Many Illinois teachers lack credentials?

In another example of inflammatory education reporting, the Chicago Tribune today reported that “many teachers lack credentials.”  In the 5-year analysis reported by Diane Rado and Christy Gutowski, a handful of—literally 4 to 5—examples are meant to highlight what comes off—after looking closely at the data provided—as a pseudo-crisis that devalues public education.  Again.

To have the proper credentials means that a teacher has taken a certain number of college classes and passed a couple of tests.  While content knowledge is essential and should not be undermined, the reality is our teacher licensing system creates limits for good teachers instead of opportunities.

One middle school teacher I spoke with told me, “Because our 6th-8th grades are departmentalized and each teacher only teaches 1-2 subjects, we must have endorsements gained by coursework in those two subjects.  However,” she went on to say, “if I were in a self-contained classroom where I taught all the subjects to the same group of students, all I would need is a general middle-school teaching license.”

This teacher is only a couple of classes away from earning a highly valued science endorsement.  Earning a science credential requires taking at least two college classes and paying for them herself.  This teacher also, by the way, has National Board Certification, almost 20 years of experience, two college degrees, and a license that allows her to lead a school.  Still, she’d be considered unqualified to teach science because she hasn’t taken a couple of classes.

More Teachers, Not Less, Have the Necessary Credentials

At the article’s high point, the reporting changes from using percentages to using numbers to emphasize that “in the massive Chicago Public Schools system, where most of the students are poor and minority, federal 2011-2012 data show that about 900 of 23,000 teacher were not fully licensed.”  I added emphasis to the reporters’ loaded word choice.

Based on these numbers, the percentage of teachers without the proper credentials is an unimpressive 4%.  What this reveals again is Chicago news outlets’ determination to always present Chicago Public Schools in a negative light.  The story here should be how such a “massive” school district is able to have 96% percent of its teachers appropriately assigned.

Furthermore, the reporters stress how “the system designed to monitor teacher licensing allows some educators to work for months or even years before getting proper credentials.”  Teachers have to.  Earning additional endorsements or credentials requires time to complete course work.  For example, I would need to take 9 classes while working full-time to earn my bilingual teaching certificate.  I’d have to pay out of my pocket.  It’s not an overnight solution.

One magnified example in the article includes a 2012 graduate who was allowed to teach psychology and economics in a Barrington high school even though she was only certified in language arts and social science.  What the reporters failed to mention is that these courses are usually offered as electives, not as core courses.  Furthermore, economics falls into the social sciences; psychology is related.  An intelligent teacher who succeeded in a couple of psych or economics courses in college should have the ability to teach these courses to  groups of 16-18 year olds.  This reporting underestimates a teacher’s intellect to learn and master a related field.  Again—to be fully credentialed—this  recent graduate would have to return to school and pay for a number of classes that may or may not guarantee future employment opportunities.

Whereas reporters gain prestige for walking into situations they know nothing about, a teacher’s ability is automatically devalued because a teacher-licensing bureaucracy says she doesn’t know enough.

In a visual that accompanies the article with 2010 data, 4,511 English teachers were licensed that year but only 478, or 9%, were hired.  This supports the reporters’ argument that “the assignment of teachers not properly trained or credentialed . . . occurred even when applicants with the required qualifications were available.”  We have to remember that proper credentials don’t always equal a qualified candidate.  The soft skills or people skills, values, and experience of a candidate also come into play.  Plus, 2010 was a year when budgets cuts went deep and teaching jobs were scarce.  I struggled to find an opening at a Southwest side school that year despite my credentials and experience.  In 2010, I only found one possible English vacancy.

People Think Teachers Don’t Know Enough

What’s most disturbing, however, is the perpetual message that teachers just don’t know enough.  The reporters do include a Barrington teacher interview who was was hired to teach science, though she was credentialed in math and social science.   Laura Meehan says, “Did I think I was qualified? Yes.  I was an excellent teacher and I felt as though I had a significant amount of support in my school district to do that position.”  A strong subtextual skepticism follows when the reporters emphasize Meehan was a cheerleading coach who got a superintendent’s reference.

This adds weight to loopholes, the reporters say, principals use to place teachers with insufficient credentials, which—again—in CPS totals about 4%.  The article does not mention the conditions that force principals to make these usually temporary decisions: budget cuts, changes in teacher licensing; high cost of getting new credentials; employment guidelines; poor decision making at the district, state, and national levels.

Despite our advanced degrees and proven success in schools, teachers remain looked down upon when they fail to meet bureaucratic requirements.  So many people making education policy decisions have limited or no teaching experience that they end up creating more obstacles for good teachers—for good teachers who likely know a lot more than they do about improving education.

Does teacher licensing create more obstacles than opportunities?

Is education reporting in Chicago inherently anti-Chicago Public Schools?

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