Demand falls flat for controversial teaching permit so far

Indiana has an early answer to a heated two-year-old debate about whether it needed a special teaching permit for teachers changing careers to get them into the classroom more quickly.

Then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett said it was critical to have, while education school deans and others said the “career specialist” permit was unnecessary.

So how many teachers have requested the credential that can be used for the first time this fall?

Just two. But if they actually got jobs, it doesn’t appear they’re working in Indianapolis.

Not in Indianapolis Public Schools, not in Perry Township and not at Christel House academies. Washington Township hasn’t made any hires with the permit, nor has Decatur Township or Beech Grove Schools.

No career specialists are working at Charter Schools USA’s schools, and none have so far matriculated through the Teach For America or Indianapolis Teaching Fellows programs — where perhaps you might expect second-career teachers to get their starts.

Those are just a few of the districts, schools and programs Chalkbeat contacted.

Risa Regnier, assistant superintendent at the Indiana Department of Education, said the two permits that have been granted were in visual arts, and she doesn’t know if the permit-holders have teaching jobs yet.

“This is probably viewed by other individuals who have had other careers make a career change,” Regnier said. “Someone might go through the steps to obtain one of these permits and then go seek a job.”

The Indiana State Board of Education passed new teacher preparation rules allowing the permit — known as the Rules for Educator Preparation and Accountability, or REPA III — in September. To qualify, an applicant must have a four-year college degree in the subject they want to teach, a 3.0 GPA, about three years of work experience and must pass a content knowledge test from the state.

The new permit was strongly opposed by many educators, mainly because they believe it skirts a part of teacher training that Pat Rogan, the executive associate dean of the School of Education at IUPUI, said is one of the most important — understanding the how teaching works so that kids learn.

Even teachers with more traditional preparation, such as two years of assisting in the classroom, college coursework and a stint of full-time student teaching, can struggle, she said. The fact that so few permits have been issued seems to prove her and others right — it is unneeded.

“Education personnel understand that teachers must be well prepared prior to being asked to teach our youth,” Rogan said in an email. “Legislators were misguided in their efforts to de-professionalize teacher preparation.”

A battle over qualifications to teach

The state board and education department have been discussing changes to teacher licensure for years.

An earlier version of the rules, known as REPA II, was proposed by Bennett in 2012. It immediately prompted backlash, with a parade of education groups opposing his plan.

Bennett and others argued that licensing rules kept good potential teachers, especially those with professional and life experience, from considering the profession because it required a long and expensive training regime before they could be hired.

But educators argued training in classroom methods was important before teachers begin work. Some felt insulted that the original proposal in essence said untrained workers from other fields could instantly become teachers.

The first proposal, Rogan said, “would’ve lowered the standards for teacher preparation, would have allowed unprepared individuals into our classrooms. It would have allowed those individuals to practice, i.e. learn, on the backs of our children.”

Bennett backed off, adding into the rules more training for teachers who use the career specialist permit.

“I think the state board of education heard loud and clear from everyone — teachers, principals, superintendents, business leaders — you know that doesn’t make any sense,” Rogan said.

Dan Elsener, a former state board of education member who voted in favor of the new rules last fall, still believes the idea is sound.

Easing teacher licensure rules with the new permits should open up a “talent pipeline” to help fill empty positions and bring in more qualified candidates, he said. Plus, there are safeguards in place to prevent those who are unqualified from sticking around, he said.

“Every board member gave it serious thought,” Elsener said. “It wasn’t casually done because you never want to put a professional in front of young people when the consequences are so high with K-12 education.”

New license sees little demand

So why such a tepid response from job-seekers?

Regnier said she never expected that the new permits, which are not issued by any specific school or district, would be in high-demand.

Demand might be so low, she said, because of the very requirements for additional training that educators asked for. In other programs that are more widely used, aspiring teachers don’t necessarily have to teach and take foundational classes at the same time, she said.

But there are few rules around the training. It could be overseen by a university, a local school district or another state-approved program. That haziness is troubling to Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith.

“Career-specialist training doesn’t have to be college training, and that’s a little scary,” Meredith said. “I can’t say I want my kid in a class with a teacher who doesn’t understand how kids think and act and learn.”

But once a teacher with the permit begins teaching, Regnier said, they’ll have to devise a plan for additional learning and bring it before the state board for approval.

“Even though there is some flexibility there, it comes back to the state board to review the pedagogy component and determine whether it is delivering the knowledge and pedagogical skills that the state board believes that this teacher should receive,” she said.

A case for trusting school leaders

Elsener said teachers and community members need to place more trust in school leaders when it comes to hiring with the new permits and have faith they’ll evaluate all teachers fairly under the state’s rating system.

A school leader can judge whether someone would make a good teacher, even if their experience is in another field, he said.

“You have to trust the local people that they are going to take good care of their young people and they are not just going to hire someone,” Elsener said. “It requires you have a good accountability system so you can’t hide incompetent teachers.”

But Rogan said teachers, legislators and policymakers must work together to create rules that both prepare teachers appropriately and make sure schools can choose from a variety of qualified candidates.

There should be broad agreement on the basics of what teachers must know before they start teaching.

“Teachers and educators need to do a better job of talking to their neighbors, talking to their legislators and other state decision-makers about what they do, how they do it, what challenges they face and what contributes to their success,” Rogan said. “But on the other hand, legislators need to be better listeners and more attentive to the realities of today’s classrooms and what challenges teachers face and also a bit more humble about what they don’t know.”

And it’s early yet, Regnier said. The license has only been available since January. It could still prove useful for future teachers and those doing the hiring.

“This has only been a possible type of license for people for about six months, and we’ve only issued a couple of them,” Regnier said. “It is still very, very early in the game to tell whether this is going to gain popularity and how it’s going to be received.”