Innovation necessary to solve persistent certification problems

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A recent story described concerns raised over the State Board of Education’s rapid approval of a new teacher training program. According to that story, members of the Minority Teacher Recruitment Task Force are frustrated with the level of information that they had received about the program prior to its approval. These concerns, I am sure, can be worked out among our branches of government. What is more important is ensuring that Connecticut continues with its efforts to solve the longstanding problem of minority teacher recruitment.

The Relay Graduate School’s Alternate Route to Certification, unlike the traditional approach to preparing future teachers, is a new preparation model designed to meet 21st Century demands. In a time in which people increasingly change jobs and need new training, Relay’s program offers an opportunity for individuals who already possess a B.A. to enter into the education field while holding down their day jobs.

The program appears to be most attractive to individuals who are already working in our public schools, often teacher aides or substitutes. Of particular note for the Connecticut landscape is the fact that Relay’s program also produces many minority candidates in the shortage areas of English, math and science.

I personally entered the field of teaching through the traditional route. I earned a B.A. from Eastern Connecticut State University and an M.A. and doctorate degree from the University of Connecticut. For me, both programs seemed outstanding. They prepared me well for a two-decades long career in public education.

However, Connecticut has proven unable, for decades, to increase its number of successful minority teachers through traditional preparation. Why wouldn’t we therefore welcome an opportunity to build an innovative pathway that might reach new candidates? The answer: a fear of lowering standards. We all want Connecticut students to be in classrooms with the best and brightest.

Relay’s program poses no threat to that dream.

When Connecticut’s traditional preparation programs have occasionally lapsed in quality, as with Southern Connecticut State University in 2014, the Connecticut State Board of Education has called these programs to task and put them on probation. The Board has been made aware of these lapses because it has standards for program design and outcome.

Relay’s route to certification has also been vetted in accordance with standards. Should Relay ever prove incapable of meeting those expectations, I would hope that the State Board of Education would hold it accountable—just as it has done for our traditional education institutions.

Besides monitoring program quality, the excellence of our teachers is also going to be organically controlled by the hiring practices of district leaders. After all, any individual who moves through Relay’s program is merely given an entry-level credential and added to the pool of teacher candidates seeking to be hired by districts.

Having served as a principal and superintendent, I know two things about hiring firsthand: First, a bigger pool means more competition, not lower standards. Second, our education system is not actually based on the expectation that teacher learning and development stop with a job offer. We certainly strive to hire high-quality teachers who will hit the ground running, but we also know that most teachers need five to seven years of job experience before they will become highly effective.

In the grand scheme of things, opening the doors to an alternate certification route that encourages minority candidacy is just not going to dilute the quality of our teachers. If the program’s candidates aren’t performing, district leaders won’t hire them and the State Board of Education won’t keep the program running. As of today, Relay has been granted only a two-year window to prove its effectiveness.

Since our traditional preparation programs haven’t been solving the longstanding problem of minority teacher recruitment, let’s give Relay a try.

Jeffrey Villar is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER), a nonprofit organization that seeks to narrow Connecticut’s widest-in-the-nation achievement gap. To learn more about CCER, visit ctedreform.org.

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