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Opinion

States must cut red tape to attract more qualified teachers

Rigid standards are shutting out aspiring teachers. States must evaluate potential teachers without traditional certification in ways that don't push needed talent away.

By Justin D. Martin / August 15, 2011



Orono, Maine

My wife has a master’s degree in education from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has lived in four countries, speaks a good deal of Arabic and some Italian, and has been either teaching or conducting education research for the better part of a decade. She taught at a private school in Seattle so esteemed that Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon.com) sent their children there.

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Yet according to box-checkers at Maine’s Department of Education, she is not yet qualified to teach 10-year-olds in the state’s public schools. Because she studied history and art as an undergraduate and has not undergone public school certification in another state, the state of Maine denied her application for initial certification to teach, insisting that she must first complete an undergraduate English course at her own expense. This is only for initial, temporary certification, after which she must take no fewer than five additional college courses, five standardized tests, and complete a year of supervised “student” teaching.

Just about anyone considering teacher quality in the United States laments that classroom instruction needs substantial improvement, and low teacher pay is often cited as the reason the profession doesn’t attract and retain talented candidates. This is no doubt part of the problem; in Maine, a starting public school salary pays like a full time job at a Waffle House.

Another major problem, though, is that states often make it unconscionably difficult for qualified teachers to work. The result is that would-be teachers often do something else or they work for private schools, where teachers don’t need the same bureaucratic stamp of approval. For that same reason, private schools often attract highly qualified, educated individuals who may not have the traditional teaching certification.

Four days after arriving in Maine, my wife was offered a job at a prestigious private school that is less shackled by the state’s bureaucratic vise grip. She accepted.

Maine should be sending cookie bouquets to talented teachers. The state’s 4th-graders have the lowest reading scores of any state in New England except Rhode Island, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (Wholly related: My wife’s master’s degree is specifically in childhood literacy).

But Maine officials can take heart that other states chase good teachers away, too.

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