The bar to become a Georgia teacher is getting higher as the state puts in place a sweeping set of new rules designed to improve the quality of educators and boost student performance.
The beefed up standards for new teachers are part of a broader state and national effort to improve teacher quality by making would-be educators pass tougher tests and do more to show they are ready before entering classrooms.
The signficant changes come as Georgia student’s standardized test scores continue to lag other states, consistently ranking in the bottom quarter. Students’ poor academic performance can be tied to teacher quality, according to education experts and advocates, who say Georgia has not kept pace with states that have introduced more rigorous certification requirements and teacher-preparation programs.
“These are pretty far-reaching … substantive changes,” said Kelly Henson, executive secretary of the Professional Standards Commission, which certifies educators and enacted the changes. “We have developed rules we think will move education forward. We fully understood we needed to make real changes to certification and to make sure certification played a significant and compelling role related to quality.”
Georgia has already tried to address quality of existing teachers by revamping the teacher evaluation system, which now includes student test scores as part of an educators’s performance review. Stricter certification requirements are seen as the next step.
To earn certification, teaching candidates will have to score higher on tests measuring how well they know the subject they’re teaching. They’ll also have to pass a new assessment — one only a few states use — to determine whether they can teach. And they’ll have to prove they know the state’s code of ethics by passing a new exam, believed to be one of the first of its kind in the nation.
But pressing candidates to hit a higher mark before entering the classroom could cause a shortage of teachers. State leaders roughly estimated only 30 to 40 percent of early education teachers would pass new requirements, which are expected to be phased in over the next few years. State leaders say they are trying to find a balance, beefing up teacher certification standards without building a barricade.
The changes were carefully calibrated to not exclude too many teachers.
The state grants about 8,500 new certifications annually, according to the commission. Rules for teaching candidates with a college degree in education are slightly different than for those trying to enter the classroom through the non-traditional route. Generally, they look like this:
• Candidates already have to pass the Georgia Assessments for the Certification of Educators (GACE), which measures knowledge in a content area like math or science. The exam is now harder and under the new rules, candidates eventually will be expected to earn a higher score to pass.
• In addition to the GACE, educators will now have to pass a new assessment that evaluates teaching technique. The “edTPA” uses portfolios and videotapes to determine whether a candidate is ready to teach children.
• Teachers will have to pass a new test on the Georgia Educator Code of Ethics. Georgia is believed to be the first state to enact such a requirement, following the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, which ensnared more than 100 educators. The Professional Standards Commission, which oversees educator ethics, gets about 100 new ethics complaints each month, Henson said. They hope to reduce the number by half.
Students’ academic lag in Georgia is connected to teacher quality, according to education experts and advocates. Georgia graduated about 6,500 students from teacher-preparation programs in 2011-12, the most current year available. But the state’s prep programs earned less than stellar marks on a recent report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, which evaluated 1,612 programs across the U.S. In Georgia, only Clayton State University earned national ‘top ranked’ status — a distinction awarded to 107 programs.
Georgia joins a growing group of states trying to boost student performance by improving the quality of teaching candidates — making it more demanding to get into education programs and gain certification — said Sandi Jacobs, a vice president with the National Council on Teacher Quality.
“The bar for both getting into a teacher-preparation program and then getting into the classroom has been fairly low” in Georgia and other states, Jacobs said.
In Georgia, most schools require a minimum 2.5 GPA to enter a traditional teacher-prep program, though at most schools the median GPA of those accepted is a 3.0 or higher.
“The more classroom-ready we prepare our teachers to be, the more they know their subject matter, the more they have practiced the skills they’re going to need in the classroom, that certainly sets them on a better pathway to success,” Jacobs said.
She said the quality of teacher-preparation programs at colleges and universities is part of the problem, and she believes the state needs to hold programs accountable for whether they produce effective teachers.
Frankie Kirk, a senior at Clayton State University, is student-teaching in Henry County and expects to graduate this spring, making her likely to earn her certificate before many of the new rules take effect. But she said Clayton State is already ramping up preparations to ensure graduates are ready to meet the new requirements.
“As far as the work is concerned, there is going to be more for teacher candidates,” Kirk said. “But in my mind, it can lead to weeding out people who are choosing the profession as last resort. … For those who really want to teach and know their content, it may make it more stressful for them. But if they can push through, the end result will be a more quality teachers for the students in the classroom.”
Ruth Caillouet, chairwoman of the department of teacher education at Clayton State University, was also on a committee that developed some of the state’s new rules. She says Georgia is moving in the right direction, but she and other deans are concerned about how the new standards will affect recruitment.
Caillouet attributes the drop to negative attitudes about educators, the economy and the lack of raises for teachers over the past several years.
“We need this. It needed to happen,” she said of the rule changes. “We need to always be working to build a better product … but I do think there is more to the story — that the state and nation need to look at education reform and put more funds back into the classroom.”
While she supports changes to better prepare teachers, Caillouet disputed the idea that poorly trained educators are to blame for the state’s lackluster classroom performance.
“We can always do better. I think that’s why changes are taking place,” she said. “But I don’t believe the problems in education have been because of poorly prepared teachers. I believe problems in education stem from many social and economic issues causing this to be a really difficult environment.”
Melanie Heineman, a PTA leader with children attending Lassiter High School and Mabry Middle in Cobb County, said she believes beefed-up teacher certification requirements certainly can’t hurt students, especially when it comes to subjects like math and science.
But she adds that just because teaching candidates look good on paper, they aren’t necessarily guaranteed to be effective in the classroom.
“You know if you’ve got a teacher you like. If your kid has done well, you don’t necessarily know what kind of certification they (teachers) have,” Heineman said. “It’s hard to really say I’ve noticed teachers with this kind of certification are more qualified than not.
“You’re not going to necessarily see what kind of teacher they are just by test scores.”
Henson, who heads the state’s certification commission, said education leaders have worked for years toward changing teacher certification requirements. State legislative leaders and the governor have pushed for the changes, but the commission has also listened to others as well, who contend teacher quality in Georgia needed improvement.
“If you talk to higher education folks, obviously teacher preparation from the national level on down, for the past three to five years, has had a big huge target on its back,” Henson said. “Our higher education folks have been very interested in making some changes to improve teacher and leader preparation … But at the end of the day, even though we may not agree with everything the critics have said, I think there’s a very clear understanding that we need to do better – both in Georgia and nationally.”
Henson notes state leaders couldn’t increase certification requirements too substantially because they risked strangling the flow of teachers into the classroom.
“Obviously, it would have an incredibly negative impact on the candidate pool,” Henson told a group of state education leaders last month. “We do want to raise standards, but we can’t live with passing rates going from 60, 70 and 80 percent to 20, 30 and 40 percent immediately.”
State leaders came up with a temporary solution: Set two passing scores. New teachers, until 2017, can pass the test by meeting a lower score. In the future, candidates will have to retake the test or receive good performance reviews under the new evaluation system.
“At end of day, really good performance will trump testing and that’s good for all of us,” he said.
Kevin Kiger, executive director of employment for Cobb County, the second-largest school system in the state with nearly 109,000 students, said the district isn’t facing a teacher shortage. He doesn’t foresee the school system suffering significantly from the beefed up certification requirements, though he does acknowledge state education leaders must walk a fine line in not making the new rules so stringent the state ends up with a dearth of teachers.
“When we’re going to give a more rigorous type test to try and better our teacher pool, it’s hard to argue that’s not a good thing,” Kiger said. “If what they’re (education leaders) trying to do is make it a little bit more rigorous for people to become teachers … And as long as our colleges are geared toward educating those people and they’re able to pass the test and we’re getting good candidates, then I don’t see a problem with it.”
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