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Alternate certification plan for teachers raises mixed views

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (12/2/2003)
By Penny Cockerell

DALLAS —Melanie Wilkerson always wanted to teach.

Her East Texas parents - one a nurse, the other a career teacher - warned her of low pay and little appreciation, and some of their concerns are proving true.

While Wilkerson spent five years earning an early childhood education degree, the state may soon offer others a shortcut into the classroom.

State education officials proposed allowing college graduates who pass a competency exam to receive temporary certificates to teach the eighth through 12th grades.

They must complete an abbreviated pre-service training similar to college education course. State certification comes later - up to two years later - while they teach Texas' children.

The move passed earlier this month in a 5-4-1 vote by the State Board of Educator Certification. Its purpose: To help alleviate Texas' estimated teacher shortage of 35,000 to 60,000.

"It's like a slap in her face," Jan Wilkerson said. "Why does she have to go to all the trouble she's gone through to do student teaching, get her degree, and then somebody else can be certified by the school district? That's not fair."

John Beck, who heads the Education School at Texas State University in San Marcos, agreed.

"Why do we allow people to operate on children's minds at such a malleable age without any seal of approval?" he asked. "It doesn't make sense to me to think that teaching can be done by anyone and everyone."

Beck points to the value of learning classroom management and techniques, such as teaching children to read and handling a diverse mix of students. Discipline is hard for even trained teachers, much less those still developing, he said.

Beck recalled an aeronautical engineer who thought he wanted to teach, but learned it required more than his vast knowledge - he avoided becoming a classroom disaster.

That wasn't true of a chemical engineer who briefly taught Wilkerson's son.

"She knew nothing about teaching, nothing about classroom management, nothing about children," Wilkerson said.

Alternative teacher certification programs are nothing new in Texas. The first was introduced in 1985 by the Houston ISD.

Other states, like Iowa, New York and Maryland, have similar programs.

Texas has 27 active alternative certification programs, from giving teachers temporary permits to emergency certifications, said Robert Scott, the Texas Education Agency's chief deputy commissioner.

One in four Texas teachers participate in such programs, Scott said.

What makes the new plan different is that individual school districts provide training to certify alternative teachers, giving them full credentials if they choose.

Some argue that bringing in untrained teachers is akin to turning the classroom into on-the-job training. An untrained lawyer wouldn't face a courtroom. An untrained surgeon wouldn't practice on a patient.

Mistakes they say, should happen within the safety of a teachers' college, not in front of impressionable children.

James Windham, a Houston investment consultant and citizen appointee to certification board, balked at such a thought.

"Every classroom in America is a laboratory," he said. "Don't believe it isn't."

The need, some say, is not to create more teachers, but to learn how to keep existing ones.

"There is a myth that Texas has a teacher shortage, but the reality is that there are thousands of certified teachers who are not in the classroom because of low pay, poor benefits and bad working conditions," said Doug Rogers of the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

But improving pay and benefits isn't all that drives teachers.

Pat Laury of Fort Worth has a doctorate in education and was a fully certified teacher. But he left in the middle of his second year.

"They expected too little of the students, both in academics and discipline, and I could not accept those standards," Laury said.

Janice Ford has taught in several North Texas school districts for 25 years. She felt alteration of certification standards again diminishes her professional respect.

"Probably more and more of my age group are looking at not being here very long," Ford said. "And these newer and younger teachers coming in, I'm not getting a sense of that same type of dedication we had coming up."

But sometimes the alternative works.

Ronald Rushing earned a Bachelor of Science degree geared for forestry. When the job market went sour 20 years ago, he was hired at a rural northeast Texas school. He taught, while getting his teachers' certification.

What helped him most were veteran teachers who encouraged and mentored him.

Rushing ultimately taught science with the Navasota ISD near College Station. In 2000, he was chosen as one of Texas' top 20 secondary teachers of the year.

Rushing credits the honor to sharing his life experiences with students.

"A really good teacher is ultimately an information giver," Rushing said. "And if you're a dull person with no background or experiences, you'll be a dull information giver that will inspire few."