Future of Teaching

Panel: What it means to be a ‘quality educator’ has changed in the 21st century

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Teacher Geoff Davis (left) and Parent Power co-founder Delana Stardust Ivey (right) listen to Robin Hughes, executive associate dean of the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis.

Geoff Davis teaches English and math to fifth and sixth graders at Indianapolis Public School 56.

He also teaches them to play the ukulele.

Why the ukulele?

On Tuesday Davis told a gathering of educators and others at IUPUI that he knows the 45 minutes his students spend playing the ukulele gets some of them through the day.

“It doesn’t sound terribly relevant but it gives kids a reason to come to school,” he said. “I know a boy who is smart, but resentful and difficult. He taught himself the chords I have up on the wall. Then I started to teach him to play the ukulele. Now I can talk to him about anything.”

He’s not the only one, Davis said.

Davis was part of a panel Tuesday that addressed about 40 educators as part of the university’s annual Cohen Lecture.

The Cohen Lecture series began in 2014 to honor Michael Cohen, a retired professor in science education who taught at the school of education from 1968 to 2003 and authored an elementary school textbook called “Discover Science.”

Along with Davis, the panel included Tiffany Kyser of the Great Lakes Equity Center, Parent Power co-founder Delana Stardust Ivey, city of Indianapolis Education Director Ahmed Young, and Robin Hughes, executive associate dean of the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis.

The conversation grappled with the complex challenges of the 21st century classroom, such as how to ensure equal treatment for students from all backgrounds, how to connect with students’ families and even how to define a quality educator.

Kyser, who earned a doctorate at IUPUI and now works for a U.S. Department of Education regional center that supports equity training around race, gender, national origin in Indiana and five other states said her organization has a different definition of what makes a high quality educator.

Kyser described a traditional definition of a quality educator as one who has credentials, good evaluations and produces good test scores. The center instead suggests a high quality educator views students’ cultural backgrounds as assets, works to empower them and fosters not just academic learning, but also social and emotional growth.

No matter how you define it, quality teaching is too rare in many schools, Kyser said.

“We have to be very overt in acknowledging not all students have had the benefit of how that local community defines as a high quality educator,” she said.

Young, who oversees more than 30 charter schools sponsored by Mayor Joe Hogsett, said his definition of a quality educator might surprise some people because it is not based on credentials or test scores.

“For me it’s someone who is able to inspire, lead, educate and foster a sense of confidence and efficacy in a child that brings out their innate gifts,” he said. “If they are able to bring that out, that is a teacher. I think we have become beholden to these very confined definitions of what at teacher is.”

Ivey, an IPS parent, said quality teaching is affected by the mandates laid on teachers’ shoulders. She said she sees teachers who are uncomfortable with requirements that they focus on specific skills with the sole goal of boosting test scores.

Education leaders, she said, have not listened to the teachers, to the parents or to students. For example, her son told her he didn’t like school anymore after recess was eliminated.

“Students were speaking out, but we labeled it as acting out,” she said. “The truth is they are being used. It’s a ‘disorder’ if they aren’t sitting quietly all day.”

Hughes said test scores correlate so strongly with a student’s family wealth that she is not sure how much is learned from those results, even if students succeed on those measures.

“I’d want to think about folks being ‘humanity ready,’” she said. “We talk about people being ‘college ready’ but that just means being able to perform well the first year in college. If we think about ‘humanity ready’, that is what ‘does it mean to be truly educated and really thoughtful?’”

Davis praised his school for its healthy approach to teaching, which allows him to take risks, like teaching ukulele. But he’s felt the pressure to abandon creative teaching methods in the past.

“High stakes testing has completely changed what occurs in the classroom and it hasn’t been good,” he said. “It breaks instruction down into tiny skill bytes. I had to do it — 10 or 15 minutes skill lessons without any depth, discussion, connectedness or relevance.”

It’s a frustrating way to teach, Davis said.

That’s not how we use information or share information,” he said. “And it’s so time consuming.”


Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it …like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at state.board@cde.state.co.us.