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Everyone is a Learner

One ESA reflects on 15 years of innovation in educator preparation

By: Suzanne Judson-Whitehouse, Director of Licensure & Credentialing; Allisonn Church, Online Learning and Course Administrator; Liza Manchester, Student Affairs and Field Experiences Administrator. Collaborative for Educational Services, Northampton, MA

The Collaborative for Educational Services (CES) offers 15 teacher licensure programs and two administrative licensure programs. Based in Northampton, Massachusetts and serving two counties in the western part of the state, the agency’s motto is “Everyone is a learner,” which provides a clear guidepost for the work to meet the needs of students, educators, and administrators in the districts served, as well as the state where CES operates. Using creative and responsive approaches, CES has been able to meet significant needs for licensed administrators and teachers both in rural western Massachusetts and in high-need urban areas. As the 15th Anniversary of the program approaches, the program reflects upon a history of collaboration and innovation in Massachusetts, resulting in over 800 people earning a teaching license.

History of the program

In the early 2000s, CES began looking for strategies to diversify funding sources, optimize the use of staff time and expertise, and strengthen the connection between CES, districts, schools and individuals. One such strategy was to join the ranks of institutions across the state providing licensure for administrators and teachers. This was a natural fit in an agency with a robust professional development program and ready-made partnerships in the form of member districts. In the beginning, CES considered licensure for administrators, followed soon after by programs for reading specialists and special education teachers.

As a regional educational service agency, CES was founded on the principle of supporting schools and districts to meet the needs of students, particularly in the area of special education, so providing this type of training made sense. Agency staff had substantial expertise in special education and literacy instruction. With the advent of No Child Left Behind and a focus on all teachers being “highly qualified”, there was a developing need for pathways to licensure in the region.

In addition, CES brought a history of existing partnerships with K-12 districts throughout the region. With a nimbleness not always possible in larger institutes of higher education, CES could provide a more responsive model to meet the changing needs of educators. Instructors in the licensure program often came directly from school districts and brought their experiences in classrooms and schools into their instruction. CES was doubly benefited since we were able to tap into existing partnerships as well as draw on the expertise of in-house professional development providers who were already accomplished in the art of instructing teachers on how to apply evidence-based strategies into their classroom practice. Teacher candidates benefited from this timely expertise, combining theory and current practice through their in-course field experiences. Dr. Cecelia Buckley (then Director of Professional Development) remembers being very aware of the gap between research and practice.

“Our instructors’ experience with staff development meant they knew how to bring research to teachers in meaningful ways,” said Dr. Buckley in a recent conversation about the history of the program.

Funding through a grant

In 2002, an additional funding opportunity presented itself in the form of a federal grant. When CES’s application for funding was approved, the Transition to Licensed Teaching (TTLT) was born. Through partnerships with urban districts around the state (and later suburban and rural districts closer to the agency’s home base in the Western Region of Massachusetts), CES provided a subsidized pathway to licensure for teachers willing to commit to teaching in a partner district.

Pathway to licensure for educators serving the Department of Youth Services

From the beginning of the agency, CES has had a robust professional services program, which provided a base of expertise to draw on for licensure and other initiatives. When CES was chosen to provide high-quality educational opportunities to young people in the care and custody of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS), educators working with young people in DYS facilities had specific licensure needs. The CES Licensure program provided these educators a pathway to licensure with instructors who brought a unique understanding of the DYS system and the challenges and opportunities facing those educators.

In the early days, courses were developed through a collaborative process between Dr. Len Lubinsky (then Director of Licensure Programs) and experts in the field, often drawn from the ranks of the agency’s member districts. Working together to develop course syllabi that aligned to state requirements and met the immediate needs of aspiring educators, Dr. Lubinsky empowered these master teachers to bring their expertise to new teacher candidates.

It was clear that in order for the CES Licensure program to continue and grow in a highly competitive field, partnership with an institute of higher education was critical. Following discussions with several local colleges and universities, in 2003 CES partnered with Fitchburg State College (now Fitchburg State University), located in North Central Massachusetts. Teacher candidates in the CES Licensure program can take all of their courses for graduate credit through Fitchburg State University (FSU) and by enrolling in the University’s Graduate Program, can earn an M.Ed. alongside their teaching license. This positions candidates well for the next stage in Massachusetts’ licensure process, the Professional License (which in most cases requires a Master’s Degree). In addition, each CES Instructor is an FSU adjunct faculty member, which provides them with their own professional development opportunities as well as affirming our program’s high standards for instruction.

Preparing teacher candidates requires that CES instructors stay current in their field of practice, which they, in turn, bring back to their district work (true of both CES-based instructors and those instructors who work in school districts full-time). Districts thus have access to high quality professional development for their teachers as well as a partnership with a program that provides a pathway to licensure for individuals in their districts who are teaching under a state-issued waiver. Most importantly, the program provides teacher candidates with highly qualified instructors who bring a combination of expertise and experience developed throughout their coursework.

Transforming education and schools for English language learners

In 2012, CES became a part of a collaboration funded by a five-year federal grant. The Transforming Education and Schools for English Learners (TESEL) grant partnered CES with three urban schools districts and Fitchburg State University to develop capacity in districts to support English learners in their districts. CES’s main role in the project was to provide a subsidized pathway to licensure in English as a Second Language (ESL) for paraeducators in the districts as well as supporting district teachers to earn an additional license in ESL. Through this project, 37 teachers earned their first teaching licenses and 94 earned additional licenses. More broadly, the project increased the capacity of the districts to meet the needs of their English learners through licensure, professional development for teachers, and support for district administrators and FSU program faculty.

Hybrid approach

One significant change that came about at the same time as the TESEL grant was the shift to hybrid-online courses. Today, the CES Licensure Program uses a unique blended online format. Each course includes four face-to-face sessions spread out evenly over the semester. In addition to the time together, instructors and teacher candidates work extensively between sessions in the online learning management system. Through this combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning time, teacher candidates balance the benefits of time in a room with colleagues and experts with the ability to work at times that are convenient for them. This has resulted in a flexible system that creates opportunities for individuals who would otherwise not be able to attend a weekly night class. In our rural area in particular, it would be impossible for teachers working in far-away rural schools to get to a class that meets regularly face-to-face.

In addition, the CES model provides a cost-effective pathway to licensure for teacher candidates.  By providing coursework that can be completed outside of a graduate credit program, teacher candidates are able to take courses for a lower cost if they choose.  When the cost of graduate credit for the courses is included, the cost of the program is competitive with other university-based programs.  Most importantly, courses meet face-to-face on Saturdays, which means candidates can complete the program while working full-time either in education or another field.

In 2016, CES’s expertise in special education was recognized when we were selected by Massachusetts’ Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to provide coursework for teachers seeking their provisional or additional Moderate Disabilities license. As an agency with a long history of providing special education services, CES was well-positioned to train educators and aspiring educators in current promising practice in special education through the Massachusetts Licensure Academy. State funding allowed candidates to take two of the three courses required for the provisional or additional Moderate Disabilities license for free. Over the two years of the program, more than 100 educators participated in courses offered through the Massachusetts Licensure Academy with many of them on track to apply for and earn the Moderate Disabilities initial license.

Challenges and Adversities

Over the past 15 years, the CES Licensure Program has faced a number of challenges and opportunities. The largest challenge has been declining enrollments in teacher preparation, a pattern repeated across the country. In the past 9 years, the number of educators registering for courses has dropped by almost 50%. The number of people formally enrolling in licensure programs with the goal of earning a teaching license has dropped by 40%. In western Massachusetts, schools and districts are seeing declining student populations. As the need for traditional classroom teachers decreases, there has been an increase in the need for Special Education and ESL teachers. All of this is within the larger context of fewer people choosing to pursue teaching as a career. As a regional collaborative, CES has the ability to consolidate and streamline programs, while still providing access to the critical partnerships that continue to support those same programs.

Diversity & Equity

Due to a blended online format, the CES program often appeals to individuals who find that traditional higher education learning models do not work for them. Some of the candidates themselves either received special education services as K-12 learners or were aware of ways in which the typical learning model simply was not ideal for them. They now find themselves in the role of supporting students whose experience they relate to. As our instructors model a wide array of best practices that support our own unique learners, they, in turn, are given authentic examples of how they can adjust teaching practices to better support K-12 students.

For the past five years, the CES has been engaged in social justice and equity work (SJE) across the agency. This SJE work is critical to a mission to develop and foster educational excellence and opportunities for all learners. Through work with external consultants, as well as the internal staff who focus on supporting programs and individuals, CES is working proactively and purposefully to take action together to challenge racism and support equity. The CES Licensure Program staff and faculty are deeply engaged in the work and actively seek out ways the program can better support building a more diverse workforce and create spaces where teachers of the global majority feel safe and supported. [Note – In 2014, the Collaborative for Educational Services (under the guidance of external social justice and equity consultants) made the decision to use the term “people of the global majority” to refer specifically to people who, while their population in the United States may not be the majority, on the global stage, represent a majority of the population.]

Diversifying the teacher workforce has a significant impact on outcomes for students of the global majority, as seen in many studies, including “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers” (Institute for Labor Economics, March 2017, http://ftp.iza.org/dp10630.pdf). From the admissions process to the content of courses, examining processes, policies and course curriculum through a social justice and equity lens is an important part of the program’s work.

Teacher candidates of the global majority may face obstacles to becoming licensed educators, including disparities in pass rates on state tests required for licensure with respect to race/ethnicity and first language, as well as recruitment, retention and program completion. These areas were highlighted by the Massachusetts Advocates for Diversity in Education Task Force in 2014. Since 2014, CES has been an active member of a regional group, the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition. The coalition has received funding to support pathways to licensure for black and Latinx paraeducators. Participants in the coalition’s program can receive focused support for test preparation, as the state’s teacher preparation tests have been identified as a significant obstacle for teacher candidates of color. In addition, the coalition works with administrators in four partner districts in Western Massachusetts to develop a culture of inclusiveness and support for teachers of color, as a way to recruit and retain a more diverse educator workforce. An ESA-based teacher preparation program brings a unique understanding of the work of both educator preparation programs and K-12 districts and represents a perspective that can help to bridge conversations between coalition members.

Future

In recent years, Massachusetts has made significant changes to the expectations and requirements for educator preparation programs, both teacher licensure and administrative leadership. The CES Licensure Program is uniquely placed to meet these changing needs with a combination of expertise and innovative thinking. The program brings a professional lens to the work of the educator, an understanding that teaching is more than tips and tricks. As Dr. Buckley commented, “What do you do when the toolbox is empty? A program needs to prepare educators to evaluate, research and develop their own expertise.”  An ESA-based educator preparation program has the opportunity to deeply embed itself in the world of professional development, connect to the principles of applicable practice, and be nimble and adaptable to future changes. Rather than being tossed about by the waves, the program’s position in the larger agency has made it possible to adapt to the coming changes and “ride the wave.” In a time of declining enrollments across higher education (as evidenced by the closure of brick and mortar institutions across the state and across the country), the program’s greatest strength is in the relevance of coursework, the vast expertise of instructors, the accessibility and adaptability of the blended online format, and a commitment to the belief that all students have the right to teachers who are prepared to meet their needs as learners.

 

Suzanne Judson-Whitehouse, Director of Licensure & Credentialing; Allisonn Church, Online Learning and Course Administrator; Liza Manchester, Student Affairs and Field Experiences Administrator. Collaborative for Educational Services. They can be reached by phone at (413) 486-4900 and by email at license@collaborative.org.

 

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