Ark. Lowers Hurdles for 'Exceptional' Aspiring Teachers

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Faced with starting school next fall with 2,000 teachers fewer than the state needs, the Arkansas board of education made it easier last week for uncertified teachers to land jobs in the state's classrooms.

For candidates deemed "exceptionally qualified," the state education department will now waive its requirements that new teachers pass qualifying exams and prove they earned a 2.75 grade point average in college. Nontraditional candidates who don't measure up to the department's exceptional-qualifications standards will still need a 2.75 GPA and be required to pass the Praxis academic-content and basic-skills exams before being allowed to teach in the state, under the revised policy.

"Our objective is to get quality teachers and to get them as quickly as possible," said Raymond J. Simon, the director of the Arkansas education department. "It wasn't fair to the what we call exceptionally qualified candidate that might have life experience that would make him qualified to teach very quickly."

Arkansas, like many other states, has experimented in recent years with ways to recruit new teachers who have not earned certification with an education degree. Since it created its nontraditional-licensure track in 1988 the state has required that uncertified teachers clear many of the same hurdles as education school graduates.

Under the old rules, all applicants in the nontraditional route needed to pass three sections of the Praxis tests—nationally used exams produced by the Educational Testing Service—to prove their reading and math skills and their knowledge of the subjects they intended to teach. They also could not teach if their college GPAs were below 2.75.

With the changes approved by the state board of education last week, state education officials can approve a nontraditional candidate's license right away if they consider the applicant's professional skills to be strong enough. They also can waive the requirement that the applicant pass the general-skills and content-knowledge sections of the Praxis.

Under both the old and new policies, all nontraditional teachers must pass the performance-based section of the Praxisin which they show their ability to teach in a classroom—within three years of starting to teach.

To compensate for alternative-route candidates' lack of education experience, the state will hire teachers in their new schools to serve as mentors as part of the revised policy. The state will pay each mentor a $1,200 salary supplement.

'Uniform Standard'

The state affiliate of the National Education Association is unhappy with the changes, complaining that the state has set up a two-track system that will lower the standards for teachers in the nontraditional track.

"If you're going to have a standard for teachers, it ought to be a uniform standard," said Linda A. Pondexter, the president of the 20,000-member Arkansas Education Association. "Instead of reducing [GPA] standards, we ought to be talking about high standards for all people who enter the profession."

Under the new rules, a traditionally trained teacher- candidate who failed to win a credential by falling below the 2.75 GPA level could instead win certification through the nontraditional route, Ms. Pondexter said.

But Luke Gordy, the chairman of the state school board, said that was unlikely to occur. The education department will accept only candidates who have proved their skills in other professions despite less-than-stellar academic backgrounds, he said.

"There are a lot of people who have spent 20 years in a career with a lot of success that didn't have a 2.75 GPA," Mr. Gordy said.

Arkansas is not alone in trying to ease entry into the teaching profession through an alternative route to certification, noted Lynn M. Cornett, the senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. But state policymakers must be sure that the alternative doesn't lower the quality of teachers in the classroom, said Ms. Cornett, who wrote a 1999 report explaining what Southern states were doing to protect the quality of their teaching forces while facing a shortage of candidates.

"There are a lot of questions to ask before you lower the standards for teachers at the same time standards are being raised for students," she said.

Vol. 20, Issue 32, Page 20

Published in Print: April 25, 2001, as Ark. Lowers Hurdles for 'Exceptional' Aspiring Teachers
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