Proposal would shorten path to teacher certification, for some

But teacher colleges say quality would suffer

Jennifer Haberling
In discussion at the May state board of education meeting, Jennifer Haberling said that career-changers who move into high school teaching jobs could partner with current classroom teachers to the benefit of each. Current teachers would have new opportunities for mentoring and coaching, and also gain expertise by working with someone who has on-the-job experience in a given subject. Haberling, a secondary education teacher in Hudsonville, is the outgoing Michigan Teacher of the Year. She attends state board meetings as a non-voting participant.

A quicker route to a high school teaching career was recently laid out for state board of education scrutiny, but the idea got a cold reception from the state's teacher colleges.

Michigan Department of Education staff told the board they developed the Michigan Nontraditional Route to Teacher Certification to address predicted teacher shortages in math, science and career education, and also to tap into the talent pool of out-of-work scientists and engineers.

But representatives from the public and private universities that currently train most of Michigan's teachers said they aren't sure a shortage exists. They also questioned whether an expedited program would turn out quality teachers.

“We do have some shortages … in key disciplines.” -John Austin, vice president State Board of Education

The issue is open for debate at least until August; final approval must come from the state board.

As proposed, alternate certification routes would be available to people who already have a bachelor's degree with a major in the content area in which they want to teach. Candidates would have to complete 15 credit hours of coursework and supervised student teaching, among other requirements. The plan would allow schools to hire an individual for a teaching position under a limited permit while that person completes the certification requirements.

The coursework would cover such topics as teaching methodology, use of technology in the classroom and reading instruction, according to Flora Jenkins, director of the Office of Professional Preparation and Certification Services.

No program should take longer than 15 months, she said.

"We're not interested in having this drawn out for two, three, four years," she said.

The program would be limited to people who want to teach sixth through 12th grade, driven by the new state requirement that all secondary students successfully complete four years of math and three of science, according to Jenkins. However, the state also anticipates needing teachers in career education, bilingual education and for English-language learning programs.

Eileen Weiser
Eileen Weiser, speaking to state board members on behalf of the Professional Standards Commission for Teachers, said there is "a tremendous amount of anxiety" on the part of teacher colleges regarding the proposed alternate route to teacher certification.

"As we know, Spanish-speaking populations and others in our state need these services," she said.

A lengthy discussion following Jenkins' presentation ran the gamut from best- to worst-case scenarios. The best case depicts Michigan as taking advantage of the experience and expertise that career-changers can bring to the study of robotics, chemistry, calculus and physics, provided they demonstrate they can teach effectively. The worst case is that dubious "diploma mills" open shop in Michigan and turn out poorly prepared high school teachers, concurrently draining students from traditional university classrooms.

Somewhere between those is a balance of speed and rigor, board Vice President John Austin said.

"We do have some shortages ... in key disciplines," he said, calling the proposal "an opportunity to put to work some very qualified people."

But the Michigan Association of Colleges for Teacher Education opposes the plan, according to spokesperson Susanne Chandler, dean of the UM-Flint School of Education and Human Services.

"Numbers are not the issue here. Teacher quality is," Chandler told the board, calling the proposal an "effort to lower the bar."

The Professional Standards Commission for Teachers, a committee appointed by the state board which already is studying teacher preparation in Michigan, also has concerns, according to Eileen Weiser, former state board member and committee spokesperson.

Those include what will happen to alternative programs that universities already offer, whether the education department has enough staff to oversee another program, and whether enrollment in traditional programs will decline, particularly if students see the new program as a shortcut.

Jenkins said that existing alternate programs would not be affected if they already have state approval. The department also has agreed that during the first three years no entity could offer an alternative program except for teacher preparation institutions themselves, or organizations working collaboratively with a teacher college.

After those three years, however, a local school district, intermediate district, private entity or professional organization could ask the state for approval to offer an alternative certification program independently of a teacher college.

"I'm still not convinced an alternative route is needed," said Susan English, an assistant professor of education at Aquinas College and PSCT member. She suggested that some shortages could be resolved by better communication about available jobs in K-12 schools.

Board member Elizabeth Bauer pointed out that the latest Michigan Test for Teacher Certification report indicates that fewer students are choosing to become secondary math or science teachers.

"I think there's evidence we're training fewer," she said.

Jenkins said that the education department has unofficial data on shortages based on personnel reports filed by local school districts, with more precise data expected from a consultant by fall.

Teacher unions aren't supporting the plan at this point.

"We do not want someone coming in and bypassing going through the same route that our teachers or our members are going through to attain tenure," said Lois Doniver of the Michigan Federation of Teachers.

Weiser said that, "There is concern ... that union teachers may be displaced somehow."

Regarding enrollment in teacher colleges, Michael Flanagan, state superintendent of public instruction, said, "I think there's plenty of work for the education schools." Education schools could play a larger role in offering coursework to early education teachers as well as to college instructors who work with incoming freshmen, he said.

The National Center for Alternative Certification, an information clearinghouse established by the federal government, lists only two alternative programs in Michigan: at Wayne State University and Saginaw Valley State University. Jenkins said there also are experimental programs at Central Michigan, Oakland, Grand Valley and Ferris State universities. English said an informal e-mail survey she did of teacher colleges showed at least 20 of Michigan's 32 teacher preparation institutions offer some type of program for people who already have a bachelor's degree, but noted that most are not 15-month programs. 

In a 2006 article, Michigan Education Report noted that Michigan does not participate in the "Passport to Teaching" program offered by the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. The Teach for America program has not sent any of its graduates to Michigan to date. TFA teachers generally enroll in an alternative education program in the state where they are teaching, according to the organization's Web site.

Addressing the board during its public comment period, one substitute teacher who already holds a bachelor's degree said that she would welcome an alternate certification program.

"I've been wanting to teach for quite some time," she said, but pointed out that most working adults can't afford to quit their jobs long enough to complete student teaching requirements or coursework requirements under existing programs.

The Michigan Nontraditional Route to Teacher Certification is posted at the education department Web site at http://www.mich.gov/mde/0,1607,7-140-6530_ 5683_14795-215302--,00.html.

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Lorie Shane is the managing editor of the Michigan Education Report, the Mackinac Center’s education policy journal. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that Michigan Education Report is properly cited.