Teaching Teachers

As classroom shortages loom, Ohio's already-tough requirements are getting even tougher.

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It isn't easy finding teachers these days. Cleveland recruiters traveled all the way to India. Akron postponed summer programs because it didn't have enough instructors. Lorain stole a new hire from a neighboring district and coaxed another from retirement. Youngstown was forced to hire teachers trained for grade school to fill high school positions.

Ohio's teacher shortage affects urban and rural districts alike. And while applicants are more plentiful in the suburbs, those districts still scrounge for teachers certified in math, science, and special education.

With demand so high, it's ironic how hard it is to become a teacher in Ohio. Many colleges require a rigorous test before students even begin their training, then 450 hours of student teaching on top of a laundry list of requirements. Students plan their schedules to the minute to earn an education degree in four years; still, most need five.

Now, with additional state requirements in effect for the class of 2002, new teachers have to take a standardized test just to get a provisional license, then pass an evaluation after a year. Every five years thereafter, they'll meet with a committee to plot their development; in 10 years, they're required to get their master's.

Few would argue that increased training is a bad thing, but, like so much public policy, the new rules may have unintended consequences.

Germaine Bennett, executive director of human resources for Youngstown schools, is already dealing with applicants who have chosen to graduate under the new requirements. A host of baby boomers are reaching retirement, so Youngstown has plenty of openings. It's her job to find teachers who want to work in one of the most depressed cities in the state -- at thoroughly depressed wages.

Already, she loathes the pre-license test. "We've got openings here now, but I'm waiting for people to pass the test so they can take the job," she says. "And when they fail, it's expensive. We're asking them to pay almost $200 to take the test again, when they've already paid for four or five years of school."

The situation could become worse in a decade. A teacher with a master's degree earns, on average, $32,511 a year less than a non-teacher with the same degree, according to the National Education Association. Experts like Elizabeth Arnett, director of policy and coalition relations for the Ohio Education Association, wonder if math and science teachers will stay in the classroom, once they've spent time and money on an advanced degree.

The master's requirement will hurt financially struggling districts the most, and they know it's futile to look to the state for help: Though the legislature approved the new licensing guidelines, it didn't include a line item for master's degree wage hikes.

Beyond money, there's a concern that the new system is at odds with the way many schools are structured. Under the old system, which certified teachers for either grade school or high school, schools had the flexibility to shuffle teachers between grade levels and subject areas. The new system, however, adds a license for fourth through eighth grade, with no overlap.

Kathleen Manning, chair of John Carroll University's education department, likes how the new licenses recognize that kindergartners are different from eighth-graders. But she's concerned how schools will handle the rigidity of the new standards. "The structure of schooling hasn't changed, but teaching certificates have," she says. "Everyone is asking, how will that affect supply and demand?"

Under the new system, middle school teachers will no longer be generalists, teaching everything from art to science. Instead, they'll be certified for two "concentrations." Students like Annie Jedick, a senior at Kent State, are told that, when they apply to a school, they should ask that a second teacher be hired to instruct in the concentrations they lack.

Jedick realizes how unlikely that is. "I'm going to tell them I can teach everything," she admits, laughing.

For those who wonder why teachers have to meet such strict standards, Marilyn Braatz, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Education, has the answer: It's for the children.

But Michael Poliakoff, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Teacher Quality, believes Ohio's efforts are silly, even without shortage worries.

Poliakoff questions why a state striving to raise standards still bars college professors from teaching high school. "I've talked to post-doctorates with Ph.D.s and teaching experience, and former soldiers with teaching experience in the army," he says. "When they're told they have to go back to school and do hours of methods training, they say, 'I'm sorry, I have a mortgage, I have kids.'"

They could be great teachers, Poliakoff says. "They want to teach, but they don't want to jump through hoops and hurdles that are not going to make them good teachers anyway."

Ohio's "alternative certification" program is little more than a different entry to the same system. A scientist who wants to teach high school biology must take several education classes before entering the classroom. Even then, the state issues only a temporary, two-year license while the scientist crams for an education degree -- no easy feat in two years.

The union considers the rules necessary. "Just because you have a B.S. in chemistry doesn't mean you can teach it," says the OEA's Arnett. "It's not something you grab out of the air by attending a science class when you're 11."

Poliakoff charges that the union wants to protect its own. Other states haven't been as rigid, he says. New Jersey piloted a program in which nontraditional teachers must only pass a rigorous test in their subject area. The state now hires one-fourth of its teachers through it, Poliakoff says. "It works beautifully."

For districts like Youngstown, a program like that could be a godsend. Instead, Bennett must find teachers who meet the new requirements and want to work for peanuts. "First we have a teacher shortage," she says, sighing. "Now they want to make the sky the limit, and everyone has to reach the limit. All we want is to get good teachers in here to teach."

For the sake of the children, Ohio is making her job a lot harder.

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