Union calls on state board to drop teacher licensure plan

The Indiana State Teachers Association and others are pushing hard to try to stop what they view as a loosening of teacher certification rules, but so far most of the state board members who favor those changes are standing by them.

The state’s largest teachers union held a press conference today calling for the Indiana State Board of Education last week to reverse a narrow 6-5 decision that kept the potential rule changes alive. Union leaders were joined by representatives of teachers’ colleges, parent-teacher groups, superintendents, urban schools and statehouse Democrats.

“Indiana already offers alternative routes to teaching,” ISTA President Teresa Meredith said. “This new permit decreases teacher quality for our students, allowing a person with no teaching or classroom training to become an educator in Indiana. This person would have no training in critical areas such as child psychology, classroom management and child development.”

Can ISTA and its allies get just one state board member to change their vote and turn the tide against the new rules?

It doesn’t look good so far.

Four of the six board members who favored those rules said today they’ve heard nothing yet to persuade them to change sides.

“I think this is a good opportunity to allow greater flexibility for local officials to tap into new talent that can really add value for the school,” board member Gordon Hendry. “No one is requiring schools to accept any candidates. The outcry is overstated. The sky is not falling.”

Earlier this month, State Superintendent Glenda Ritz led a charge against the proposed rules that date to the era of her predecessor, Tony Bennett. Ritz was joined by three board members who are active K-12 educators —teachers Cari Whicker and Sarah O’Brien and principal Troy Albert — in supporting a motion to drop portions of the third round of the Rules for Education Preparation and Accountability, or REPA III.

Joined by Brad Oliver, who leads the educational leadership program at Indiana Wesleyan University, they came one vote short of killing a provision to create a “career specialist” teaching license (formerly called the “adjunct” license).

Under the new license, which could come up for a final vote as soon as next month, college graduates with a 3.0 grade point average and experience roughly equivalent to 3 years in work related to the subject they wish to teach could pass content exam to begin teaching right away.

That weakens expectations for teachers and devalues teacher training, opponents have argued. Whicker and others also stressed their view that the career specialist license simply wasn’t needed because Indiana already allows professionals changing careers to enter teaching without earning an entirely new undergraduate or graduate degree in education.

Still, the idea that even more potentially good teachers could be attracted into the classroom through a new permit has been in the works for more than two years.

When the proposal first came to the state board in 2012, it passed easily 9-2 but a technicality sent it back to the board for reconsideration. Five members of the board have been replaced by Gov. Mike Pence since the first vote.

Board member Tony Walker surprised some by voting to keep the career specialist license last week despite criticizing it in March. But Walker said changes to the proposal since then have so far won him over.

They include limiting the license to two years, instead of the original five years, and requiring neophyte teachers to begin courses in teaching methods right away as they start their work in the classroom.

Walker, a lawyer, said the issue is intensely personal to him because he once considered changing careers to become a teacher but was discouraged by the amount of schooling he would have to first undertake.

“I wasn’t willing to go back to half of college to become a teacher,” he said.

Personal experience is also driving board member Andrea Neal’s support. Neal was a newspaper columnist when she was offered a teaching job at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis. She originally planned to sign up for a transition to teaching program but found she could learn teaching methods on the job with support from the school.

“A very experienced educator served as my mentor,” she said. “I’m not a licensed teacher. That obviously colors my view on this but some of the best teachers I know are not licensed teachers. I’m not inclined to change my mind.”

Board member Gordon Hendry compared the process a new teacher would follow under the career specialist license to the work of young law students, who often deal with clients and complete legal work before passing the state bar exam under supervision from experienced lawyers.

Hendry, himself, wrote legal brief that was submitted to an appellate court as part of an active case when he was a law student.

“I think there is additional flexibility specialist in the career specialist license,” he said. “I think this is a good opportunity to allow greater flexibility for local officials to tap into new talent that can really add value for the school.”

It’s not surprising, board member Dan Elsener said, that few of his colleagues are inclined to change their positions. Board members on both sides, he said, have put in a lot of work on the question and thought deeply about the issues. Elsener believes the differences of opinion are honest and strongly felt.

Elsener believes the proposed rules can be helpful.

“You want high standards to get in the profession always,” he said. “Part of that is widening the aperture of people who can go into it.”

There are plenty of incentives for principals to hire teachers who they strongly believe will succeed. Adding this avenue to teaching will give them more options but not require them to hire anyone they don’t want to, Elsener said.

“There are moral, professional and ethical standards principals need to uphold,” he said. “There is also statewide accountability. There’s a lot of motivation to be careful who you hire.”