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Career switch to teaching could get easier
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Jamie Thompson, a former chemical engineer, now uses her science experience to teach high school students. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
In the last month, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has issued a series of education proposals that have put teachers and students on notice that he expects higher achievement in the classroom. His ideas for shaking up the system include suspending driver licenses for truant students and awarding bonus pay to what he calls "super teachers." The "super teachers" plan also includes a provision to offer more alternative routes to the teaching profession. It's not a new idea - even here. Nearly every state, including Minnesota, offers some kind of alternative teacher certification. But the administration says the current options aren't sufficient to meet future teacher shortages.

St. Paul, Minn. — Jamie Thompson was a chemical engineer at 3M for three years, working in process and product development. But the lab you'll find her in now is at Harding High School in St. Paul, where she's a first-year teacher. In addition to chemical engineering, Thompson, worked three years as a computer consultant. Neither job offered much personal satisfaction, so Thompson decided to become a teacher. She says the career switch required some big sacrifices.

"I think the biggest challenge for adults who are trying to change careers is we find ourselves over 30 with commitments, rents to pay or mortgages to pay, car payments and all the financial obligations you find yourself with when you're older, and suddenly wanting to go back to school and not being able to work it out full time," Thompson said. "I think it is the number one challenge I've seen for professionals who want to switch, not being able to just go to school full time and do it very, very quickly."

Thompson enrolled part-time in a teacher training program at Hamline University aimed specifically at mid-career professionals. It took her three years to complete the requirements. Thompson already had a degree in chemical engineering, but to earn her license to teach chemistry, she needed to take even more science classes.

"It's quite a bit of time to sit there and take like Astronomy 101, which I just happened to have not taken as a chemical engineer, but is required by the state of Minnesota for a license in chemistry," Thompson said. "So, those kind of classes sort of added up."

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Image George Maurer

Gov. Pawlenty is proposing an easier path to teaching for professionals from other fields, particularly those with math and science expertise. His education commissioner, Cheri Pierson Yecke, says a knowledgeable adult doesn't need the same preparation as a typical 20-year-old college student. She says current teacher training programs have too many hurdles.

"They hinder people who are trying to get in, and they have many more requirements than perhaps is necessary," Yecke said. "And I think it is important for us to try an alternative route that has worked in other states."

Alternative certification efforts began in the 1980s as a way for some states to address teacher shortages. Advocates say shortening the time needed to earn a license helps expand the pool of applicants. They say it also attracts more racial minorities and men into the profession. Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information, has done extensive research on the movement. She says alternative teacher certification has grown rapidly, with 46 states now offering various types of programs.

"The states that have the bulk of the numbers of alternative route teachers are California, Texas and New Jersey," Feistritzer said. "And all three of those states have been tracking data on student achievement and effectiveness of teaching and the results are really quite positive."

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Image Steve Yussen

Feistritzer says the programs in other states are still too new to have solid data on effectiveness. The varied approaches also make comparisons difficult. Her recent state-by-state analysis found about 25,000 people are now certified annually through alternative routes. That's roughly a third of all new teachers in a given year. The federal government is pushing to expand those numbers through requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act. Feistritzer says attitudes about alternative certification have changed a lot.

"When alternate routes started back in the mid 80s, there was a very negative reaction to them," Feistritzer said. "They were described as 'quick and dirty' and 'scab' programs and 'fast track' programs and so on. What has happened over time is that they've really become so sophisticated that in many cases they're seen as the prototype for how all teachers ought to be trained."

Minnesota has alternative pathways available. School districts can seek permission to hire nonlicensed community experts to teach on a limited basis. The Minnesota Board of Teaching granted 372 such variances last year. Temporary limited licenses are also available to qualified individuals, who want to work in the classroom while pursuing their formal teacher training. The board approved 536 temporary licenses last year. George Maurer, executive director of the board, says the current options serve 99 percent of the people trying to become teachers.

They hinder people who are trying to get in, and they have many more requirements than perhaps is necessary.
- Cheri Pierson Yecke

"If someone wants to get into education, there are a lot of ways to get into it and to be licensed," Maurer said. "I see very few negatives with the current statutes and rules the way they are."

Under the governor's plan, the state Department of Education would create an alternate licensing program to streamline and shorten the training period needed for educated professionals to enter the classroom. Commissioner Yecke says approved institutions would offer a six- to eight-week summer training program. Eligible participants, who've shown proficiency in a given subject area, could then enter the classroom with a provisional license. They'd receive additional training during the school year. A school principal would decide at the end of the year whether to recommend the candidate for full licensure. Yecke says changes are needed because thousands of teachers are on the verge of retirement.

"So we know that there's going to be a need for many more teachers than we currently have," Yecke said. "I think that certainly this is one way of filling those needs. We have many retirees, former military personnel who are interested in becoming classroom teachers, but right now as the law currently stands, there are far too many hoops for them to jump through."

There are 29 colleges and universities in Minnesota preparing students to enter the teaching profession, through both traditional and alternative programs. Steve Yussen, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, says the standards are set high. He says students not only have to learn their subject area, but also the skills of classroom management, instruction, assessment and learning development. Yussen says while he hasn't seen the details of the governor's plan, it sounds too fast to him.

"I think it's an incredible disservice to the teaching profession, and an insult really to a huge knowledge base that's developed over decades, to think that you can do it in six to eight weeks," Yussen said.

Yussen says he'd be willing to work with the commissioner to expand the alternative routes to teaching, as long as the professional standards remain high. Otherwise, he says most teachers and colleges would likely oppose the plan. Gov. Pawlenty plans to push his alternative certification plan as part of a supplemental state budget proposal in the 2004 legislative session.

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