Accountability · Blog · School Choice

“Why Would Anyone In Their Right Mind Lower Standards?”: Charter Schools Win a Round

“They were  bullshit!” said my Dad.

I burst out laughing . My soft-spoken father, who most often could  be found reading history books and playing chamber music when he wasn’t teaching social studies at John Bowne High School in Flushing, so vehemently negative about the courses he took while earning his M.A. in education! At the time I was taking my own set of similar courses that were required for graduate students in my program who would be teaching undergrads, and I’d mentioned the mind-numbing tedium of abstract material that, best as I could tell, had no relevance to teaching anything. I’d asked him how he regarded his own education courses. Boy, did I get my answer.

And so I can’t help but emit some combination of a chuckle and a groan at the reaction to the SUNY Board of Trustees Charter Schools Committee’s decision yesterday to permit charter schools to hire teachers without the standard year of coursework and promise to complete a Master’s degree but, instead, have 160 hours of instruction in behavior management, lesson planning and other skills; have 40 hours of supervised experience in the field; and pass one exam designed to test strategies for teaching students with special needs and English learners.

While plenty of people believe that SUNY made a terrible mistake — including one of  New York School Talk’s bloggers, as well as NYC teacher union chief Michael Mulgrew, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa — I think that they’re missing the point.

It’s not about how many hours of instruction are required for teaching certification. It’s not about whether a prospective teacher can pass the edTPA, NYS’s  test for prospective teachers. (The Board of Regents just lowered the passing grade on the test from 41 to 38 because so many candidates  failed.) It’s about whether students are learning, and the responsibility for that academic growth rests not just on students themselves but on the state, individual districts, schools, administrators, and teachers.

Another word for this responsibility is “accountability”: in this context, it’s  how we determine whether someone is qualified to teach and how ongoing oversight is implemented. Those opposed to SUNY’s decision seem to believe that accountability primarily occurs before teachers stand before students. Yes, teachers are evaluated — that’s another form of accountability — but it’s hard to take this form seriously when 97 percent of New York City educators are considered effective or highly effective, as reported on Monday, and life-long job security, barring some egregious act, is guaranteed after four years. In fact, in  New York, due to a flip–flop by Governor Cuomo, there’s a moratorium on using objective measurements of how much students are learning.

In N.Y. public charter schools, accountability will begin with an abbreviated course of study but, as has been the practice, will continue throughout one’s teaching career. Unlike the traditional school system, the primary form of accountability for charters isn’t before a teacher is granted certification but after. It’s an ongoing process because teachers are responsible every year for student growth (as are the schools themselves, which can be closed far more quickly than traditional schools) and a teacher’s renewal is dependent on current effectiveness.

Maybe you agree with Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Rosa,  who called the new regulation “an insult to the teaching profession” and said that it would lower standards for teachers. Then you believe that educational accountability happens mostly before educators face students.

Maybe you agree with with the members of SUNY’s trustees, who believe that educational accountability should primarily be exercised after a teacher completes the certification process. After all, SUNY is no slouch in the world of public education. According to today’s New York Times, “88 percent of SUNY-authorized charter schools outperformed their districts on the state math tests, and 83 percent outperformed their districts on the state reading tests.” They’re doing something right and that probably includes ongoing oversight of teachers and a strong emphasis on accountability for students and staff.

Me, I think that our education schools are unreliable judges of prospective teacher effectiveness (NPR: “The U.S. spends more than $7 billion a year preparing classroom teachers, but teachers are not coming out of the nation’s colleges of education ready”) but effective preparation is important. I also believe that teacher accountability must be an ongoing endeavor.

Of course, charter leaders are happy with SUNY’s decision. Here’s two reactions.

Raymond Rivera, founder of Family Life Academy Charter Schools in the South Bronx and backer of the new plan, said he wants more freedom from bureaucracy to train staff. He emphasized that charters can be closed easily for poor performance so that there is no incentive to have unqualified faculty. “Why would anyone in their right mind lower standards?” he asked.

Fatimah Barker, chief external officer of the Achievement First network, said its new teachers had a five-week summer training, plus ongoing weekly practices of methods and student data analysis.“We’re banking on the huge amount of investment we put into  developing staff, she said.”

One other note. A primary motivator for adjusting teacher preparation rules for charters is the scarcity of teachers of color throughout the public system. Chalkbeat reports that “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.”

My Dad was widely regarded as a great teacher. (No bias here at all!) He would say that his effectiveness had little to do with his education coursework but developed as he grew professionally. Other teachers might credit the very programming he derided. This shouldn’t be an either/or issue, a zero sum game. In some ideal world we’d have both: top-quality teacher preparation programs and an accountability process that puts student learning first.

We’re not there yet.

What do you think?

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