Administrators STRENGTHEN TEACHER QUALITY
Innovations in Education: Alternative Routes to Teacher Certification
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Northeastern California Partnership for Special Education, Chico, California

Certification/Degree Special Education
Partners Cal. State Univ., Chico
57 Local Ed. Agencies
Commission on
Teacher Credentialing
U.S. Dept. of Education's
Office of Special Education and
Rehabilitative Services
Program Initiated 1989
Total Program Graduates 331
2004 Candidate Cohort 60
Candidate Demographics 74% Female
26% Male
88% White
9% Hispanic
2% Native American
2% Asian Am.
15% Individuals with disabilities
Program Duration 2 years
Cost per Candidate/Who Pays $10,000 average
Candidate is responsible but may receive a scholarship of $5,200-$10,000

In 1987 the special education picture in California's 14 most northern counties could be summed up in a single word: desperate. The sparsely populated region, spanning 43,000 square miles-an area slightly larger than Austria-had at least 60 special education teachers on emergency credentials and a much larger group of substitutes with no credentials at all. Individual county offices of education organized some courses locally in conjunction with California State University, Chico (CSUC), the sole higher education institution in the region providing special education preparation. But the curricular offerings lacked structure, frequency, sequence, and coherence. Professors made local visits only sporadically, and candidates had only rare opportunities to be on campus. Given these obstacles, it took roughly seven years to get the credential. Not surprisingly, few candidates stayed that long.

In response to this crisis, CSUC developed the Northeastern California Partnership for Special Education in 1989. It offers an alternative route program in the form of an education specialist internship. Its mission is "to improve the quality of rural special education services to pupils and their families."

The partnership comprises CSUC, 57 local education agencies (including school districts, individual schools, and counties), the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC), and the federal government. The Partnership Advisory Board provides program oversight and policy leadership. The Board consists of representatives of the partner groups, including a cross-section of professional roles, community and parent representatives, and university faculty. Regular communication ensures that the university and each of the local education agencies share equally in decisions governing each local candidate's recruitment, selection, support, and competency verification.

The program begins with a preservice orientation on the CSUC campus. Program participants, or "interns," then begin teaching full time while working toward a full credential by way of a highly structured, organized, sequential learning experience.

It typically takes two years to complete the program, including summer school on campus. During the school year, classes are offered on campus on the candidate's monthly release days and on one Saturday each semester, as well as online after the candidate's school day via real-time streaming video on the Web.

Recruitment and Selection

The program has an emphasis on attracting home grown talent. In its recruitment efforts, the program deliberately targets groups that are under represented nationally as special education teachers (especially people with disabilities and men). And as the diversity of the region's students continues to increase, the program also actively recruits ethnically diverse candidates. Due to regional increases in rural drug abuse and poverty, the program has made it a priority to search for candidates with credentials to serve students with moderate-to-severe needs.

Many candidates in this program are career changers—notably from the military and the dot-com industry—or people re-entering the workforce. The average age is 40. Some candidates are drawn to the program because they have children of their own in special education. Others say they had always wanted to teach but got sidetracked by better-paying jobs. A common denominator seems to be a certain level of maturity.

Many candidates must meet a set of basic state requirements, including having a bachelor's degree with a GPA of at least 2.67, demonstration of subject-matter competency, and passing the California Basic Education Skills Test. Every candidate who meets the prescreening criteria goes through an extensive and intensive structured interview conducted by a team. Since the program is continual, interviews take place every two weeks. The interview protocol is inspired by the "Star" Teacher Selection Interview developed by the Haberman Educational Foundation—an instrument with a 95 percent predictive rate over its 35-year history. It helps to gauge such qualities as whether a person is persistent, is a problem solver, is protective of learners and learning, can translate theory into practice, and can use successful approaches with students considered at risk of failure. An essay portion of the interview assesses writing ability. And the process also includes role-playing situations.

The selection interview is specifically tailored to rural special education teaching. It seeks to evaluate, for example, a candidate's reasons for becoming a teacher and working with exceptional children and prior commitment to exceptional children. It determines candidate's skills in communication and collaboration through such questions as: What role does collaboration play in special education? How would you create a climate of fairness and equity in a diverse classroom? "The interview process makes it clear to candidates that this is a rigorous program," says a program adviser. "Before we used it, candidates would get into the program and then say, 'I had no idea this would be so hard.'"

Team members score interview results using a rubric and candidates who score below a cutoff point are not accepted. Candidates who do not make the initial cut are assigned to a second team for another interview. "We don't want their whole career dependent on one interview," says the adviser.

Candidate Training: Content and Pedagogy

Each candidate's goals and his or her action plan for achieving those goals—including course work, individual assistance, and professional development opportunities—are documented and tracked in a personal roadmap called the Individualized Induction Program (IIP). The entire program is anchored in standards: the California standards for the teaching profession, the education specialist standards for earning the credential, and the California academic content standards for students. Each IIP is designed to ensure that by the end of the program, the candidate meets all the standards. The candidate's course work must follow a prescribed scope and sequence of courses, but substitutions are allowed, based on a candidate's background and experience. The candidate's portfolios and reflective logs are organized around the standards.

The program begins with a one-day orientation, dubbed survival training, in which candidates become acquainted with the instructors, the university supervisors, and—if possible—the local support providers (i.e., mentors). During the orientation, candidates also begin to get to know each other.

Throughout the program, discussions are tailored to suit the issues candidates confront in their daily teaching. The traditional time gap between course work and the chance to put what's being learned into practice is virtually nonexistent in this program, with candidates continually traveling an arc from academic theory to trying it out with their pupils, and then, back in the university classroom, reflecting with instructors and peers on what worked, what didn't, and why.

The curriculum is geared to pupil outcomes. Under the program's Pupil Assessment Project, for example, candidates focus on four or five of their most challenging pupils and how to move them forward. The emphasis is on using assessment to support pupil growth.

Overall, more emphasis is placed on teaching strategies than on content. "We are a fifth-year program, meaning that candidates come in with subject-matter content, so the focus is on pedagogy," says the program director. "However, it's very content-rich. And the fact is, both content and pedagogy are special-education specific."

The cluster of courses and field experiences required for California's Level 1 credential covers a range of critical how-tos, such as how to manage the physical structure and content of learning environments to meet pupils' behavioral and academic needs; how to work collaboratively to construct a pupil's Individualized Education Program; and how to approach relationships with paraprofessionals. The cluster also covers assessment and evaluation, methods for teaching math, technology in specialized instruction, and laws and regulations in special education.

Level 2 requirements include instructional strategies for behaviorally and emotionally disturbed students and advanced curriculum content for teaching pupils with both mild-moderate and moderate-severe disabilities.

Mentoring, Supervision, and Support

The individualized web of candidate support provided collaboratively by district and university staff is the soul of this partnership program.* Not only do these relationships provide a safety net for the candidate during the high wire act of simultaneously learning and teaching, but they enable high caliber learning experiences for pupils by bringing layers of expertise to bear in meeting pupil needs, even in remote locations.

The candidate's support team consists of CSUC-based program coordinators and supervisors and local mentors and administrators. Supervisors are university instructors who facilitate the support network in their assigned region. Each supervisor works with 10-15 mentors and roughly the same number of candidates, whom they follow throughout the four semesters. They visit candidates onsite at least five times a semester to observe, coach, model, and mentor. Between visits, they maintain phone and email contact. Besides linking with mentors, supervisors communicate and develop rapport with school principals and other district or county education administrators. Many of today's supervisors were once candidates themselves. Mentors, or local support providers, are local teachers or district staff members with at least three years of successful teaching experience. They are nominated by county or district administrators and usually work one-on-one with a candidate—matched by credential and expertise. Mentors attend training at the university, meet weekly with the candidate for the first two semesters, and work with a university supervisor. The mentor gets release time and a stipend to function as the candidate's coach, consultant, and critical friend to help reduce stress, build skills, and meet the needs of the moment.

Principals and other local administrators are also integral members of the candidate's support team. At the end of the program, the supervisor and principal must both sign off on required competencies for the candidate to receive a credential.

The program's evaluation of a candidate's readiness for the credential models the kinds of assessment the candidate is learning to conduct with his or her own pupils. The evaluation incorporates the following measures:

  • a GPA of at least 3.0 must be maintained in all courses;

  • artifacts from course work, including, in the candidate's portfolio, a detailed reflective journal tied to standards, as well as individualized lesson plans driven by analyses of ongoing pupil assessment data and critiqued by supervisors, mentors, and the employer;

  • formative observation feedback, using a research-based format, that documents growth and skills in teaching;

  • results from individual progress conferences between candidate and faculty that are held at least twice a year;

  • results from conferences among supervisor, mentor, employer, and candidate that occur at critical junctures during internship placements; and

  • a final evaluation of competencies made by the supervisor, employer, and related program faculty.

Finally, each candidate presents his or her portfolio in an oral presentation for a peer-review session. Faculty then provide written feedback and make a recommendation regarding state certification.

Funding

Each partner contributes to the program. The university provides televised or Web-based courses, regional supervision, and separate course sections for candidates. Public schools guarantee candidates 10 paid release days each year to attend classes. Grants from the CCTC and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services support partial tuition stipends, the services of support providers (mentors and candidate adviser), and program coordination and evaluation.

Success Indicators

This program can boast an unprecedented feat: It has eliminated special education emergency credentials in its sprawling service area. Since 1990, the program has had 331 graduates, and 91 percent of them now teach in the region's schools. That rate of local retention has held steady despite the intensifying seriousness of pupil needs over time and despite the mobility afforded by a credential that qualifies one to teach at any K-12 level and across special education settings. So far, some 206,875 special education pupils have gained credentialed teachers.

The program has also had a ripple effect throughout individual schools, as veteran general education teachers—often struggling to keep up with changed standards—tap into the cutting-edge knowledge and skills brought to their sites by way of the CSU Chico-linked special education program. "I see other teachers coming by when I come to a school," says one university instructor. Administrators see this, too, and build on it to keep their sites more current. They ask candidates to do consultations and modeling with other teachers, for example, or to present at board meetings.

Key Success Factors

The partnership leaders credit five guiding principles for driving the program's success over time:

Attract candidates by raising, not lowering, standards. From the outset, the partners asserted the need to draw a different clientele—people more suited to meeting kids' needs—by raising standards for admission, university curriculum, and candidate supervision and performance. They set, and have not wavered from, twin goals of high quality and ready access.

Ensure collaborative decisions. The public schools and the university make mutual decisions. A critical step in making the program a success was gaining the support of the regional school districts for a structured, centralized program. By allocating funds for monthly teacher release days, districts agreed to give up the courses they were offering locally. But it was not a tough sell, since administrators saw hope in the new program for ending the emergency credential crisis.

Evaluate for continuous improvement. In the face of continual challenges, the program remains flexible, using evaluative data (including feedback from students and others throughout the region) to identify and solve problems. The use of data to tailor the program so that it meets candidate needs has resulted in a rising retention rate over time. One administrator emphasizes that information collected is not just quantitative. "We try to collect candidates' voices. The survey at the end of each class is not just their rating but their words and their emotions connected to this course experience. Honesty is important. We break down the objectives of the courses and ask what students are not feeling satisfied with."

Pursue high quality personnel. Program directors, instructors, supervisors, and advisers have extensive public school experience and excellent academic backgrounds. They understand highly effective teaching and the demands of a rural internship and are committed to offering stability through their roles. All involved credit the "grow-your-own" approach the program has used. In effect, it's a case of program administration modeling the kind of culture it strives to nurture in the program itself. "We have all been mentored," says one program staff member. "This program has done a remarkable job of recognizing talent in our own backyard and encouraging and supporting people to be innovative."

Pursue external funding. Annual grant writing has secured state and federal funds that have underwritten management, advisement, coordination, regional travel, program materials, support provider stipends and training, candidate stipends, and program evaluation.

*For the theoretical underpinnings of the support structure, program leaders refer to Tharp and Gallimore's Triadic Model of Assisted Performance (1988), which is based on the Kamehameha Elementary Education Program, a 15-year continuous research and development program.


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Last Modified: 04/18/2008