasted effort of a renewal process based on continuing education credits, the new and emerging roles for leadership in schools and that the licensure office at the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has faced some huge administrative log jams and delays.

However, some significant challenges were missed, including engaging our best teachers as supervisors of student teachers and interns and licensure’s divided governance between CDE and the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE). Equally important, it does not recognize the contextual changes created by standards-based accountability, which has increased district and school interest in teacher quality.

I am not confident that two of the report’s main recommendations move us in the right direction. First is the recommendation to swap out the four-level licensure scheme (alternative, initial, professional and masters) for a two-level scheme (teacher and transition). The second is to implement a new – unproven – exit performance exam as a key quality control and feedback measure within the system.

Before I dive into alternatives that should be considered, it is helpful to review what teacher licensure actually does. At its core, licensure accomplishes four things:

  1. It is how the state instructs teacher preparation programs on what should be included in that preparation through accreditation.
  2. It helps districts identify qualified candidates and communicate to parents that teachers are qualified.
  3. It helps support the professionalization of the teaching profession.
  4. It sets minimum standards for content knowledge (through assessments and/or course completion) and safety (through background criminal record checks).

Instead of the proposed to-be-developed performance assessment, I think districts and schools should have a direct role in providing quality control and accreditation of teacher preparation programs. This would give the consumers of new teachers, those with direct evidence on preparation quality, a much larger role in accrediting a preparation program instead of having the state act as an agent for schools and districts trying to discern quality.

Administration of program accreditation should be directed by a board composed of district and school representatives. Have this board give guidance to and accreditation of teacher preparation programs based on the quality of new graduates hired from these programs and emerging needs facing these districts. This guidance could occur within the frameworks of the state’s new expectations for teachers. This would also invest schools and districts in the process of providing high quality intern and student teaching supervisors. This new engagement structure recognizes that our new standards-based accountability systems give schools and districts increased awareness and interest in increasing the quality of teacher preparation systems.

My other recommendation is to keep the three main levels of the current licensure structure (initial, professional and masters). Currently, the initial license is correlated with tenure status, which is growing in importance as part of SB-191. This connection should be strengthened with the initial status directly tied to whether a teacher is granted tenure (or loses tenure) based on performance evaluations. The master certification should also be retained. This certification is directly tied to National Board of Professional Teaching Standards certification. This is one of our few tools that have been shown to identify effective educators.  The state should not move away from this important reform that clearly does support the professionalization of the profession.

Our licensure system is ripe for re-assessment. The TNTP report is a great start to this conversation. I hope we have the ability to re-fashion our licensure to better meet the challenges facing our education system.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk