Jersey Jazzman: Shooting Themselves in the Foot: Teacher Certification and NYC Charter Schools

When you run the most awesomest schools, you shouldn't have to follow everyone else's rules -- they're only going to keep you from being even more awesome:

Teachers at some New York City charter schools may soon have a new way to become certified — without completing typical state requirements.

New regulations proposed Thursday by the SUNY Charter School Committee would allow teachers at charter schools authorized by SUNY to work without obtaining a master’s degree or passing certification exams. Instead, charter schools would be able to use their own training programs. 

If the regulations are approved, they would mark a win for the city’s charter school advocates, who say networks have struggled to find and hire certified teachers and that the state’s certification rules don’t correlate with effective teaching. Currently, only 15 uncertified teachers are allowed in a given charter school.

“The charter schools have identified what they see as a serious gap in their ability to hire teachers and their ability to meet and comply with the current statute,” said Joseph Belluck, the charter school committee chair on the SUNY board.

These new regulations say, “If you’re getting better results for kids, we’re going to get out of your way,” said executive director Jenny Sedlis of the pro-charter StudentsFirstNY. [emphasis mine]

Yes, "better results" are all that matters, no matter how practically small they may be. And no matter how you got them: if your gains are from student attrition, or narrowing the curriculum, or onerous disciplinary policies that drive out students, or resource advantages, that's just fine with SUNY (State University of New York). You should be able to bypass the teacher certification rules the loser NYC district schools have to follow, so long as those test scores stay high...

We've been through this over on my side of the Hudson. The charters, usually affiliated with larger networks, believe that their "successes" entitle them to train their own staffs outside of standard regulation by the state. The theory seems to be that traditional university-based teacher training programs are too... well, traditional.

Since the big charter chains have come up with such awesome new ways to teach kids...

...they shouldn't have to subject their teachers to all that boring research and theory and intellectual inquisitiveness and whatnot. Just bring these prospective teachers into the charters, let them soak up the awesomeness, and then put them into schools...

Oh, sorry: charter schools. The data is thin, but that's what appears to be happening with the Relay "Graduate" "School" of "Education," the premier charter teacher training center in the Northeast. Despite some unsourced claims from Relay's leadership, and some professional development contracts with districts like Newark and Camden and Philadelphia, it's clear that Relay has become more a staffing firm for a particular group of charter chains than a broad provider of teacher training.

Here, for example, is Relay's NYC Residency webpage:

SCHOOL PARTNERS

Achievement First
KIPP NYC
Great Oaks Charter School
Harlem Children’s Zone
Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter Schools
Brooklyn LAB
Coney Island Prep
Blue Engine
Democracy Prep
Ascend

Except for Blue Engine, which is not a school, all of these partners are charters. As Bruce Baker and Gary Miron have pointed out, this leads to a "company store" style of professional development, where charter teachers essentially pay back a part of their wages to their employers (or their employers' partners) in exchange for the right to continuing working at their jobs -- usually for lower wages than their public district school counterparts.

As many have noted, Relay is steeped in the "no excuses" style of pedagogy, exemplified by Doug Lemov's Teacher Like a ChampionI contend it's a type of teaching that would never, ever be accepted out in the leafy 'burbs; one that makes the teacher the focus of the classroom instead of the student. This is yet another instance of the charter industry selling its schools as an antidote to race and class inequality, even as it imposes a different kind of schooling on urban students of color than the schooling found in affluent, majority-white suburban schools.

Relay has been at it for a few years now, but I've yet to see any empirical evidence that they're doing any better than the university-based teacher training programs. Relay is placing most of its teachers into a separate group of schools, and most (if not all) of the teachers in those schools are being trained by Relay. Both Relay and its client charter schools make what Angus Shiva Mungal calls a "parallel education structure." We're not likely to see many Relay grads move into jobs currently held by traditionally trained teachers, which is what we would need to properly compare the two training paths.

Still, Relay has had to at least adhere to the form of university-based teacher training. Their "professors" may be inexperienced and utterly lacking in scholarly qualifications, but their graduates do get an actual teaching certification, based on a "graduate" "school" teacher training program. The SUNY proposal, however, does away with even the pretense of college-level training.

Some have been framing the issue around the correlation (or lack thereof) between teacher certification and teacher "effectiveness." Matt Barnum, who is as good as anyone at digging through the research, recently tweeted out a series of links to studies looking at the connection.

The problem is that this research generally looks at the difference between teachers who graduated from a university program* where they did their student teaching and teachers who took an "alternate route." But that route (at least in New York State) requires university-training while on the job.

Take this study, for example, by a trio of economists who looked at the various certification routes in New York City schools. Initial certification status has only small effects on student outcomes. But in New York State, alt-route teachers get college training and supervision before and immediately after they start working in a classroom:

How do ATP programs differ from traditional teacher preparation programs?

In a traditional teacher preparation program, a candidate completes all the necessary study and required exams leading to the first teaching certificate before beginning employment in a school district. The program could lead to a baccalaureate or a master's degree, or a certificate of program completion. Institutions offering the programs ensure that all the required preparation has been completed before a candidate can be recommended for a teaching certificate and employed as a teacher. 

ATP programs are designed for candidates who already have strong academic backgrounds in the areas they wish to teach. They are designed to prepare candidates to be teachers of record before completing the requirements for initial certification. Candidates complete a 200-clock hour introductory component (including 40 clock hours of field experiences) and must pass several New York State Teacher Certification examinations to qualify for the Transitional B teaching certificate. The candidate then becomes eligible for employment in a partnering school or district as a beginning teacher.  The candidate receives mentoring support and college supervision while completing his or her degree while teaching. [emphasis mine]

So the difference between novice traditional and alt-route teachers isn't in degree status, or ability to pass certification exams, or access to college training, or even in whether they had field experiences. The difference is in the amount of field experience the teacher had prior to coming to the classroom, and whether more of their teacher training was after they began their jobs.

Again, the new SUNY regulations appear to be something entirely new: no university-level training, support, or mentorship, either before or after hiring. The question, then, is whether a SUNY charter school -- having no previous structure to implement teacher training and no accreditation program to ensure high standards -- can provide the same level of instruction in a mere 30 hours of coursework and 100 hours of supervised fieldwork as a college-based teacher training program.

On its face, the question answers itself.

So why, aside from the money grab from their own employees, do the charter schools want this program so badly? Reading further into the regulations, we find:

(3) Transferability. The certification created by this section shall be transferrable to another school within the education corporation and to another education corporation/school authorized by the Board of Trustees even if the transferee education corporation does not have an approved Instructional Program. [emphasis mine]

This isn't as explicit as the New Jersey regulations that were proposed (and ultimately rejected - for now**), but the intent is clear: the certification will only be valid at a charter school authorized by SUNY (NY has multiple charter authorizers). Which means the teachers getting this certification won't be able to move to better paying, unionized jobs.

Instead, teachers getting this training would be locked into their schools, with no chance of moving on to the public school districts. It's clear the charters hope that will solve their labor problems; if you doubt me, just read the regulations:

The Committee acknowledges that many schools and education corporations it oversees that have demonstrated strong student performance have had difficulty hiring teachers certified in accordance with the requirements of the regulations of the commissioner of education. The Committee, therefore, through its authority to adopt regulations with respect to the governance, structure and operations of the charter schools it oversees, desires to provide an alternative teacher certification pathway to charter schools in meeting the requirements of paragraph a-1 of subdivision 3 of section 2854 of the Education Law.

There you go: the charters can't compete in the labor market with the public, unionized schools. Their solution is to rig the game.

I have to admit that this is one way to attempt to fix the "free rider" problem that charter schools cause. Charters -- especially the "no excuses" ones in the big networks -- rely on a steady stream of younger, less expensive, constantly churning staff to keep their relative labor costs low. With this advantage, they lengthen their school days and school years, which helps them get their test score gains (provided they enroll only students who thrive in this environment, and they focus almost entirely on tested subjects).

But teachers who start their careers in charters will only stay a few years because they know they can move on to better paying and less stressful careers in public district schools. In this way, the charters "free ride", as Martin Carnoy puts it, on the public school districts, who by paying experienced teachers more create incentives for charter teachers to enter the profession. The charters never have to pony up for these incentives, making them free riders.

But if a charter school is the end of a teacher's career road, the free ride is over. Charters are going to have to create the incentives for prospective teachers to join their staffs all by themselves. Except... that means the charters will lose their staffing resource advantage.

Why would a young person considering a career in teaching ever follow a certification path that ends in a relatively low-paying job with worse working conditions? To attract and retain qualified teachers, the charters will now have to offer similar wages and working conditions.

It seems to me that the charters are sabotaging themselves in the long run to solve a short-term problem. If a prospective teacher knows that a "no excuses" charter is the cul-de-sac of her career, she may decide her future prospects are too bleak to ever consider working in one, for even a few years. How is that charter then going to attract the workforce it needs? Yes, it might be more likely the charter can retain a teacher once they hire her under SUNY's scheme. But will they be able to hire enough teachers in the first place?

I came to the conclusion a while ago that the charter sector, as it is currently configured, is not going to be able to sustain itself for much longer if it continues on its current growth trajectory. But a plan like this may well hasten the halting of the sector's expansion. Without more teachers willing to longer hours for less pay and less control over their classrooms, the charters can't offer longer days and years, and smaller class sizes, for their students. The advantage disappears; the model falls apart.

But don't expect any concerns about this to stop the sector, especially in NYC. Charter schools there have been getting whatever they want for some time now. There's a good chance they'll get to train their own teachers...

And eventually come to regret it.
 

Are you sure you want to do that?

* A significant limitation on studies like these is that they lump all "traditional" teacher training programs together. But there's a big difference in the types and quality of these programs. There are a few other things worth noting here, which I will try to get to at some point...

** It's obvious that the Christie administration's recent firing of Mark Biedron as President of the NJ State Board of Education was directly related to the board's rejection of regulations that would have established separate certification for charter school teachers.

I had plenty of disagreements with Biedron, but I always found him to be willing to listen to a contrary point of view. The New Jersey charter school industry, however, is not interested in prolonged discussions of policy; they know, like everyone else in the state, that Chris Christie's miserable approval ratings have all but assured that Phil Murphy, endorsed by the NJEA, will be the next governor (barring Russian interference).

So the charter lobby is grabbing what it can while the grabbing is good. Watch for them to push this proposal once more before Christie leaves office.

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Jersey Jazzman

Jersey Jazzman is the pseudonym for Mark Weber, a New Jersey public school teacher and parent. Weber is also a doctoral student at Rutgers University in Education Theory, Organization, and Policy.