In the Classroom

Demand falls flat for controversial teaching permit so far

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana has an early answer to a heated two-year-old debate about whether it needed a special teaching permit for teachers changing careers to get them into the classroom more quickly.

Then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett said it was critical to have, while education school deans and others said the “career specialist” permit was unnecessary.

So how many teachers have requested the credential that can be used for the first time this fall?

Just two. But if they actually got jobs, it doesn’t appear they’re working in Indianapolis.

Not in Indianapolis Public Schools, not in Perry Township and not at Christel House academies. Washington Township hasn’t made any hires with the permit, nor has Decatur Township or Beech Grove Schools.

No career specialists are working at Charter Schools USA’s schools, and none have so far matriculated through the Teach For America or Indianapolis Teaching Fellows programs — where perhaps you might expect second-career teachers to get their starts.

Those are just a few of the districts, schools and programs Chalkbeat contacted.

Risa Regnier, assistant superintendent at the Indiana Department of Education, said the two permits that have been granted were in visual arts, and she doesn’t know if the permit-holders have teaching jobs yet.

“This is probably viewed by other individuals who have had other careers make a career change,” Regnier said. “Someone might go through the steps to obtain one of these permits and then go seek a job.”

The Indiana State Board of Education passed new teacher preparation rules allowing the permit — known as the Rules for Educator Preparation and Accountability, or REPA III — in September. To qualify, an applicant must have a four-year college degree in the subject they want to teach, a 3.0 GPA, about three years of work experience and must pass a content knowledge test from the state.

The new permit was strongly opposed by many educators, mainly because they believe it skirts a part of teacher training that Pat Rogan, the executive associate dean of the School of Education at IUPUI, said is one of the most important — understanding the how teaching works so that kids learn.

Even teachers with more traditional preparation, such as two years of assisting in the classroom, college coursework and a stint of full-time student teaching, can struggle, she said. The fact that so few permits have been issued seems to prove her and others right — it is unneeded.

“Education personnel understand that teachers must be well prepared prior to being asked to teach our youth,” Rogan said in an email. “Legislators were misguided in their efforts to de-professionalize teacher preparation.”

A battle over qualifications to teach

The state board and education department have been discussing changes to teacher licensure for years.

An earlier version of the rules, known as REPA II, was proposed by Bennett in 2012. It immediately prompted backlash, with a parade of education groups opposing his plan.

Bennett and others argued that licensing rules kept good potential teachers, especially those with professional and life experience, from considering the profession because it required a long and expensive training regime before they could be hired.

But educators argued training in classroom methods was important before teachers begin work. Some felt insulted that the original proposal in essence said untrained workers from other fields could instantly become teachers.

The first proposal, Rogan said, “would’ve lowered the standards for teacher preparation, would have allowed unprepared individuals into our classrooms. It would have allowed those individuals to practice, i.e. learn, on the backs of our children.”

Bennett backed off, adding into the rules more training for teachers who use the career specialist permit.

“I think the state board of education heard loud and clear from everyone — teachers, principals, superintendents, business leaders — you know that doesn’t make any sense,” Rogan said.

Dan Elsener, a former state board of education member who voted in favor of the new rules last fall, still believes the idea is sound.

Easing teacher licensure rules with the new permits should open up a “talent pipeline” to help fill empty positions and bring in more qualified candidates, he said. Plus, there are safeguards in place to prevent those who are unqualified from sticking around, he said.

“Every board member gave it serious thought,” Elsener said. “It wasn’t casually done because you never want to put a professional in front of young people when the consequences are so high with K-12 education.”

New license sees little demand

So why such a tepid response from job-seekers?

Regnier said she never expected that the new permits, which are not issued by any specific school or district, would be in high-demand.

Demand might be so low, she said, because of the very requirements for additional training that educators asked for. In other programs that are more widely used, aspiring teachers don’t necessarily have to teach and take foundational classes at the same time, she said.

But there are few rules around the training. It could be overseen by a university, a local school district or another state-approved program. That haziness is troubling to Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith.

“Career-specialist training doesn’t have to be college training, and that’s a little scary,” Meredith said. “I can’t say I want my kid in a class with a teacher who doesn’t understand how kids think and act and learn.”

But once a teacher with the permit begins teaching, Regnier said, they’ll have to devise a plan for additional learning and bring it before the state board for approval.

“Even though there is some flexibility there, it comes back to the state board to review the pedagogy component and determine whether it is delivering the knowledge and pedagogical skills that the state board believes that this teacher should receive,” she said.

A case for trusting school leaders

Elsener said teachers and community members need to place more trust in school leaders when it comes to hiring with the new permits and have faith they’ll evaluate all teachers fairly under the state’s rating system.

A school leader can judge whether someone would make a good teacher, even if their experience is in another field, he said.

“You have to trust the local people that they are going to take good care of their young people and they are not just going to hire someone,” Elsener said. “It requires you have a good accountability system so you can’t hide incompetent teachers.”

But Rogan said teachers, legislators and policymakers must work together to create rules that both prepare teachers appropriately and make sure schools can choose from a variety of qualified candidates.

There should be broad agreement on the basics of what teachers must know before they start teaching.

“Teachers and educators need to do a better job of talking to their neighbors, talking to their legislators and other state decision-makers about what they do, how they do it, what challenges they face and what contributes to their success,” Rogan said. “But on the other hand, legislators need to be better listeners and more attentive to the realities of today’s classrooms and what challenges teachers face and also a bit more humble about what they don’t know.”

And it’s early yet, Regnier said. The license has only been available since January. It could still prove useful for future teachers and those doing the hiring.

“This has only been a possible type of license for people for about six months, and we’ve only issued a couple of them,” Regnier said. “It is still very, very early in the game to tell whether this is going to gain popularity and how it’s going to be received.”

In the Classroom

How Memphis students came face to face with the painful history in their school’s backyard

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School examine a historical marker meant to share a more complete story of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

A few yards across from the parking lot of an all-boys Memphis school lies a small, tree-lined courtyard, where a class of eighth-graders studies a large historical marker.

The new marker tells them that children were sold as slaves in this spot. An older, nearby marker had failed to tell the whole story — Nathan Bedford Forrest, the subject of the marker, made Memphis a hub of the slave trade near that busy downtown corner.

The boys at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School, who are nearly all black, earlier learned about the painful legacy while watching an episode of “America Divided,” a documentary series featuring celebrities exploring inequality across the nation. The episode featured the Memphis campaign that eventually removed a nearby statue of Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School students visit county commissioners Tami Sawyer and Van Turner (back row), who were key in the city’s campaign to remove Confederate statues.

Being so close to such upsetting history that only recently has bubbled to the surface of public display was a lot for eighth-grader Joseph Jones to take in.

“I can’t believe that this history is right outside our school,” he said. “I think I barely know what happened in Memphis. So many things that I don’t know, that I need to know, and that I want to know, happened in this very city.”

Lately, Memphis — along with several other cities in the South — has been grappling with how tell the complete stories of historical figures who many felt were war heroes, but who also contributed to the enslavement of black Americans.

The new and larger historical marker about Forrest was erected on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. He was killed two miles from the all-boys charter school. City leaders vowed and succeeded in taking down Forrest’s statue, which had loomed downtown for more than 100 years, before honoring King’s legacy.

From the archives: Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Teacher Tim Green travels to several schools to teach students how to express their emotions in a healthy way.

Tim Green, a teacher at Grizzlies Prep, prompted discussion among students about how to use their newfound knowledge about history in positive ways to improve their city. It’s part of Green’s larger effort to teach students how to express their feelings on difficult topics.

Recently, that has meant delving into the city’s racial history, which is fraught with tragedy that has not been fully reckoned with in public discourse.

“Me forming this class was a way to talk about some of things we deal with and one of those things is our past,” he recently told students. “As African-American men — and African-Americans in general — we don’t have a clear understanding of where we came from.”

Students said their initial feelings after watching the documentary included anger, sadness, and fear.

“It kind of makes me feel scared because you know your parents and your teachers say history repeats itself,” said student Sean Crump. “So, we never know if it’s going to happen again because some things that people said are going to stop have came back. … That makes me feel scared of when I grow up.”

Watching the documentary was the first part of the class’ history exploration before meeting with two key people who organized the removal of Forrest’s statue at the county government building about two blocks from the school.

The documentary shows actor Jussie Smollett interviewing the younger brother of Jesse Lee Bond, a 20-year-old black sharecropper. He was killed in a Memphis suburb in 1939 after asking for a receipt at a store owned by a prominent white family that depended on the credit balances of its black customers.

The brother, Charlie Morris, said he was ready to go on a revengeful rampage after learning his brother had been shot, castrated, dragged by a tractor, and staked to the bottom of a nearby river. He said he still carried the trauma, but doesn’t carry the hate he felt nearly 80 years ago.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students watch as Charlie Morris, the brother of lynching victim Jesse Lee Bond, explains the racism that led to his brother’s murder in an episode of “America Divided.”

“The first step to equal justice is love. Where there’s no love, you can forget the rest,” he said in the documentary. Morris died in June at the age of 98.

After the episode ended, the class was silent for a moment. The first question from a student: Were the people who lynched Jesse Lee Bond ever convicted?

The answer made one student gasp in shock, but was predictable for anyone familiar with the history of lynching in America during the Jim Crow era that legalized racial segregation. Two men were charged and tried for Bonds’ murder, but were quickly acquitted.

Students seamlessly tied the past to racism and violence they see in their city today.

“I feel sad because there’s lynchings and people — mostly white Americans — they know there’s lynchings and they know what the Confederacy did to cause those,” said student Tristan Ficklen.

“I would have felt the same too because all he asked for was a receipt,” student Jireh Joyner said of Morris’ initial reaction to Bond’s death. “And now these days there’s still police brutality and it’s hurtful.”

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis district became a national model for teacher leadership

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Amy Peddie, a teacher at Southport High School, helps a student on an assignment in her class.

Kelly Wilber had been teaching in Perry Township for about seven years when the school district rolled out a new approach to teacher evaluation, mentorship, and coaching — and she felt the change almost immediately.

“I felt like I was a good teacher before,” Wilber recalled. “I mean, I studied all the things in the books, and we had professional development.”

But when the district started using the new approach, the TAP System, “we found the answer of what we needed to do to help our students grow,” said Wilber, who teaches fifth grade at Southport Elementary School.

The TAP System was developed as a strategy for improving instruction, and it is popular in Indiana, where state policymakers have encouraged schools to adopt the system. Perry Township has used it for seven years, and the district has become something of a poster child for the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, the group behind TAP. On Thursday, the nonprofit recognized Perry Township schools with the organization’s first National Award of Excellence for Educator Effectiveness, which came with a $50,000 prize.

TAP relies on mentors and teacher leaders who are paid stipends to coach their colleagues — a tactic that’s becoming popular among schools as a way to allow experienced teachers to take on more responsibility without entirely leaving the classroom. Each week, groups of teachers meet with master teachers who work with them on strategies they can use in the classroom, like how to tackle word problems or use manipulatives in math.

The model also has guidance on common problems teachers encounter. In the first year of TAP, for example, Wilber had a student who said he wasn’t interested in school or homework and told her, “I’m only here because my brother came here, and I like to do what my brother does,” she recalled.

Wilber began trying techniques that TAP recommended, like using his name during model lessons and having him read the learning objectives. Soon, he was raising his hand in class.

“I felt like I knew what I needed to do because we had so much training and support,” Wilber said.

Perry Township has an unusual set of challenges. Nearly three-quarters of students are poor enough to get subsidized meals. About 25 percent of students are English language learners, and many of them are refugees fleeing religious persecution in Burma.

There is not much outside research on whether TAP improves student test scores. A 2012 study of the results in Chicago found that the program did not raise test scores, but it increased teacher retention. TAP’s developer has disputed the validity of the study, saying the TAP program was not properly implemented in Chicago schools.

But in Perry Township, educators say the approach is helping improve student results.

“If you want to make a difference with kids who are in poverty as well as have a lot of cultural differences, this format and this foundation is the best thing that you can utilize,” Superintendent Patrick Mapes said.

Joe Horvath, a master teacher at Southport High School, said his role is the same as coaches in other districts. Instead of having his own classroom, he is in charge of training 28 other teachers. One day a week, he meets with those teachers in groups. The rest of the week, he observes teachers in their classes, gives feedback, and models lessons.

“We are all on the same level,” Horvath said. “It’s not like I am their boss in any way shape or form. This is just something that allows us to continue to give a peer-to-peer feedback thing that I think is kind of missing sometimes.”