Education

Teacher-Licensing Plan Stirs Opposition in Pa.

By Robert C. Johnston — September 15, 1999 4 min read
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Pennsylvania’s recent effort to make it easier for college graduates without formal teacher training to become licensed classroom instructors has sparked a legal and rhetorical fracas between school groups and top state officials.

Gov. Tom Ridge

Gov. Tom Ridge unveiled his alternative-education plan in April, prompting some 2,000 queries to the state department of education. But, in July, a teachers’ union and a group representing teacher-training programs sued to quash the program.

A trial date in the case has not been set. Meanwhile, state officials say that no one has applied to the controversial program, which the Republican governor had hoped would help ease teacher shortages in urban areas and in such subjects as mathematics and science.

“Alternative certification is designated for a very special candidate who is screened at the local level,” said Michael B. Poliakoff, the state deputy secretary of secondary and higher education. “We want the best and brightest.”

The new program shortens the traditional licensure route by allowing candidates to earn their certification through a university program in 15 months while they teach in a local school.

To qualify, candidates need a 3.0 grade point average and a subject-area degree. One of the points of contention is that the candidates can enter the classroom after a two-week training seminar.

Out of Bounds?

The lawsuit filed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators claims state officials lacked the authority to create the program.

“We allege that the secretary of education does not have the authority to implement the regulations without legislative approval,” said Mark Widoff, the general counsel for the PSEA, the state affiliate of the National Education Association.

Besides, foes of the program contend, the two weeks of preparation for participating teachers is grossly inadequate. As a result, they say, the program is unlikely to be backed by colleges that must team up with school districts to support the alternative-certification candidates.

John Butzow

“It’s not that my association objects to the idea of alternative certification,” said John W. Butzow, the president of the Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators. “But this falls so deliberately short that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to us how it could result in substantial learning about teaching.”

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association, for its part, disagrees. Last month, the influential association entered the fray by supporting the governor’s plan. And state education officials are vowing to fight.

“We believe the department is empowered to implement alternative certification,” said Dan Langan, a spokesman for Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok. “The department will vigorously defend its ability to implement this program.”

Quantity and Quality

Pennsylvania’s 91 teacher-preparation programs produce far more licensed teachers annually than are hired. Still, some districts are hardly awash in applicants. The 215,000-student Philadelphia schools hired more than 200 interns this summer to help fill 1,000 teaching spots.

Mr. Butzow, who is the dean of the college of education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said the state loses top teaching prospects to other states. “Some of my best students are recruited before the year is over,” he said.

Rather than promote alternative certification, however, he urges a closer look at local residency requirements, low pay, and insufficiently aggressive recruitment as obstacles to getting good teachers where they are most needed.

Elsewhere, 21 states already use alternative teacher certification to hire teachers, according to the National Center for Education Information, a private research group in Washington that has tracked alternative certification since 1983. The group defends the practice as a source of well-qualified instructors.

“It’s every bit as much about quality as quantity,” said C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the center. “I think the maturity factor is proving to be a big asset in schools.”

But, as in Pennsylvania, the programs often prove a subject of fierce debate.

New Jersey’s state board of education ran into a maelstrom of opposition from teachers’ unions when it passed one of the first alternative-certification programs in 1984. The program drew nearly 1,000 candidates the first summer after it was passed, including many applicants from private and religious school faculties.

During the last school year, 700 of about 3,600 new teachers in New Jersey were certified through the alternative program.

Ms. Feistritzer said she considers the Pennsylvania program “perfectly sound and not outrageous.” But, she added, “I’m sure that a lot of the problem is that there are institutions that prepare more teachers than the state needs, so they say, ‘Why do we need it?’ ”

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