educators of color

Denver’s newest group of teachers is its most diverse ever

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Ashley Elementary School third-grade teacher Tyrone Johnson works with his students in this 2011 photo.

Thirty percent of the nearly 750 new teachers who will join the Denver school district this fall are teachers of color, making this year’s class of recruits the most diverse in recent history.

Hiring more teachers of color has long been a goal for the urban district, where 76 percent of the 92,000 students last year were students of color but 73 percent of teachers were white.

The district’s newest hires bring that percentage down to 71.7 percent, district data shows. The change is slight, but it represents progress for a district that last year did not move the needle on the percentage of teachers of color, despite significant efforts to recruit diverse candidates.

Paige Harris is one of the 736 new teachers hired thus far by Denver Public Schools to teach in 2018-19 (the district is still filling some open positions), and one of 222 new teachers of color. She moved from California to take a job as a third-grade teacher at the Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment, an elementary school that serves many refugee students.

A Google search led Harris to Denver. She said it was important to her to work for a district that honors diversity, and when she came across a joint statement from the superintendent and the mayor welcoming refugee students to the district, “I knew I wanted to teach here.”

“I never had a teacher who looked like me,” said Harris, who is black. “It’s so important to see people of color in leadership roles. … That’s so powerful. That’s going to change the city.”

Research shows students of color benefit when they’re taught by teachers who share the same background. A recent study found black students from low-income families who have even one black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate high school.

District officials celebrated the diversity of the new hires Monday at a welcome event for teachers new to Denver Public Schools. About a third of the new teachers are brand-new to teaching and about two-thirds are experienced educators, officials said.

Of the 222 new teachers of color, 143 are Hispanic, 28 are black, 25 identify as two or more races, 21 are Asian, and 5 are Native American, according to district data.

“You all, this class of new teachers, is the most diverse class of new teachers ever in the Denver Public Schools,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg told a downtown theater filled with new teachers. “We worked very, very hard to recruit both nationally and grow our own folks locally.”

The district has used a variety of strategies to diversify its teacher workforce, including making recruiting trips to colleges and universities across the country that graduate high numbers of teachers of color, and launching a program that pays for teacher’s aides, most of whom are people of color, to earn a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license.

This year, district officials said recruiters made personal contact with prospective candidates earlier than ever before. The district also honed its messaging around why Denver Public Schools would be a great place to work, they said, including that Denver teachers get “deep professional support” through a program that has standout teachers coach their peers.

“The team personally engaged with candidates to help them realize what their potential and impact could be,” said Katie Clymer, the district’s director of talent acquisition.

The city of Denver has also taken an interest in recruiting more black and Latino teachers. A joint effort between Denver Public Schools and the city, called Make Your Mark, has resulted in a website that offers testimonials from current teachers of color, as well as information about living in Denver. Interested educators can upload their resumes right to the site.

“Teachers are one of the very few professionals who actually touch eternity,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, a Denver Public Schools graduate, told the teachers assembled in the theater Monday. “If I asked you to tell me about your first-grade teacher, I bet you could do it.”

Joseph Rojas Cascante is another of the district’s new teachers. He is from Costa Rica and will soon begin a job teaching English language learners at Kepner Beacon Middle School.

Rojas Cascante said that in his home country, he was simply seen as a teacher. Here in the United States, he said, he’s viewed as a teacher of color. He said he wants to represent the Hispanic community and serve as a role model, especially for young Hispanic boys.

“I want to lead by example,” Rojas Cascante said.

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.