Future of Teaching

Licensing panel finishes work; divisions remain

Lawmakers working on teacher licensing legislation finally got some formal – but mixed – advice from a panel that’s been studying the issue since early August.

Sen. Mike Johnston makes a point during LEAD Compact discussion.
Sen. Mike Johnston makes a point during LEAD Compact discussion.

Members of the group, formally known as the LEAD Compact, wrapped up their work this week during two days of meetings in Keystone, with many of the concerns and differences that surfaced at the start last summer still on the table as the snow fell outside the conference room.

The key question that’s divided compact members has been whether teacher ratings given under the new educator evaluation system should be used as factors in license renewal.

The group voted Tuesday on a summary of its discussions (it can’t really be called a “proposal”). The document includes limited us of teacher evaluations, specifically if a teacher chose to move from a professional to a master license. Seeking a master license would be optional, so a teacher could remain at professional status for an entire career.

Members (about two dozen of the 35 members attended the final meeting) signaled their views about sections of the document by raising colored paddles – green for agreement, yellow for basic agreement with questions or suggestions and red for unable to support.

On some of the more sensitive sections a third or more of paddles showed yellow or red.

The green-yellow-red exercise marked the end of a debate that’s been prolonged and that has stalled at times as members of the group struggled to reconcile opposing views about a variety of issues related to teacher preparation, support, professional development and licensing.

It wasn’t intended that the group come up with a concrete proposal for possible legislation. Rather, the panel was designed to be a forum for discussion on licensing after Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, pulled the plug on a licensing bill he’d thought about introducing during the 2013 legislative session.

That draft, which included a link between license renewal and evaluation results, had sparked considerable anxiety in segments of the education community.

Do your homework

In political terms, it was hoped the compact would reach shared views on at least some teacher preparation and licensing issues, potentially reducing the level of conflict and lobbying should a licensing bill be introduced during the 2014 legislative session. Whether that happens remains to be seen.

The group’s members included a wide variety of people representing mainline education interest groups, reform-oriented organizations, teacher prep programs and higher education, plus teachers, principals, other administrators and legislators. The panel was created by Johnston and Gov. John Hickenlooper, funded by the Donnell-Kay and Rose Community foundations and staffed by facilitators from the Keystone Center.

While some members made it clear they still have concerns, Johnston was upbeat about the process, calling it “a really great testimony to what happens when you bring good people together.” He added that he has “a real sense of accomplishment” about the compact’s work. “We’re in a much different place than we could have imagined” and have much more agreement than might have been expected at the start, he said.

In areas where the group didn’t substantially agree, “That leaves us to solve the problems,” Johnston said, referring to himself and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, his likely cosponsor on any licensing legislative next year.

“We were trying to listen to what we heard from you all over the last several months,” Hamner said.

Use of evaluation in licensing – even in a limited form – is likely to remain a sticking point.

“The message is pretty clear from the field – no connection with Senate Bill 191 whatsoever,” observed compact member Michael Clough, superintendent of the Sheridan schools. (SB 10-191 is the law that created the new annual evaluation standards being rolled out statewide this year.)

Groups like the Colorado Education Association, Colorado Association of School Boards and Colorado Association of School Executives are among those concerned about such a linkage because their members feel the new evaluation system is untested and wasn’t designed to be used for licensing decisions.

“There are plenty of parts of this [document] that I don’t like either,” Johnston said. “We’re at the stage now where it gets passed to Millie and me.”

Details on three proposed licenses

The suggested new system outlined in the compact’s document would include three types of licenses – initial, professional and master. Here are the details:

Initial – A prospective teacher could earn this license by completing a university teacher preparation program, a teacher residency program or an approved alternative prep program. The proposal also would create a fourth pathway, called “alternative 2,” under which a candidate for a “hard to staff” or rural teaching job could get a license with a bachelor’s degree, a background check and passage of a test or other demonstration of content knowledge. Such a license would be good for three years. Some compact members are uncomfortable with the alternative 2 idea.

Professional – A teacher with an initial license could advance to professional by successfully completing three years of professional development as directed by the teacher’s evaluations or by a passing score on the new edTPA test. (See this EdWeek article for more details on that test.)

Master – This new license would be optional. A teacher could earn it by having three years of “highly effective” ratings under the SB 10-191 system or by having three years of “effective ratings” and passing the edTPA test or becoming a nationally board certified teacher. Becoming a master teacher would make a person eligible for various career opportunities such as becoming a mentor teacher.

In no case would evaluations be used for license revocation.

The current state system includes emergency, initial and professional licenses, with different qualifications.

The group also was polled on several less-detailed proposals related to teacher preparation programs, professional development, data gathering and other issues.

Tuesday’s final compact session produced a brief surprise, supplied by former Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster, a compact member who recently resigned her seat to avoid a recall.

Hudak wondered why the group wasn’t discussing the issue of charter school teachers, who don’t necessarily have to be licensed.

“Either you believe licensure is important for quality or you don’t,” she said.

“This is obviously a new issue,” said facilitator Janesse Brewer, looking a bit taken aback.

“I always appreciate the senator raising questions like that,” Hamner said calmly. “I’m not sure if I want to reopen charter school law.”

That ended that discussion.

hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, last week. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However, teachers attending the monthly meeting disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology.