it's official

The votes are in: Some New York charter schools can now certify their own teachers

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Wednesday's SUNY Charter School Committee meeting.

Dozens of charter schools across New York can now apply to certify their own teachers after the State University of New York’s charter school committee approved new regulations, over the vehement objections of teachers unions and state officials.

In charter schools overseen by SUNY that apply to train their own teachers, prospective teachers now will only have to sit for the equivalent of a month of classroom instruction and practice teaching for 40 hours before becoming certified. And unlike teachers on a traditional certification path in New York, they will not be required to earn a master’s degree or take all of the state’s teacher-certification exams.

Despite pushback, members of the SUNY Board of Trustee’s charter school committee voted 4 to 1 Wednesday to approve the regulations. Supporters argued that they are necessary to fill hiring gaps at high-performing charter schools.

“I believe there is a substantial need for additional teachers in the charter system,” said SUNY board member Edward Spiro. “I would suggest that the proposed regulation may increase [teacher] quality by broadening the pool of candidates for charters to choose from.”

After the vote, the city and state teachers unions said they would challenge the new rules in court.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa released a joint statement Wednesday condemning the regulation, which they called “an insult to the teaching profession.” The new rules lower the standards for teachers in SUNY-authorized schools, opening the door to educators with limited experience and training, they said in the statement.

“With this irresponsible action, the SUNY Charter Schools Committee has eroded the quality of teachers in New York State and negatively impacted student achievement,” they said.

Some 167 charter schools across the state — 147 of them in New York City — received their charters from SUNY. In order to apply to certify their own teachers under the new regulation, they must meet certain performance benchmarks and receive SUNY’s approval. Officials said they expect to begin accepting applications this year.

Large charter school networks that already run their own teacher-training programs are likely to benefit from this option, which Success Academy has championed. The networks and other charter advocates argue that their programs better prepare teachers for the day-to-day work of teaching than many traditional higher-education programs.

Achievement First provides five weeks of training to its incoming teachers, along with weekly professional development for all teachers, according to Fatimah Barker, Achievement First’s chief external officer. Those trainings are built around the network’s particular brand of instruction in a way that outside master’s programs would not be, Barker said.

“Ours is very tailored to what kids need,” she said.

Additionally, the regulation will allow charters to recruit teachers from a broader range of backgrounds — including more teachers of color, who are disproportionately excluded from traditional certification routes. Black and Hispanic teachers are about twice as likely as white teachers to have been certified through an alternative program, according to national data.

The traditional path to becoming a teacher in New York is to study education in college and pass a series of exams to earn an initial certification, then earn a master’s degree and teach for three years to become fully certified. There are also alternative routes, which SUNY’s certification plan resembles — though it does not require teachers to attend a college-run training program.

State education leaders and teachers unions have attacked SUNY’s certification plan since it was proposed.

Many of the objections centered on the limited amount of training that would be required of prospective teachers, which critics warned would put unqualified teachers in front of classrooms often filled with low-income students of color. (During Wednesday’s vote, some protestors held up signs calling the proposed regulations racist.)

In response to the pushback, SUNY published updated rules last weekend that increased the amount of required classroom instruction aspiring teachers must sit for and added a requirement that they pass one traditional certification exam or an equivalent test. The revisions also reduced the number of required practice-teaching hours.

On Wednesday, teachers unions and other critics erased all doubt that the changes would quell their concerns as they bashed the proposal and threatened to challenge the rule in court.

Michael Mulgrew, the head of the city teachers union, blasted the proposal and promised, “We will be suing if this board takes action.”

Mulgrew’s message came after the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed group, threatened similar legal action late Tuesday. The group claimed that SUNY officials violated state law by failing to give the public time to comment on the revised regulations. (SUNY officials said the changes were not significant enough to warrant another public-comment period.)

“The committee can amend this bad proposal until the cows come home,” said Andy Pallotta president of the state teachers union, in a statement after the vote, “but it doesn’t change the fact that these regulations sell out the state’s most vulnerable children to score political points.”

First Person

I’m a fifth-year Chicago teacher, and the challenges aren’t letting up. Now what?

PHOTO: Getty

When I started as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I remember hearing that half of teachers in urban school districts leave them in their first five years. When I went through rough patches I would wonder, was I going to make it?

I did make it, completing my fifth year of teaching last spring. But I can’t help but feel like something still isn’t right.

I feel like this should be the time when I am starting to really develop my expertise, feel secure in my skills and abilities, and build the self-confidence that I am effective in my craft. Instead, I  feel lucky just to be surviving day to day and week to week.

I thought that by now I would be in a groove with planning and preparation. I thought that my Sundays might actually be relaxing. Instead, I find myself filled with the “Sunday scaries,” scrambling to get materials created, adjust lesson plans, and polish final drafts of IEPs. I never feel “caught up,” and can’t say I have ever known what that feels like.

Even though my class sizes are not the largest in the district, they are filled with students who — although so talented, resilient, and special — have such a wide variety of needs and deficits that I don’t feel I can adequately address given all of the constraints I face. There simply are not enough resources and time to do everything I need to do to give my students the best that they deserve. This weighs on me, leading to overwhelming feelings of guilt and helplessness that are often paralyzing.

In short, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted, and I know many of my fellow teachers are too.

I’ve been thinking about this reality more since I joined a number of colleagues at an educator mental health-focused event in October. We dug into our own struggles and and then worked on ways to manage our stress. We named our biggest day-to-day stressors and then explored different ways to practice self-care — such as journaling, meditation, or picking up an instrument — to balance out the feelings of high anxiety and pressure we feel at work. I left with a number of resources to seek out on my own as well as a sense of renewal. But the onus was on me to find solutions moving forward.

Now, Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up. And while I work on managing the stress of this job, it’s also on policymakers — including our next mayor — to address the stressors themselves.

Large class sizes, the limited time we are allotted to plan and prepare for the school day, insufficient paid time-off policies, and ever-tighter budgets we are asked to stretch to meet our students’ needs are all the result of policies that could be changed.

I can’t practice enough self-care to replace the structural changes needed to make our profession more sustainable.

But school leaders, the mayor, and state policymakers, could make a difference. More independent and collaboration time in teachers’ days would help give us time to chip away at expanding to-do lists. Real teacher-leader roles would give teachers power and voice in school decisions. Schools destigmatizing “mental health” days and organizing activities to help teachers de-stress would help, too.

Dissenters may point to the fact that in many other jobs you’re expected to manage your work-life balance and handle stress on your own. But teaching isn’t like every other job: the stakes are especially high, and we have less control of our time and are more isolated in our work. Students benefit from teachers with experience, and every time a capable teacher leaves Chicago’s schools because they were overwhelmed, students lose out.

For my part, I pledge to be aware of my mental health needs and plan to be intentional about my self-care this school year. I hope Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teachers Union, and our city and state elected leaders will commit to helping me and my colleagues not only to survive, but to thrive in our jobs.

As mayoral candidates continue to flesh out their education plans, they need to acknowledge that our mental health and well-being is critical to our success as teacher. How are they planning to help us access resources like counseling services? Prioritizing how to best care for educators will help us continue to provide the best care possible for students.

Teachers are already doing exceptional work given the many constraints they face. Imagine what more we could do for our students if we were better equipped ourselves.

Dayna Heller is a special education teacher at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. She is an active member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher-led policy organization.

tick tock

Denver district, teachers union make some progress as contract deadline looms, but still far apart

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Denver teachers listen to an update on bargaining during the second to last day of negotiations before the ProComp contract expires.

Something unusual happened near the end of bargaining Thursday between the Denver teachers union and school administrators: The district offered a change to its proposal, and some teachers gathered in the audience snapped their fingers in approval.

The two sides are still far apart in terms of reaching an agreement on Denver Public Schools’ ProComp system, which offers teachers bonuses on top of their base salary for things like teaching in a high-poverty school or earning a strong evaluation. The deadline for a deal is Friday, with teachers set to vote on either strike or ratification Saturday and Tuesday. The district’s and the union’s proposals still reflect different ideas about how teachers should earn more compensation — and have very different price tags.

But Thursday’s session was a far cry from the intense frustration that marked Tuesday’s bargaining session. On that day, district officials departed the bargaining table to “process” after the union refused to make a counteroffer to the most recent district proposal. Teachers filled the room after school and waited in hot, cramped conditions for a response that never came.

Thursday’s session opened with tense verbal sparring, but by the afternoon, the union had made changes to its proposal that reduced the cost by an estimated $2.5 million. District officials said they would spend the night and early Friday morning analyzing the proposal and seeing where else they might be able to move.

The district did offer a small concession Thursday that some teachers seemed to appreciate: increasing tuition reimbursement 50 percent, to $6,000. Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said research shows this type of incentive is a strong tool for recruiting and keeping teachers, especially teachers of color. The money for this will come from reducing the bonus that teachers get for teaching in a so-called “distinguished” school.

More often, Denver teachers have reacted with boos to offers that the district saw as significant steps toward the union position.

Beyond small steps like the tuition reimbursement, Cordova said she was “very open to considering” aspects of the union proposal, a sentiment that seemed to clear the way for more back-and-forth.

“The district has moved and DCTA was willing to change their proposal,” said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School who attended the bargaining session. “We both showed willingness to compromise, and that’s positive.”

Dana Berge, a member of the union bargaining team, said the district is “beginning to listen to us, but they are not listening to us in terms of the values in our proposal.”

Both proposals keep some bonuses, at much more modest levels, and put more money into base pay. And both proposals lay out a schedule for how Denver teachers can earn more money, both by “steps,” or number of years of service, and by “lanes,” or additional educational achievement.

The union proposal has more lanes and allows Denver teachers to start moving up by earning additional college credit or by taking the kind of professional development that teachers need to do anyway. Teachers take such training to maintain their teaching licenses — or because they see a need, for example, to learn more about helping students with trauma. The union’s counteroffer Thursday removed one of the lanes, bringing down the total cost.

The district’s first lane change comes with a master’s degree, completing 10 years of service, earning an advanced license, or earning national board certification.

Berge said the union proposal more closely mimics those in other districts and will keep “highly dedicated, highly trained, highly experienced teachers” in Denver and reduce the problem of losing more experienced teachers to better-off suburban districts while less experienced teachers concentrate in the highest-needs schools.

She argued that a more stable salary structure would do more to keep teachers in high-poverty schools than the bonuses given under the current system.

The union proposal will cost a lot more than the district proposal. Cordova said the district is in the process of identifying “deep, deep cuts” to administrative positions to redirect money to classrooms, but even those won’t provide all the money needed to close the gap between the two sides.

During the long period in which each side was working separately on its proposals, a group of religious and community leaders from the Industrial Areas Foundation arrived to offer support to teachers and then a direct message to Cordova. They criticized her for framing the disagreement as one about values.

“Please don’t dare insinuate that you care more about the children in hard-to-serve, high-poverty schools than we do,” said Susan Cooper, a retired teacher and member of the organization. “We value solidarity, not a divide and conquer approach. We value stability, which we don’t have because we can’t keep teachers in Denver.”

Billy Williams of the Denver chapter of the NAACP said parents and community members would support the teachers “if they are forced to strike.”

Cordova said it was never her intent to suggest one side held the moral high ground.

“We can have similar goals, similar values, and different ideas about how to get those done,” she said. “Good people can disagree and still care about our kids.”

The two sides expect to resume bargaining at 10 a.m. Friday.