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Teachers Without License

Smart and capable professionals who want to impart their expertise to high school students should have a clearer path to the classroom. Seeking to expand students’ horizons, one Colorado school district has unveiled a creative plan to enlist the services of “real world” specialists who don’t have the time to acquire a teaching license.

Leaders of the Douglas County School District two weeks ago announced to the Colorado State Board of Education their intention to request waivers from the state’s teacher licensure requirements. Concerned that not enough pupils are prepared to compete for high-level jobs in the international marketplace, Superintendent Jim Christensen is spearheading an effort to introduce new educational options.

Central to the proposal is the Castle View High School in Castle Rock, scheduled to open in the fall, which will feature specialized programs in engineering, world languages, and business/electronic media.

Starting with Castle View, the district wants to hire nontraditional “real world” teachers, including community members highly skilled in engineering and foreign exchange instructors who can offer more languages to students. However, most of these busy professionals do not have the time or interest to wade through the lengthy process and paperwork to become licensed.

Colorado’s charter schools by law can easily request the State Board to waive licensure requirements so they can find more teachers with specific content knowledge and experience. Larger school districts, such as Douglas County, need a majority of affected teachers, administrators, and accountability committee members to sign on to a request before receiving waivers.

Christensen told the State Board that district leaders have met with senior officials of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the national union to which Douglas County teachers’ local bargaining agent belongs. He said AFT would not oppose the plan.

On the other hand, the Denver Post reported that officials in the state’s largest teachers union are against Douglas County’s innovative proposal. While the Colorado Education Association (CEA) does not represent Douglas County teachers, it represents teachers in a majority of large districts and frequently lobbies the State Board.

“We think that to be a good teacher involves more than having good subject-area expertise,” CEA director of communications Jeannie Beyer said. “Being a good teacher means learning how to teach.”

True, but a good principal or teaching mentor also can guide a “real world” specialist in the finer points of classroom management. Yet licensure does not guarantee the content knowledge or intellectual abilities needed to provide the best instruction.

In the 2005 Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) publication “Lifting Teacher Performance,” Dr. Andrew Leigh and Sara Mead explained that a great majority of academic research shows the most reliable measure of classroom success is “teachers’ verbal and intellectual aptitude.”

From 1960 to 2000, total American public school enrollment grew by 30 percent, while the number of teachers more than doubled. Since a larger job pool tends to water down overall quality, the aptitude of the average teacher also dropped during the same time.

The PPI paper observed that repeated efforts to raise salaries across the board and to tighten certification laws have not stopped the decline. On the other hand, meaningful pay incentives for teachers who raise test scores, fill more difficult specialties, or take on tougher school environments could bring positive changes to Colorado’s public schools.

Moreover, streamlining or adding flexibility to the licensure process would open the classroom doors to more teachers with vital content knowledge and high aptitudes.

Yet right now administrators’ hands are tied. Colorado state law requires that public school districts hire teachers who have undergone the bureaucratic licensure process, not necessarily those who will have the greatest impact on student achievement.

As a result, a Colorado public high school could not hire Warren Buffett to teach business or Bill Gates to teach computer science. Current licensure laws and compensation structures limit the availability of competent instructors for hire.

Douglas County’s innovative step opens the classroom door to “real world” specialists who can pass on their knowledge to the next generation. To their credit, AFT officials have joined school leaders and community members in support of the idea.

The task now lies with state policy makers to make it easier for other districts to pursue academic excellence and broaden class offerings by hiring nontraditional teachers.