Interview with Nasser Cortez, Ed.D. - Director of the Teacher Residency Program at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education on Education Equity and Cultivating DEI in Public Schools
About Nasser Cortez, Ed.D.: Nasser Cortez is Assistant Professor of Clinical Education at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Rossier School of Education. He is also Director of USC’s Teacher Residency Program, which provides full scholarships and stipends to teachers-in-training who want to work at public schools in need within the Los Angeles area. In addition to mentoring USC’s teacher residents, Dr. Cortez teaches courses in the program, including those on bilingual and bicultural student experiences, curriculum development and assessment for students with disabilities, literary instruction, and cultivating an effective classroom environment. USC’s Teacher Residency Program is part of USC’s Educational Equity Initiative (EEI), which has also launched a STEAM Teaching and Research Center, as well as a small network of laboratory schools where teacher residents attending USC can see teachers implementing equity-focused work in real classrooms.
Prior to his work at USC, Dr. Cortez was an Inclusion Specialist and Education Specialist at Whittier City School District, and a Special Education Teacher within Santa Ana Unified School District. He received his Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership from California State University, Fullerton, his Master of Arts in Education from Antioch University Santa Barbara, and his Bachelor of Arts in English from UC Santa Barbara.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Can you tell us about your educational background and what inspired you to focus on supporting students with learning disabilities?
[Dr. Nasser Cortez] I earned my Bachelor’s degree at UC Santa Barbara with an English major. During that time, I worked part-time for an organization called the California Student Opportunity and Access Program (CALSOAP), where I provided instructional support to students at different schools. It sparked my interest in education, and I pursued my teaching credentials at Antioch University. I earned an Ed Specialist credential for Mild/Moderate and Moderate/Severe learning disabilities, as well certifications in Multiple Subjects and a Single Subject (English) credential, before earning my Master’s degree in Education.
During my studies, I got to student teach in Special Education and worked in different Special Education Programs. That’s where my passion grew for working with students with disabilities. I just really enjoyed working with this student population and supporting them through the challenges they encountered, whether they were academic, social, emotional, and/or behavioral.
This is what inspired me to pursue a Doctorate in Educational Leadership at Cal State Fullerton after five years of being in the classroom. I wanted to expand on what I had already been doing and ultimately step into a leadership role, maybe even in the higher education space, which is where I am now, preparing other teachers to work with students who are coping with learning differences, disabilities, and barriers to success in the classroom.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Can you elaborate further on your current role as Assistant Professor at USC?
[Dr. Nasser Cortez] Currently, I’m an Assistant Professor of Clinical Education with the USC Rossier School of Education at University of Southern California, and my research focuses on inclusive education for students with disabilities. Most of my work as an Assistant Professor is clinical. I’m a practitioner, so I work with teacher candidates, a lot of whom are dual credential candidates. I teach three USC courses that highly integrate teacher performance expectations for the Education Specialist credential. I also coordinate supervisors who work with practitioners and evaluate their work as necessary, particularly with single-subject candidates who have to do some field work under supervision.
Specifically, in both research and practice, I’m interested in how teachers can provide appropriate instructional support to students with disabilities and learning differences in inclusive classrooms. I’m also interested in exploring how technology can help support students with disabilities in the classroom.
One of the great things about USC’s program is that it is integrated, meaning we integrate most if not all of the content that is related to the Ed Specialist credential into our regular curriculum. Regardless of whether or not a teacher in our program wants to pursue an Ed Specialist credential, they’re getting all the information to earn one because they are guaranteed to work with students with disabilities in their classrooms. It’s just the nature of our schools right now where we have diverse learning needs in each class and we find it very important to ensure that every teacher is prepared, regardless of their chosen path.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Can you elaborate on your work as Director of the Teacher Residency Program that is part of USC’s Education Equity Initiative?
[Dr. Nasser Cortez] My main focus in the Initiative is, as you mention, the Teacher Residency Program. We work on bringing diverse teacher candidates into our programs to support the needs of the local school districts. I work directly with the teacher residents that are in our schools, as well as other teachers and colleagues to ensure that our candidates have opportunities to participate in professional development opportunities. I collaborate closely with district partners on different grants that the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) is awarding. We recently were awarded two grants to expand our residency program.
This year we had ten residents and we supported their financials, covering their tuition and providing a living stipend so that they can just focus on being teachers. Next year we are projecting enrolling about 30 residents. It is going to be huge growth and we are very excited to be able to admit more residents. We’ve had a lot of interest in our program and interviewed many great candidates, and the selection process has always been really difficult. It will still be difficult, but now we have a lot more opportunities for candidates this coming year.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Could you describe the partnerships that USC has with four “lab schools” in the Los Angeles Unified School District? How do these schools serve as demonstration sites for the rest of the district, and what role does USC play in supporting new and experienced teachers to provide social services and support to students and their families?
[Dr. Nasser Cortez] Our lab schools are actually led by Dr. Mora-Flores and Dr. Sandra Kaplan. They have been going out to schools, finding specific demonstration sites, with the goal of building a mutually beneficial relationship with teachers, staff, and administration.
Dr. Mora-Flores and Dr. Kaplan provide coaching, and then our teacher partners run demonstration classrooms for our teacher candidates. Our teacher candidates will take a couple of days to observe these teachers at a lab school, and that will be part of their student teaching experience. This gives students the chance to see a lot of what we’re teaching in our courses actually play out in the field through the lab school initiative.
I know that Drs. Mora-Flores and Kaplan have also done extensive work with professional development for teachers. Even this week they hosted a professional development session at USC for teachers that were interested. I’m in the early stages of getting involved, and I think I will start by finding demonstration classrooms for our dual candidates to see the Ed Specialist practitioners in action.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Have you noticed more of a shift in the education space to really start integrating equity training into teachers’ professional development? As an education leader and mentor for upcoming teachers, how have you seen equity as an issue evolve or become more prominent or prioritized?
[Dr. Nasser Cortez] I think it’s been a priority in a lot of spaces, at least in my experience. I’ve only been at USC for about three years, and throughout my time here, it has been a major priority. Even during my time working in public school districts, I felt like equity and access were top concerns.
Perhaps this is because my work is in special education, so my work has always been about equity and access. At USC, I would say that all of our courses integrate that concept of equity. It’s part of our mission, and therefore it is ingrained into our courses and in our coursework.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Can you talk about the crucial elements to establishing an equity-focused environment for all students?
[Dr. Nasser Cortez] When I think of equity, this phrase comes to mind, and it is one that I did not invent, “Fair doesn’t mean everyone gets the same. It means that people get what they need.” And as I work particularly with children with disabilities and other needs, that’s always been my focus. Not everyone is going to need the same supports and accommodations. That is part of my job, to figure out what each student needs, develop personalized learning strategies or programs, and find a way to set that up successfully in the classroom.
A lot of it comes down to the mindset and the culture. We can integrate these ideas and these programs into schools, and we can do all these professional development sessions, but if the practitioners with whom we’re working don’t feed into that culture, that mindset, then things aren’t going to be implemented with fidelity. And implementation with fidelity is crucial to the process of school and learning improvement.
A lot of what we talk to our teacher candidates about is just that critical media literacy, understanding how to take apart what they’re hearing, what they’re reading, not just taking everything that they see and they hear at face value. We want our teachers to really dig in and identify those biases and those subjective commentaries as they are building, evaluating, and improving their teaching approach.
It comes down to culture and mindset within the teaching environment. And right now, it’s tough. There’s a lot going on in the world and there are a lot of forces that are pushing back against some of the things that we value in education and that we’re trying to promote. I talk a lot about inclusion with my candidates. We need to be inclusive of our students with distinct learning needs, which encompasses many different groups, including but not limited to students with learning disabilities. We need to foster a strengths-based approach, rather than a deficit mindset. I know for me when I’m teaching a class, I try to practice what I preach with my students. I do try to make sure that I am personalizing learning for everyone and I try to practice that equity focus.
I think the crucial elements are really creating an environment where students feel seen, heard, and valued. That means creating a space where they feel safe to express themselves, where their cultural and linguistic backgrounds are acknowledged and celebrated, and where their individual needs are met. It also means providing access to resources and opportunities that may not have been available to them before.
I think it’s important to have ongoing professional development for teachers to ensure they have the knowledge and skills to create and maintain such an environment. Of course, it’s also essential to have a commitment to equity at all levels of the institution, from leadership to the classroom.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Are there any other elements that you feel are necessary to building an equity-focused culture and mindset within an education setting?
[Dr. Nasser Cortez] A lot of it starts with the preparation that the teachers are getting. And yet a large part of it is also systemic and links back to the sociopolitical structures that hamstring teachers in their pursuit of equitable learning. I know a lot of educators who leave a program feeling really excited to integrate what they’ve learned. They are eager to champion for kids, and then they get there and there’s a lot of other things going on at the district that obstruct their ability to do things that they want to do.
For example, teachers often do not have as much control over their curriculum as they would like. There are curriculum rules and parameters they often have to follow, a lot of that is not culturally responsive; it doesn’t relate to the students that are in teachers’ classrooms. So, I think it takes some pushing back from teachers.
Many new teachers are a little worried about doing that and that’s understandable. I was a new teacher too. You’re excited to be there and you love your job, but at a certain point I think teacher educators also need to advocate for themselves and their students. Sometimes that means pushing back against some of the policies or curriculum guidelines a district or a school site or an administrator might be pushing forward.
I think that strong leadership is also necessary. Which I’m excited about, because we have administrator programs or Ed.D. programs that many administrators in local school districts have joined, and a lot of the work that they’re doing now is aligned with our mission. We know administrators who are invested in learning how to be strong and equitable leaders. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Prior to joining USC, you were an Inclusion Specialist and an Education Specialist at Whittier City School District. You mentioned earlier about how many teachers leave their training excited about integrating or implementing particular programs, only to hit barriers. What were some of the equity issues and challenges that you faced during your work as a teacher and as an education specialist? How does your work from those past years feed into your work now?
[Dr. Nasser Cortez] I was what you might call a specialty class teacher. That was my position in most of the work that I’ve done, and it involved working in a self-contained classroom with students who have been identified with a learning disability.
One of the things that I saw that concerned me was how many of the students who were sent to my classroom did not actually need to be there. They were students who maybe had some challenging behaviors, but those behaviors could have been managed in a general education classroom. In many cases, I felt like administrators found it easier to just send these students over into the special education program or into a special day class, even if that wasn’t the best choice for them and their learning needs.
Even through my final years teaching, I just noticed how all students learn differently, and how school systems are failing students with their individualized learning needs. Some students needed opportunities to move/exercise, while others needed supports or accommodations in class, but they didn’t necessarily need a complete change of placement. They just needed someone to identify their needs and work with them — for example, just incorporating movement breaks, or adjusting assignments, and providing additional supports.
It has always been one my concerns when it comes to the field that I work in — the fact that there is an overrepresentation of students of color in special education. I read it in the research and I saw it firsthand as well. My experiences have definitely shaped my academic focus and my mentorship of USC’s teacher candidates. What is great is that I have so many teachers-in-training who want to have these precise conversations, regardless of whether they are in special education or not. I can see that they really want to be good teachers and they want to be the teacher that makes those accommodations or those supports for students. They want to enact personalized learning that doesn’t push students out.
For me, that is a huge part of improving education — the challenge of personalizing learning without making a child feel excluded. It is what I witnessed and experienced as a special education teacher. It was a tough balance at times during my work; I would have kids whom I thought were wrongfully placed in my classroom, but I also felt, “I know that this student is going to learn in my class and I’m going to do what I can to help them. In the end they might be better off here, even though I know it shouldn’t work that way.” Their teacher should have given more support, should have tried interventions with fidelity.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] During your Ed.D. program at California State University, Fullerton, you completed your dissertation entitled “Supporting Upper Elementary School Students With Learning Disabilities.” Could you elaborate on your dissertation?
[Dr. Nasser Cortez] I was really interested in doing something for my dissertation around special education, so I was glad that I got the opportunity to do that. What I really wanted to see was how special education teachers were addressing the Common Core State Standards and working with students, specifically looking at reading and writing, with literacy being the main area of focus.
The reason I chose that area is my own experience; I know that students can struggle in a lot of subjects, but reading and writing in particular in my experience as an educator were the two areas that brought up the most challenges. It was interesting to see special education teachers’ perceptions of what the Common Core was and what they felt like their students’ needs were. In many cases I saw how teachers were addressing the Common Core in creative ways.
To me, that just solidified what I had already thought, which is that regardless of the students’ learning challenges, they have the potential to meet their grade level’s learning standards — they have the ability to access that curriculum if we take the time to figure out how. That is what I preach to my students. Just yesterday my class and I were talking and I told them, “You might have students that don’t read at grade level, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think at grade level.”
We have to make sure that we are keeping high expectations for our students, because they may be struggling in certain areas but there are other areas where they’re at level or probably even exceeding that.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] How do you see the field of inclusive education evolving in the future?
[Dr. Nasser Cortez] I think we’ll continue to see a push towards more inclusive classrooms and schools. As educators, we need to be prepared to provide appropriate instructional support to diverse student groups. Additionally, I think we’ll see an increased focus on technology as a tool to support students with individual learning needs in the classroom. We need to continue to explore how we can use technology to provide more equitable educational opportunities for all students.
I feel optimistic because I’m working directly with the candidates who will be the next generation of teachers and education leaders, and I can tell that they want to change the education landscape. They come back in a year and tell me what they’re doing in the field, which is wonderful. So, that does bring a lot of optimism. I think our Educational Equity Initiative’s programs, like what Dr. Mora-Flores is doing with the lab schools, is wonderful because our candidates are able to see what they’re learning in class being applied to real school situations, and they’re seeing the benefits of that application.
Our programs have also connected our teacher candidates with the local school districts and communities. For our residency program, I am so excited to see teacher candidates getting financial support so they can really just focus in on teaching. Part of that financial support comes with the commitment that they make to the local school districts, and so they’re committing to some of our schools that really need good teachers. We need a diverse educator workforce in the field, in STEM, special education, language instruction, really across all subjects and contexts.
I think being able to provide financial support to teachers-in-training might also encourage more people to get into the field. There is an alarming shortage of teachers. There are teachers leaving the field and not as many coming into it. That is another piece of our residency that’s exciting, not just the content and what we are teaching our teachers, but also what they’re going to provide for their students.
I’m hoping that we’re making a difference in addressing the teacher shortage and helping in diversifying the teacher workforce. Many of our school districts are majority students of color. So I’m excited that students are going to get teachers that look like them and have had similar experiences.
Thank you, Dr. Nasser Cortez, for your excellent insight into what it will take to combat systemic education inequity, and for your impactful work overseeing USC’s Teacher Residency Program!