Editorial: Does certification make the teacher?

The Detroit News

If you’re an engineer or chemist and would like to offer your expertise in the classroom, Michigan law keeps you out of the classroom unless you go back to college and earn a teaching certificate. That will change soon for Detroit Public Schools, thanks to the state Legislature, which should extend the policy statewide.

This relatively small piece of the legislation to send $617 million to the Detroit district plays off an idea that’s been discussed by state leaders for some time. In 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder laid out his vision for education reform, and alternative certification was a piece of his proposal.

“The state should be encouraged when a successful and qualified businessperson wants to teach a high school class,” Snyder said in his education address. “I urge the state superintendent and Department of Education to quickly allow teachers to enter the profession through alternative certification. They then would be held to the same rigorous performance standards and student proficiency requirements as any other teacher.”

Allowing teachers without any certification to enter the profession takes this concept further, but it’s not outrageous to think an expert in another field could make it as a teacher, especially if he or she is deployed in a specialty class.

And there is precedent for teachers working in Michigan’s public schools prior to completing a state-approved teacher preparation program. Through the Teach for America program, for example, about 150 college graduates spend at least two years teaching in Detroit schools. They must pass a few initial state tests to obtain their interim teaching certificate. And they are required to work toward their provisional certification — which takes a few years — but they do it while teaching.

In addition, it's worth noting the legislation does not force DPS to hire uncertified teachers.

“There’s been a lot of noise over a ‘may’ not a ‘shall,’ ” says Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township. “It opens doors of opportunity for administrators and it fixes what we see as a dire need.”

State Superintendent Brian Whiston has some concerns about allowing teachers with no certification into the classroom. As he notes, just because someone has a degree and work experience doesn’t mean he or she will be able to get in front of 30 students and help them understand the subject.

But he agrees middle ground is needed to allow a faster alternative pathway for someone who wants to make a second career as a teacher.

“If you have a passion for kids and a passion for math, you can learn to teach it,” Whiston says.

With a growing teacher shortage in the state, hiring outside teacher training programs could help close this gap. At DPS, Whiston estimates as many as 180 teachers are needed.

Schools also need to address the low pay that faces new teachers. Especially when it comes to hiring individuals with experience in another field, they have to offer more than the average starting salary of $28,000.

Lawmakers are being criticized for applying this teacher hiring provision only to DPS and are accused of thinking Detroit students deserve less than other kids around the state.

Given the statewide shortage, the Legislature should make it easier for all districts to hire talented individuals. Whether that’s through an improved alternative certification process or allowing uncertified teachers, it would be more fair to apply the same standard to all schools.

The uproar in this case is unfounded. And if the provision is used carefully, DPS has an opportunity to bring more expertise into its classrooms.