Ritz-led effort to block teacher certification changes narrowly fails

In a close vote today, the Indiana State Board of Education blocked an effort, led by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, to kill proposed changes to teacher certification.

The debate centered on a proposed “adjunct” teacher license. The rules allow for anyone with at least 6,000 hours of professional work and a 3.0 college GPA in the subject they wish to teach to work in a high school. They would not need any background in teaching. The work experience requirements are a change from an earlier version of the proposed rules that would have allowed anyone with a four-year college degree and a 3.0 GPA to teach if they pass a test of content knowledge.

Those who would use the adjunct certificate, now renamed “career specialist,” would not need any teacher training at the start, but would be required to begin a training program when starting a teaching job.

Ritz and other educators on the board — college professor Brad Oliver, principal Troy Albert and teachers Cari Whicker and Sarah O’Brien — opposed the idea as unneeded, arguing existing rules already allow people who change careers to easily become teachers.

But their criticism wasn’t enough. The other six board members voted to pursue the proposal, which will face a vote at a future board meeting as part of the third iteration of the Rules for Education Preparation and Accountability, or REPA III.

The new license is not needed, said Oliver, who is the dean of the School of Educational Leadership at Indiana Wesleyan University.

“There is no question there are teachers out there who did not come through traditional preparation who need to be in the classroom,” Oliver said. “That flexibility is currently in the rules.”

The deans of the education schools at Indiana University, Butler University and the University of Indianapolis, where many teachers are trained, have also spoken out against the proposed rules as diminishing expectations for what teachers should know before they begin working in classrooms.

But the opposing view from other board members was that one more avenue into teaching might help attract additional talented teachers.

“We’re just giving professional people an opportunity,” board member Dan Elsener said.

When the rules were first proposed as part of what was called REPA II in 2012, they brought a wave of protest. Educators who testified against them said the state shouldn’t allow candidates with no teacher training to become classroom teachers.

The state board made some changes to the original proposal in late 2012 but passed the new rules despite a plea from Ritz, who had just been elected but had not yet taken her post, to delay until she could participate in the debate as a member of the state board.

The new rules, however, were never put in place. A missed deadline forced the rules to go back through a year-long approval process. The missed deadline was one of the first signs of tension between Ritz and the rest of the board, who each blamed the other.

Today’s debate centered on the question of whether new teachers, likely those changing careers, should be allowed to teach right away or first take courses in teaching methods.

“I know some great scientists who may not be great teachers,” Whicker said, advocating for some teacher training first.

But most of the board thought the benefits of potentially attracting talented professionals to teaching outweighed the risks. New teachers using the career specialist license would have to begin a training program and would be subject to evaluation. Like all teachers, if they are rated ineffective they could be fired immediately.

“There is no reason to fear this will lead to unqualified educators,” board member Andrea Neal said. “These teachers will be held accountable through the teacher evaluation system.”

The evaluation system was another point of contention on the board today, leading Ritz to exercise her power as board chair to overrule the other board members for the first time since a series of tense meetings last fall.

Board member David Freitas began the meeting with a motion to establish stronger guidelines for how schools judge teacher effectiveness.

On Tuesday, some board members were not pleased to hear staff reports that schools counted test scores for as little as 10 percent of teachers’ effectiveness ratings.

But Ritz quickly denied the motion. Under the board’s rules, which have been debated in recent months, a motion can only be added to the agenda with support from three board members and Ritz, as the chair.

Nearly all the other board members said they wanted to consider Freitas’ motion, but Ritz stuck to her decision.

Afterward, Ritz said she was open to the discussion Freitas wanted to have, but preferred he follow the board’s normal process for adding agenda items, with Freitas forwarding the language for his motion in advance of the next meeting.

In Tuesday’s meeting, Ritz and others questioned how many limits the state board could set for schools under a law that was designed to give lots of local flexibility.

“Allowing it to come in June will allow my department to actually check out the rule-making authority of the board in regards to that topic,” Ritz said after the meeting.

Ritz and the board have disagreed in recent months over her directions to schools about procedures for evaluation teachers, particularly her ruling that schools did not have to use test scores for teacher evaluations in cases where online testing glitches affected their students’ scores last year. Ritz has been generally critical of Indiana’s approach to testing as too punitive.

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect changes to the proposed career specialist certificate that were not fully detailed in the meeting. Prior rules would have allowed anyone with a college degree and a 3.0 GPA to teach. Work experience was added as a requirement.