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Plan puts experts in the classroom

Ohanian Comment: Maybe it's because I got into teaching through the back door, but I'm pretty tolerant of alternative certification. No, it's not ideal, but nothing we have now is ideal either. If these engineers can hack it, then let them. Why does the education establishment feel threatened? Is there any evidence that there will be this huge rush of scientists leaving corporate American to teach 7th graders?

Alternative license allows 1 year as instructor with no education training.

By Lynn Campbell

It wasn't money that drew Marlin DeVries to teaching.

DeVries was an engineer for a jet-engine maker in Connecticut for 30 years and earned four times the money. But a career change - and the idea that he could pass his knowledge of math and science to the next generation - appealed to him.

"There's some satisfaction with having the light bulbs come on when dealing with young people," he said.

DeVries, 57, teaches physics, chemistry, calculus and pre-calculus at Iowa Christian Academy in West Des Moines. He was a good fit for a school that wanted to offer students upper-level courses in math and science.

School districts worldwide struggle to find teachers for subjects such as math, science, foreign language and special education. Experts like De- Vries could fill Iowa's classrooms - even before they take courses on how to be a teacher - if state regulators decide to change the rules.

"This would allow a school district hard-pressed to find someone, to get someone into the class, especially in math and science," said George Maurer, executive director of the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners. "Part of me understands any reluctance to deal with this because it's putting someone in the classroom that has no preparation whatsoever. But on the flip side, you have a district in stress."

Under a proposed "distinguished fellow" license, a person with a bachelor's degree and three years of work experience could teach for one year in an Iowa school that hasn't been able to fill the position with a licensed teacher.

No education courses would be required. The person would need only to register for classes in the teacher intern program - an accelerated, online graduate certificate program geared toward those with bachelor's degrees who want to teach in secondary education.

That concerns several members of the examiners, who discussed but took no action on the proposal earlier this month.

"I worry about it because we're saying you can go teach, and then go through the program," said Judy Jeffrey, director of the Iowa Department of Education. She added that such teachers would not meet the definition of being "highly qualified" under federal law.

Linda Nelson, president of the Iowa State Education Association, the union that represents about 32,000 teachers, criticized the proposal as a "Band-Aid solution" to attract teachers.

She said "distinguished fellow" licenses would lower the state's standards.

"This is just another one of those attempts at saying anybody can teach," said Nelson, a fourth-grade teacher from Council Bluffs. "Just because you might be a fine mathematics person in the business world doesn't mean you can fit right into a classroom."

But Susan Fischer, a consultant for the state department of education, said experts in the community can help schools in a pinch. The proposal could help a district that, for example, loses its Spanish or French teacher before the school year starts.

"What we've found now is there are people in the community that administrators would like to tap into," Fischer said. "They're a known quantity in knowledge. They don't have the time to take the 12 hours of class work before they could teach."

DeVries chose teaching the traditional way. He took night classes for four years while he was an engineer.

He now has a master's degree in secondary education and a standard, five-year Iowa teaching license. But DeVries said alternative teacher licenses are attractive to people who work in the field and want a rapid career change.

"It allows someone to more quickly make that transition," he said.

Hundreds of alternative programs in almost every state provide shortcut ways for people to be teachers. Such programs have been around for about 15 years. Today, half of such programs are affiliated with universities.

"We think it's a great way to get good teachers," said Delia Stafford, president of the National Center for Alternative Teacher Certification Information in Houston. "If the programs are carefully crafted, if they select carefully in terms of who comes into the program, and they ensure that the individuals that are being trained to become teachers are not practicing on children, then yes, they do work."

Stafford said Texas, one of the first states to offer alternative certification, has 75 such programs.

"It goes as far as in Texas, you can take a test and get a teaching certificate, which in my mind is clearly the wrong approach," she said. "It's just like anything else, there are good certification programs, and there are those that are not so good."

Urbandale's school superintendent, Greg Robinson, said he is torn about Iowa's latest proposal, modeled on programs in Minnesota and Kansas.

"I don't know what position I want to take on this as an educator, or as an administrator, or as a parent or as a taxpayer. They're all impacted," he said. "I can argue convincingly on both sides of this."

Robinson said people with practical experience can be great for students. But it can be a problem in a class with more complex needs.

"I think what we need to be able to do is make sure that we are open to change and not be defensive based on our past practices, but really try to think, 'What are we trying to do?' " Robinson said. "We're going to get pounded any way you look at this."

DeVries acknowledged that teaching is much different than engineering.

"The emotional highs and lows are greater with teaching," he said. "You're dealing with teenagers. You can have better days. You're dealing with people, not just numbers and facts. You can have better days and days that are worse because of the emotions that come with teenagers."

Students at Iowa Christian Academy said they think it's neat to have an engineer as their teacher.

"He's definitely more hands-on when he teaches. We've done a lot of experiments," said Liz VanderSchel, 18, a senior. "I thought it would just be from the book, but it's not, so that's pretty cool."

— Lynn Campbell
Des Moines Register


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