Teaching teachers

Regents discuss revamping New York state teacher certification requirements

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Memphis teacher Tanya Hill encourages a student at Kate Bond Elementary School.

New York may ease the burden on prospective educators by overhauling what critics contend is a difficult and costly teacher certification process.

On Tuesday, the Board of Regents discussed a set of recommendations proposed by a group of education officials and experts charged with evaluating the state’s current requirements. The state began to discuss strengthening certification exams in 2009 in an attempt to raise standards for those entering the teaching profession.

But some critics say those changes went too far and have become roadblocks, particularly for low-income aspiring teachers and those of color.

Prospective teachers in New York state have to clear four certification hurdles, demonstrating teaching skills, content knowledge and reading comprehension.

The proposed changes, which the policymaking body will likely vote on at a future meeting, include reviewing the passing score for the certification test, providing more vouchers to cover the exam’s cost, and possibly eliminating an exam that has produced significantly lower passing rates for black and Hispanic aspiring teachers.

Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said the students who stand to benefit are often high-quality applicants faced with unfair testing constraints.

“These are students who have gotten very high scores … Their GREs [a graduate school entrance test] were through the roof,” Rosa said. “These were exceptional students and many of them students of color”

The state’s teachers union quickly praised the recommendations for maintaining rigor and eliminating unnecessary obstacles.

“The task force recommendations strike the right balance. If the Regents adopt them — and we urge them to do that — the new requirements will help to ensure that aspiring teachers know their subject area and how to teach it,” said NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino in a statement. “At the same time, it reduces some of the costs associated with these Pearson tests and eliminates an unnecessary and duplicative exam.”

The group called for state officials to potentially “recalibrate” the passing score on the edTPA, a test that requires prospective teachers to submit portfolios of work including lesson plans and a video of themselves teaching. And instead of relying entirely on test scores for those on the bubble, officials recommended considering additional factors like grade point average or a professor’s recommendation.

Part of the goal is likely to increase passing rates, since only 77 percent of aspiring teachers have passed the edTPA since its rollout in New York. Those who fail the test are still allowed to take the state’s previous exam, which reportedly yielded much higher pass rates.

Some Regents expressed concerns the changes could come across as lowered standards.

“We spent a lot of time talking about raising the bar,” said Regent Andrew Brown. “As I sat here and listened, it does sound like, at times, we’re talking about making it easier.”

But Regent Kathleen Cashin, who chairs the board’s committee on higher education, argued that revising the standards is fair since the exam is new and requires a slow, more deliberate rollout.

“Phasing in and implementation is wise,” she said. “It’s not weakening.”

The Regents discussed giving prospective teachers more time to prepare for assessments and to practice their craft. Currently, only 40 days inside a classroom are required.

“In medicine, if we had 40 days of internship we wouldn’t make very good doctors,” said Regent James Cottrell, who is a medical doctor.

The task force also recommended taking a hard look at — and possibly eliminating — another certification exam, known as the “Academic Literacy Skills Test,” while exploring other ways for teachers to demonstrate their literacy skills.

That exam, which tests things like writing and reading comprehension, has proven disproportionately difficult for aspiring teachers of color to pass. In the 2013-14, only 48 percent of prospective black teachers and 56 percent of prospective Hispanic teachers passed the exam, compared to 75 percent of prospective white teachers.

Both the Board of Regents and New York City have launched programs to increase the number of educators of color, particularly men of color, entering the teaching profession. Creating a test that discourages those students is antithetical to the state’s mission, Regents said.

“Diversity is not an option,” Regent Cashin said. “It’s essential.”

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: