Reform law gives charters leeway to hire unlicensed teachers

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A new law that will expand the number of charter schools in Indiana also could increase the number of teachers at those schools without licenses.

It’s a concept that has become popular in some education-reform circles as a way to provide easier entry into teaching for people from other careers. But it remains controversial, as some with traditional education training challenge whether such teachers can be effective.

reform licensing Kelly Geisleman, a student teacher and senior education major at Butler University, helps freshman DaMontae King in political science class at Shortridge Magnet. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Under the law, 10 percent of teachers can be unlicensed at any charter school in the state. Charters that want to go beyond that 10 percent can ask the state for a waiver to increase their percentage.

At a charter such as Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, where about half the staff comes to teaching through non-traditional routes, that opens the door for more professionals such as engineers, physicians and politicians to teach—and increases the teaching pipeline in much-needed fields such as math and science.

It also adds experts, who proponents say bring a fresh perspective.

“Here’s someone who has done it, who has lived it,” said Indy Met Superintendent Scott Bess, who returned to education after leaving a job teaching middle school math to work in IT for several years. “They have the aptitude.”

His last point remains a topic of debate.

Opponents question how effective teachers with subject-matter expertise but little classroom experience are at conveying complicated information to students. That’s particularly true, they say, when it comes to reaching the challenging student populations many urban charters serve.

“Teaching at a middle school or high school level isn’t about being an expert in content. It’s about teaching kids to learn,” said Alene Smith, a 22-year educator who teaches social studies at Indianapolis Public Schools’ Shortridge Magnet High School. “Some students are in foster care; others have emotional problems. … They don’t care if you have a PhD.”

But as the state opens the door for more flexibility, it’s likely that some schools will trade pedagogy for professionals.

What’s still unclear is how that will play out in classrooms.

Some studies show that certification status has at most a small impact on student test performance. And there are schools where largely unlicensed teaching staffs have produced outstanding results.

Looking west for inspiration

Before the new law, which takes effect July 1, all teachers had to be licensed by the state.

That doesn’t mean they all had a four-year education degree and classroom experience. Those transitioning into the profession can get a so-called emergency license to teach for three years before they’re fully licensed.

In those cases, the teachers are taking education courses while they’re teaching, and they eventually obtain their certification.

The new law allows charter schoolteachers who enter from a different profession to avoid certification altogether. It would be up to schools to provide mentorship and training to help teachers learn to handle the classroom.

Other states already provide that leeway on a broader scale. Arizona, for example, doesn’t require any teachers at its 511 charter schools to be licensed.

As originally written, Indiana’s legislation would have allowed up to 50 percent of teachers at charters to be unlicensed, but lawmakers scaled that back.

State education leaders, though, say providing such flexibility can enable teachers to be trained in ways that makes them most effective.

“I want teachers to be consumers of preparation based on the needs of children,” said Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. “That’s going to be a major paradigm shift.”

To prove the approach is effective, Bennett and other education leaders looked to Arizona, where a charter school operator has been hiring mostly unlicensed teachers and producing stellar results.

In fact, Indiana’s push for more license with licensing was driven by the desire to attract the schools, called BASIS, to Indiana.

Just 24 percent of teachers at BASIS’ three schools are licensed. The schools recruit teachers who have strong knowledge in the areas they teach. Before they’re hired, prospective teachers must give a couple of mock lessons to show their aptitude to convey what they know.

Once they’re on staff, BASIS teachers go through a week-long summer program to learn basic teaching methods. They also have access to ongoing training throughout the year.

“We want to hire teachers who are experts, give them as much autonomy as possible, and hold them accountable for results,” said Arwynn Gilroy, the school’s communications director. “It’s much more difficult to learn a subject than it is to convey something you know to students.”

Those who teach education agree subject-area knowledge is important, but learning how to communicate it to students is equally critical.

“Having content knowledge alone is not sufficient to be an effective teacher,” said Lindan Hill, dean of the School of Education at Marian University. “You’ve got to be a manager of group psychology. A teacher has to convince 20 to 40 students every day they want to be in that classroom.”

Teacher perspectives

New teachers from both traditional and alternative backgrounds say they’ve learned how to do that mostly through classroom experience.

Eric Nentrup began teaching at Indy Met in August 2009 after seven months of courses in a transition-to-teaching program at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Nentrup, who entered the field after running his own video production company and working in marketing, is still taking those classes. But he said what prepared him most for his own classroom was a semester-long stint teaching computer graphics through a vocational program at Columbus North High School in 2004.

reform licensing Teacher Eric Nentrup makes sure his students have turned in their homework. He became a teacher after working in marketing and video production. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

It was there that he discovered so-called project-based learning, which minimizes lecture time and lets students collaborate to solve problems—an approach he employs frequently in his junior American history/literature class at Indy Met.

For a recent project, Nentrup divided students into groups to research a city’s growth during the Industrial Revolution. He assigned student leaders—whom he called “mayors” of those cities—to guide the groups.

“I am pushing against the notion that students come in on autopilot,” said Nentrup, who views his classroom as a creative agency in which his students are employed with carrying out projects. “It’s a … shift to come into the classroom and have your teacher teach you like a supervisor.”

Nentrup has a casual approach with students, rewarding good work with fist bumps and encouraging them to use laptops and iPads to do research, sometimes at the risk of losing them to YouTube or Twitter. Every day is a lesson in how to effectively employ that philosophy. Sometimes, he has major breakthroughs.

About a month ago, Nentrup got fed up with students’ persistent disruptive behavior in one of his classes. Instead of scolding them, he left the classroom and sat in a chair right outside the door.

Gradually, his students followed, and he told them to pull up a chair if they were interested in learning. Since then, he said, their cooperation has been significantly better.

“It was one of those halcyon clear moments,” Nentrup said. “I realized it wasn’t about classroom management. It was about human leadership.”

What would have been the best preparation for teaching, Nentrup said, is not more academic coursework but time spent as an assistant to a seasoned teacher.

Such classroom learning has been a core component in preparing Kelly Geisleman, a senior education major at Butler University who is completing her last semester of student teaching at Shortridge Magnet.

Geisleman, whose project-based teaching style and friendly interaction with students is similar to Nentrup’s, said her coursework in teaching methods helped her in the classroom. But what was most critical, she said, was time in the seven classrooms where she’s either observed or taught since freshman year.

Even with that experience, Geisleman said, figuring out how to run a classroom is hard, and she has a tough time imagining how difficult it would be if she were thrown in without training.

Smith, the 22-year teacher supervising Geisleman, said learning skills such as how to command students’ respect takes years of experience.

That was obvious one morning during Geisleman’s class when a group of sophomores was working in groups to select juries from lists of hypothetical characters. A pair of students who weren’t engaged in the project sneaked in a card game as Geisleman was busy helping their classmates.

When the pair saw Smith enter the classroom, they hastily put the cards away.

Effectiveness in dispute

Geisleman’s experience could underscore some educators’ arguments about why a licensing process is important.

Gerardo Gonzalez, dean of Indiana University’s School of Education, said allowing teachers in training to spend time in classrooms with mentor teachers is crucial—as is instruction about how to teach a certain subject and to a particular grade level.

“Having teachers who are not certified at all teaching students is a disservice to the students and teachers because you’re putting them in situations that, in many cases, they can’t handle,” Gonzalez said. Licensing “is the mechanism the state has to ensure that every teacher has met the minimum standards necessary to be a practicing teacher.”

Gonzalez points to a national study that IU commissioned to look at the relationship between teacher credentials and student achievement. The results, released last year, showed that fourth- and eighth-grade students whose teachers majored in education scored three to six points higher on standardized English and math tests than students whose teachers majored in something else.

However, a 2006 study that looked at the impact of teacher licensing in New York City public schools using six years of test-performance data showed little difference in the student-achievement impact among certified, uncertified and alternatively certified teachers.

BASIS’ results seem to exemplify that. The schools tout 100 percent pass-rate on state tests, and 87 percent of students pass AP exams.

The school doesn’t track students’ income levels, but officials estimate about 20 percent of students at the BASIS school in Tucson qualify for free and reduced lunch—a much lower percentage than in urban schools such as Indy Met.

Nonetheless, school advocates say BASIS’ results provide a strong argument that licensing shouldn’t be a prerequisite for teachers.

Those at BASIS and educators such as Gonzalez concur that critical teacher learning takes place while they’re instructing.

Where they differ is whether it should be left up to the state—or the schools themselves—to ensure that classroom time translates into quality teachers.

Bess said charters such as Indy Met have a strong incentive to make sure teachers are effective. If they don’t, they’re not only subject to state intervention but also could be shut down by authorizers.

Still, even proponents acknowledge that with looser licensing requirements, the state no longer has a direct way to monitor whether all teachers are qualified for their jobs.

But if there’s added risk, they say it’s worth taking.

“The flexibility to bring in someone who is extraordinary in the content area is a good thing,” Marian’s Hill said. “To say no one can teach without a license misses out on some significant opportunities for some great instruction.”•


  • Reality has set in
    A relative of mine in Teach for America, has informed me that administrators are tapping the TEACH FOR AMERICA program solely for the purpose of skirting the Bargaining Units and to hire the cheapest teachers they can find. I am glad my kids are out of school.
  • some good, some bad
    I taught at 4 private schools where teachers did not need to be licensed. One required you to be licensed and one preferred it, having few unlicensed. Both were great for my kids. The last two snubbed their noses at licensure and my kids and I were very disappointed. You think that when the administrators are free from the requirement they will go after the best in the field - what we found is that they will take anyone who wants an easy job that they don't have to go to school for. Teachers got their jobs because they were buddies or spouses with someone on the board and will keep their mouths shut about how the $ is used. My girls said the schools were too easy and they returned to the public schools to get a more rigorous education. Average test scores were higher just because those student had parents who cared - parents who are neglectful don't send their kids to private or charter schools and those kids bring the average test score down. I graduated with a math degree and when I wanted to teach I returned to get the credentials so I could be the best possible - knowing subject matter and pedagogy. I did teach college and teaching K-12 is NOT the same. I needed a lot of psych and methods courses to give me a background to make me successful with younger students - and I am still learning! Licensing requirements are just BASIC knowledge - not an assurance of success but I would not want a teacher for my kids who has never had a course in methods, psychology, or the one I learned the most from: reading in your content area. At the very least all schools should be required to post all degrees and credentials of all teachers. The last two schools actually lied to me and my husband - saying teachers were licensed - we found out later many had no, expired or expired sub licenses! Some regulation and customer protection please!
  • Teaching is way more than being an "expert in a subject"
    As a new teacher who went throught the Transition to Teaching process to get my teaching license, I can't stress how important the teacher training was! People think there are aging and tired teachers out there, but I haven't seen them for years! In my observations and student teaching experiences I was in awe of the talented, creative and compassionate teachers in our city! I now work for IPS and I am priveledged to work with a great team of teachers that work evenings and weekends to prepare engaging lessons, grade papers, and maintain data on student needs and growth. If you want to teach, go through the training like I did. Like another blogger wrote, lawyers and real estate agents need a license, so should teachers!
  • Richard Wilson
    Well, hopefully, it's accounting you'd be teaching, and not English, because then, I think I'd have to go with the "recent graduate," simply based off of your post...
  • About Time!
    Took Indiana long enough to get into the new century regarding education. In order to get a job, I would rather have a teacher who has 'done it and won it', rather than one who has 'faked it'. Plenty of teachers have not been in the job market, but have been in the classroom for YEARS with NO appreciation for taxpayers or parents!

    Welcome to a brave new world! Based upon the test scores, the 'professional' educators have been floundering for a long time! Having a teaching license doesn't mean you can teach; it means you can pass a test. Have teachers all through my family tree...and they have more on the ball than the so-called 'teachers' of today.
  • hire laymen
    As the spouse of a licensed public school teacher I've seen the fear and confusion created by the new laws. At the start of 2011 semester my wife's supervisor told her "I've got to get rid of 30 teachers before the new laws take effect"As it's turned out my wife is one of them.It seems Dr. Bennet and other political allies are determined to privatize schools using a corporate structure.If this is the plan we shouldn't need a P.H.D. educator, only a good business manager to wield the ax, and produce maximum profit.Surely Governor Daniels can find a "less costly" "education"director with practical experience.
  • hmmmmm....
    I remember numerous teachers in college who were knowledgeable in their area but had zero teaching skills. I learned very little from them.
    Also, why is it that public school teachers have more and more requirments to keep their licenses and charted school teachers don't even need a license at all? That makes absolutely no sense.
  • sound good to me
    teachers donot have to have masters to be successfull,i have an accounting degree and 35 years experience .who do you think is better qualified to teach?me or a rescent graduate.
    • certification
      I agree with some things being posted. But what I am concern is that I believe by law to give an I step or any other test you got to have a certification to administer the test. If you hired teachers who is not certify to give the test well then the test would not count. That would be a waste of time and money. If they want to hired teacher who is not certify, get rid of the standardize testing. It is not worth the paper it is printed on
    • Indy Supt
      Here's a guy saying he has outside experience that makes him more qualified. What is Indy met;s performance record under his guidance?
    • Education Majors???
      No longer will Colleges and Universities need Education Departments. Departments of Education will be obsolete. Apprarently they have been usless all along.
      ..Sure glad my kids are done with the Indiana school system now. It is being destroyed by Bennett and companies for profit.
    • reform law charters
      Well, you can see how poorly so many schools are doing and if Charter Schools can make it by hiring "skilled" teachers in their field, why not. As one post stated, make sure the
      school will be accredited if students want to go on to college.
      However, you can see what Unions and the ACLU have done to the school situation.
      Teachers can't discipline and neither can parents in some ways...so, you get a lot of
      problems going on in schools and kids passed
      from one grade to another just to get rid of some of the trouble makers.
      When a teacher tries to discipline, they can't without having a big problem.
      The whole school system needs revamping.
      Get back to reading, writing and arithmetic
      and stop dissing charter schools for trying to make a difference at a cost they can afford, without Union interference.
    • Accrediting
      So, when these kids with non-license teachers want to go to college, will they be accepted? Will their education be considered from an accredited school? Years ago there was a problem of kids not being able to get into the colleges of their choice because they had graduated from a non-accredited private school. Will this be the same kind of situation? This article needs to go deeper if it wants to promote non-licensed teachers in schools.
    • A documentary was made on the BASIS school. Great to see Indiana taking lessons from them!
      Sometimes seeing is believing....so if anyone is interested in seeing how the BASIS public charter school runs, check out the trailer of a film about them.


      (NOTE: It was created by Indiana VC, and entrepreneur turned filmmaker, Bob Compton. www.2mminutes.com)

      My favorite part in the film (which the trailer doesn't show) is an interview with Craig Barrett, former Intel Chairman, who talks about how he is qualified to teach at Stanford (where he taught science & engineering) but not in K-12 schools under our current laws.

      I'd personally welcome a Craig Barrett to teach my young children.
    • It's like the blind leading the blind
      As with any profession, there are standards that must be met to maintain credibility. I am all for people with outside experience becoming educators, but they should get all of the required licenses and degrees. If they really are dedicated to education they will take the time to get the baseline education to preform their job as an educator.

      There are many people who know the law and could function as lawyers, but we REQUIRE that they pass the bar to ensure some level of competency. There are also people who know how to sell Real Estate, but we require that they study and sit for a licensing exam.

      Thinking that educators don't need basic educational training is wrong and would be a shameful road to walk down. We will be letting our children down.

      Again, I am 100% for real world experience in the classroom, but getting more education to meet the baseline standards that we expect our educators to meet is not asking too much.
    • It's a business
      Without unions or licensing requirements, charters can pay their teachers less and make bigger profits.
    • This is great news!
      â??The flexibility to bring in someone who is extraordinary in the content area is a good thing,â?? Marianâ??s Hill said. â??To say no one can teach without a license misses out on some significant opportunities for some great instruction.â??â?¢

      Amen to that. I've seen teachers with Masters degrees in education who still couldn't run a classroom, much less teach the subject matter. On the other hand, I've seen scientists with no degrees in education who had students enthralled as they intrigued them with superb teaching related to their field.
    • Dismantling Licensing
      The bar has been lowered and teacher licensing in Indiana becomes more and more worthless. It's a slap in the face of school systems that rigorously interview and vet teachers. The legislature could have developed methodologies to provide exemptions based on mandated educational training to bring non-educators up to speed. But no, that didn't happen. Bennett should be ashamed.
    • Been there done that
      I was an engineer before becoming a teacher and I also had experience teaching in a number of different settings and I was still unprepared for my first year of teaching. I didn't understand classroom management, how to modify assignments to meet the needs of all and I didn't understand the complexities of helping students learn and getting them to think. I gained a lot of insight from my education. I think it is amazing that people will say that teachers are so valuable but then devalue them so much. Perhaps I could get the state house to pass a bill saying that only 50% of doctors in hospitals need trained. As long as they have had enough personal experience with heart problems they should be able to perform heart surgery. I wonder how people would feel about someone saving their lives not being licensed. Why is it different for the people training the next generation?

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