Facing a critical teacher shortage, Maryland educators spent three years hammering out a program to help future elementary teachers transfer smoothly from two-year to four-year colleges and move to school classrooms.
But now, as the first students to earn the associate of arts degree in teaching for elementary education get ready to move on, they are finding added requirements still stand between them and enrollment in the education programs of some four-year schools.
Administrators at Howard Community College in particular are concerned that four-year colleges - including more affordable state schools - plan to admit transfer students to their schools and then delay their entry into education programs for a semester or more by requiring additional classes.
It was not supposed to happen that way.
The associate's degree was intended as an ideal, uniform first two years that would enable students to move directly into education programs at four-year schools with all credits intact.
Written into state regulations last year, the degree replaces a system that has frustrated community colleges for years, one where each four-year school decides what credits to accept and additional classes that students need.
"Four-year schools are holding to their way of doing business, and it's not meeting the need in the marketplace," said Roger N. Caplan, chair of Howard Community College's board of trustees.
"We believe community colleges accommodated the issues four-year colleges said were critical for them," said Ron Roberson, Howard's vice president of academic affairs. Among other things, the degree requires a 2.75 grade point average, field experience and passing the state Praxis I exam in reading, writing and math.
But, Roberson said, "it is very clear that few [four-year schools] have actually begun the process of making any changes to their programs."
Of the people being trained as teachers in Maryland, 50 percent start their higher education at community colleges, said Tony Kinkel, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.
Emilee Zeender will complete the associate of arts degree in teaching at Howard Community College in May and wants to transfer to the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She was upset to learn that there is one more course she will have to take at UMBC before she can enter the education program as a junior.
"I'm not really happy," Zeender said. "I'm the kind of person who likes to get it over with and done."
Zeender, whose fourth- and sixth-grade teachers inspired her to go into education, said "it's not fair for one course to hold you up after you do so much,"
She is also considering Towson University, which is working closely with Howard and other community colleges, and the University of Maryland, College Park, which Fran Kroll, director of teacher education at Howard, said has a variety of additional requirements.
The main reason to come up with the degree was "so students knew what to take," said Kroll, who worked on its requirements as a member of the Teacher Education Articulation Committee. Her school has 200 declared elementary teacher education majors with 43 enrolled in the new degree program.
Colleges are entitled to choose who to admit, and they can have additional requirements for graduation, such as language classes, a religion class or other courses. But when a requirement keeps transfer students from going directly into the education departments as juniors, some four-year schools "are not meeting the spirit of the agreement ... how it was conceived and designed," Kroll said.
Many educators believe additional discussions can iron out some of the concerns.
Gene Schaffer, chair of the department of education at UMBC, is aware of the additional class requirements to enter his school's education department, but believes students will be able to get started on other coursework and avoid losing time towards graduation. He said his school had already lowered the required grade point average to 2.75 from 3.0 for entering students - they must reach 3.0 by their senior year - and asked students to take the Praxis I exam.
"We would take the student's concerns to heart," Schaffer said. "We have every interest in working with" two-year schools.
Villa Julie College is also open to discussion on whether the associate's degree meets field experience requirements that currently could tie up transfer students for a year. But it has decided to stand by its 3.0 grade point average requirement.
"A lot of this is growing pains," said John Sabatini, assistant secretary for planing and academic affairs of the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Administrators, advisers, deans, program directors and others need to meet and review specific guidelines for implementation of the associate of arts degree in teaching, Sabatini said. His group is planning a meeting in November. After that, he hopes to have an implementation strategy that will spell out what is expected to happen on two-year and four-year campuses.
Everyone involved says they are committed to the idea of uniform associate's degrees in teaching and believe it can help students know what to expect and how to prepare, particularly at a time when the state needs to encourage careers in teaching.
This year, thousands of Maryland teachers are not state-certified. Last year, the Maryland State Department of Education projected that Maryland will have to hire 12,715 teachers at the beginning of the 2003-2004 school year, a record number for the state.
"I think it may have to take strong leadership in the state," to encourage four-year schools to get on board, said Caplan. "Students should be able to transfer seamlessly with all credits counting."
"We're all in this together," said Kinkel. "It won't be easy ... but the taxpayers of this state expect us to get the job done."