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Md.'s teacher certification law criticized as too tough

Study says requiring a master's is causing teacher shortages in key subjects

By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

7:20 PM EDT, September 6, 2013

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After a stint in the military and on his way to earning a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Rory Holderness decided he wanted to become a high school teacher.

He enrolled in Towson University's graduate program for teachers three years ago but soon became frustrated with classes that he believed were more aimed at grooming elementary reading teachers than someone who hoped to be teaching physics to 16-year-olds. He dropped out.

"The whole system was pretty frustrating," said Holderness, who might have ended up with a career in a classroom instead of working for AT&T had he found the route to becoming a licensed teacher easier.

A recent report by the Calvert Institute for Policy Research found that becoming certified to teach in Maryland is so burdensome that it is causing teacher shortages in key subjects such as science, math and special education. And the report suggests that the state should alter some of its teacher certification requirements to open up the field to a larger number of candidates.

"Maryland's teacher certification policies are ill-conceived and counterproductive, particularly when compared to many other states' certification policies," said Christopher Ryan, the report's author.

Maryland is among eight states that require a master's degree in education or an equivalent number of classes for a license. Teachers who enter the profession without a master's can go through an alternative certification program or they can begin teaching and work toward a master's.

In some cases, a college graduate who majored in a science could get a job right away but would have to complete a year of classes while teaching in order to be certified. Some school systems pay part or all of the cost of the additional schooling if the teacher stays in the system.

George W. Liebmann, director of the Calvert Institute, a think tank based in Baltimore, said he believes that only elementary school teachers need courses in pedagogy and noted that private schools do not require faculty members to have a master's degree.

The Maryland State Education Association, which represents many of the state's teachers unions, disputes that view.

"Just like doctors, nurses, lawyers, and other professionals, there should be high credentialing and preparation standards for teachers so they have a rich understanding of how to engage with children, child development, and pedagogy," MSEA President Betty Weller said in a statement.

Area school districts do not report significant shortages in the areas identified by the Calvert Institute.

Baltimore City has 93 vacancies in math, science and special education out of about 6,000 teachers. Anne Arundel County, which has 5,800 teachers, had 12 vacancies in those areas. Baltimore County had a total of seven vacancies in all areas out of about 8,000 teachers, which came about when teachers resigned during the second week of school.

Maryland's demand for new teachers has diminished significantly in recent years. Between 2005 and 2007, Maryland schools were regularly hiring about 8,000 new teachers every year. Since 2010, that figure has dropped to between 3,000 and 3,500.

In several Maryland counties, teachers can enter the profession through an alternative certification program such as Teach for America, which takes recent college graduates, gives them a summer course in teaching and then places them in urban school systems. Those students must then take night and weekend classes at graduate schools of education to get a professional teaching license.

The Calvert Institute study, funded in part by the Abell Foundation, found that many other states have managed "to avoid an acute teacher shortage by embracing alternative certification." In states such as California and Texas, about one-third of the new hires come through alternative routes. Across the nation, about 40 percent of new hires from 2005 through 2010 entered the teaching field through alternative certification.

According to the Calvert Institute study, 12 percent of Maryland's new teacher hires over the past two years have been alternatively certified.

Maryland's certification process looks fairly streamlined compared with some states that make it more difficult to get the extra-credit hours, said Sandi Jacobs, vice president for the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based nonprofit that has advocated for changes to teacher preparation nationwide.

However, she said there is "overwhelming and strong" research evidence that holding a master's degree, as the state requires, does not make you a better teacher. The only exception is when a teacher has a master's in the subject being taught.

Other countries are more selective in who they allow into their teacher training programs and the classes are more difficult, she said.

Weller, of the state teachers union, said that while "there's no right answer for how a teacher comes into a classroom," every teacher should meet the same standard.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com