Teacher shortage feared

Many blame cumbersome certification rules of dubious value

The twin pinch of an increase in student enrollment and a rise in the number of retiring teachers has many school districts scrambling for ways to address an expected teacher shortage. The looming problem has prompted a discussion among school officials and policy-makers over how state teacher certification rules might be changed to simplify and accelerate the process by which qualified candidates can become educators.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that public school districts across the country will need to hire over a million new teachers by 2010. Many of the new teachers will replace a retiring workforce of teachers who are now in their 40s and 50s. According to the department, demand for teachers will be greatest in the areas of special education, science, and math.

In Michigan and other states, state governments regulate entry into the teaching profession through licensure and certification programs. These programs are intended to ensure that quality teachers without criminal records enter school classrooms with adequate knowledge to teach in their subject area. However, stringent certification processes also can limit access to the teaching profession, keeping out many otherwise qualified individuals.

Michigan's teacher certification program, which is administered by the Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction and State Board of Education, requires various components including college-level education coursework, a period of student teaching, a state licensure exam, and a criminal background check. State teacher certification is required for teachers in public, charter, and private schools across the state. There are few exceptions to the law, such as a provision for teachers who object on a religious basis.

Does certification equal qualification?

Teacher test scores can be a catalyst for teacher certification reform efforts, as one state has discovered.

In September, the Chicago Sun-Times evaluated the results from the Illinois teacher licensure exam-also called the "basic skills tests." The results revealed that over 5,000 current Illinois teachers failed the state's tests.

Through Freedom of Information Act requests, the Sun-Times obtained test pass rates for teachers around the state. The Sun-Times reviewed records for basic skills and subject matter tests taken between July 1998 and April 2001. Nearly 416,000 pass-fail records of aspiring teachers were reviewed in the process.

The Sun-Times analysis revealed that hundreds of teachers employed by Illinois public schools failed both the basic skills test and a subject matter test. Over 5,000 failed at least one certification test.

The Sun-Times reported that the state's "worst teacher-test flunker" failed 24 of 25 teacher tests-including 11 of 12 basic skills tests and all 12 tests on teaching learning-disabled children. Yet, according to state records, that teacher was assigned to teach learning-disabled children in Chicago.

Following the Sun-Times exposé, Illinois Gov. George Ryan asked the State Board of Education to investigate questions raised by the newspaper's findings, the Illinois Legislature held hearings on the issue of improving the teacher certification process, and Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan told the Sun-Times that city schools would require job applicants to disclose how many tries they needed to pass their teacher certification tests.

Alternative certification in Michigan

The Sun-Times investigation produced action by state and school officials to reform Illinois teacher certification requirements. Michigan also is in the process of reforming its teacher certification program. The State Board of Education has formed the "Ensuring Excellent Educators Task Force," a group comprised of teachers, university representatives, union officials, State Board of Education members, policy experts, and legislators. The task force is evaluating current certification requirements and is expected to issue its recommendations in December.

The goals of the task force include enhancing the teaching profession; increasing teacher quality; restructuring schools and educational processes; and developing partnerships among educators, universities, legislators, and all involved in the education process.

Currently, Michigan has an alternative teacher certification program that can be invoked when schools face shortages in certain grades or subject areas and have no state-certified applicants for open positions. However, the program requires candidates to possess or obtain training similar to teachers already in the classroom and to participate in an accredited teacher preparation program.

Under current regulations, a person with a master's or doctoral degree could not be certified to teach, even in a school with a teacher shortage, without agreeing to take hours of college pedagogy courses and pass state tests.

In a recent Detroit Free Press commentary, former history teacher and Mackinac Center Director of Education Policy Matthew Brouillette suggested that serious changes must be made to the teacher certification process to open the door for highly qualified individuals to teach in Michigan schools and alleviate the teacher shortage.

"Second only to parental involvement, teacher quality dramatically affects student academic success. Michigan's public schools need teachers with a solid knowledge of subject matter," Brouillette wrote.

Brouillette has also argued that certification does not equal qualification and that highly qualified individuals are often left out of the teaching profession due to the needlessly onerous rules and regulations of the certification process.

But some teachers believe the current certification process must be protected, and doubt the efficacy of alternative or limited teacher certification programs.

"I don't think you can ensure quality with these kinds of programs," Nancy Pietraszkiewicz, a Central Michigan University teacher education professor, told The Detroit News earlier this year, in response to questions about fast-track alternative certification programs.

"You get a warm body in the room and probably not much else."

A new national certification source

Along with state legislatures and education officials, organizations around the country also are grappling with teacher certification issues and seeking new ways to ensure that enough knowledgeable, capable teachers are hired.

The newly formed American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence unveiled plans recently to set up a national credentialing system for educators that will gauge their knowledge of subject matter and pedagogy through rigorous standardized tests. The new system, supported by a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, seeks to supplement rather than replace current state-licensure requirements, Dr. Michael Poliakoff told Education Week. Poliakoff is the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, the Washington, D.C.-based group that is leading the new credentialing effort.

A voluntary national certification test already exists; in 44 states, teachers who achieve national certification through this program are provided with bonuses.

Dr. Sam Peavey, professor emeritus of the School of Education at the University of Illinois, believes that the link between current certification of teachers and student success is weak at best.

"After 50 years of research, we have found no significant correlation between the requirements for teacher certification and the quality of student achievement," he said.

The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence hopes to reform "Byzantine" teacher certification processes by creating a streamlined test that will prove useful for determining teacher quality.

"This project will bridge the gulf between certification and qualification," Poliakoff said. "This test will have the capacity to distinguish between good, mediocre, and outstanding educators."