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.”

‘It feels like losing a family’

This Memphis poetry team is the best in the state. But they will scatter as their school closes.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The GRAD Academy poetry team, from left to right: Olivia Randle, ShuKyra Harris, Alesha Griggs, Belle Edgeston, Timothy Moore, MarQuita Henderson, Zakyah Harris.

MarQuita Henderson had a vision for how her senior year of high school at GRAD Academy Memphis was going to go.

The 11th-grader was going to continue leading her school’s award-winning poetry team, which she believes changed her life. She was going to graduate with her best friends. She was already working on a poem to perform at graduation.

But all that changed in January, when GRAD Academy announced it was closing the charter school in South Memphis in June because of high costs and low enrollment. The school enrolled 468 students this year in a school built for 2,000. GRAD opened in 2013 as part of the Achievement School District, a state-run district tasked with turning around low-performing schools.

In a city with too many schools and too few students, school closures have been common in  Memphis, mostly because of low enrollment and poor academic performance. At least 21 schools have closed since 2012 in the local district, Shelby County Schools. Over the past year, four schools in the state-run district have announced closures.

“It’s hard to think about us not being together next year after we spent so much time thinking about being seniors together,” MarQuita, 17, told Chalkbeat. “But I think, at least I did poetry here. I have a new confidence in myself. There’s a voice in me that wasn’t there before.”

MarQuita is one of six students on GRAD’s poetry team, which was founded three years ago and is led by Timothy Moore, a creative writing teacher. The group was named the best high school poetry team in Tennessee this month by Southern Word, a statewide poetry competition.

The team has become incredibly close knit, they said. They have traveled outside of Memphis for poetry competitions, spent hours editing each other’s work, and doing homework together. They lean on each other if they are having a bad day, need some support, or just want to hang out.

“I didn’t really know anyone on the team when I joined this year, I just knew being on the poetry team had been my dream all of high school,” said Alesha Griggs, 16. “But now, it’s like I can’t imagine not knowing these girls. And we’ll lean on each other now more than ever, because we’re going to new schools where we don’t know anyone else.”

Moore, who has taught at GRAD for four years, tries to make sure the conversations around school closures include the voices of those most affected — the students.

“As a team, we’ve been able to work through some of the anger and hurt that came with the announcement our school was closing,” Moore said. “We’ve had a space to do that. So many students don’t. But I still worry, will another teacher look after them next year? Did I do enough for them?”

The six friends will be split between three high schools — Hillcrest, Middle College, and Craigmont.

Most of them live in the neighborhood surrounding GRAD Academy, where school closures are all too familiar. The school is housed in the former South Side High School building, which was converted into a middle school and then closed in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

“I was at South Side Middle School when it closed,” MarQuita said. “So when I heard GRAD was closing, my first thought was, is this our fault again? It feels like losing a family.”

Unlike in many school closures, GRAD Academy officials said they weren’t closing the school because of floundering academics. It has the greatest percentage of ASD high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.  But “higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs” were cited by GRAD officials as the main reasons to close.

For poetry member Belle Edgeston, that reasoning wasn’t enough.

“The reason, that it was such a business decision… still bothers me,” said Belle, 17. “We were the future 12th-grade class. That meant something to us, especially in being able to mentor younger kids in poetry.”

All six poetry members said being on the team has had a significant impact on their lives  — especially under Moore’s leadership.

“This is my first year with a 4.0 GPA,” said Olivia Randle, 16. “I didn’t think that was possible. But I also would have never dreamed of us winning state, or of getting to travel for poetry. Mr. Moore made us think more of ourselves.”

Tamala Boyd-Shaw, the executive director of GRAD Memphis, said she’s proud of the confidence and experiences students have gained as part of Moore’s team.

“The students’ poems are often about struggles they endure as students in their own communities and families,” Boyd-Shaw said. “It’s allowed them to reflect and be proud, not just of what they’re saying, but of who they are. My hope is that all of our students land in schools next year that gives them opportunities like this.”

The girls hope to keep practicing together next school year, even though they know scheduling will be hard. Moore said he was hopeful they will keep competing, either as individuals or as a team.

“We’re going to become masters of group apps and Skype,” Moore said. “But I know we’re really going to miss writing as a family together after class. It’s funny, I’m a 36-year-old man, and I’m surprised at how much they taught me. They helped me find my own voice.”

Watch students Kyla Lewis and Olivia Randle perform “Systematical Fear:”

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.