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Say you are a young Princeton grad, or a former professional athlete, or a corporate employee tired of the grind, and you want to teach in the public schools because you think it is important. You're just the kind of individual the public schools are falling all over themselves to attract, right?

Wrong. In many states, you would face an imposing roadblock called ``certification.'' No matter how high your college grades, no matter how much life -- or even teaching -- experience you've had, you still couldn't teach in the public schools without completing a certification drill of teacher-education courses. Certification a roadblock to teaching?

Originally intended to ensure that only qualified people got into the profession, certification has become, in the view of many educators, a device for keeping such people out.

``Certification is one of the reasons many people don't go into teaching,'' observes Dr. Laurence Green, superintendent of the Westfield, N.J., public schools.

Even Paul Blair, for 17 years an outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees, ran afoul of the certifiers when he became a high school baseball coach in Port Chester, N.Y. After one season, Blair moved on to Fordham University, where they didn't care whether his r'esum'e included teacher training credits.

With teacher shortages looming and with growing concerns over the quality of those in the classroom now, the certification logjam is not a happy state of affairs. Yet teacher organizations are demanding that teaching become more like other ``professions,'' such as law. By this they mean not just better pay and working conditions, but more barriers to people who didn't go to state teachers colleges and get their teacher training credits. States move to cut through red tape

A handful of states -- among them California, New Jersey, Texas, and Virginia -- have been moving in the opposite direction, however, establishing ways for qualified people to cut through the red tape.

Perhaps the most ambitious effort is here in New Jersey, where 221 new teachers entered the classroom this fall through a program called the ``alternate route.'' Individuals who pass a test in their subject matter and who demonstrate exceptional qualifications can go to work as teachers and earn their certification through evening classes during their first year on the job.

``We will move from a system that systematically discourages talented people to a system that will make it possible for them to teach,'' said Saul Cooperman, the state commissioner of education, when the program was first proposed.

Now the so-called ``provisional teachers'' are completing their first semester, and most people associated with the program seem pleased. ``We are delighted,'' says Janice Lehet, an assistant to the superintendent in the Rumson-Fair Haven schools.

``The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages for both the school district and the candidate,'' adds Ken King, assistant superintendent in East Orange, N. J. Dr. King has employed more provisional teachers -- 12 -- than has any other district in the state. Typical `alternate route' teachers

Among the alternate route teachers that King brought to East Orange is Andrea Bobby, who spent a year on the pro tennis circuit after college and is now teaching physical education. Another is Tracy Williams, a Princeton graduate who chose this urban school district over more genteel private school settings because ``there is a greater need in the public schools.'' Without the alternate route, she says, she may well have taught in a private school anyway.

A third new teacher in East Orange is Cynthia Stephens, who is teaching high school dropouts in a special program aimed at getting these teen-agers their high school equivalency diplomas. A dignified young woman with the precise enunciation of the reading teacher that she is, Ms. Stephens speaks with quiet conviction of the need to ``stimulate a love of reading'' in her students and describes how good she feels when her students start reading out of class. Attracting the `cream of the crop'

Stephens is typical of the provisional teachers in that she brings impressive qualifications to the classroom -- in her case, a masters degree in reading and language arts.

But like the others, she didn't take the teacher training courses as an undergraduate that would have made her eligible for a certificate.

``She's probably more qualified than many who [were already] teaching,'' sayszLoretta Onyeani, who is Stephens's supervisor. Before the alternate route, she says, the schools were ``losing the cream of the crop.''

Provisional teachers elsewhere in the state show a similar level of quality: a young chemical engineer from Exxon, one of the two New Jersey finalists for a Rhodes Scholarship, and an honors graduate in biochemistry from Harvard who wants to give several years of service to the public schools before going on to a career in medicine, to give just a few examples.

In fact, as a group the alternate-route candidates in New Jersey scored substantially higher on subject-matter exams than did their counterparts who went the standard teacher-college route.

To help assemble this talent, New Jersey recruited at 14 selective colleges in the Northeast -- an effort practically unheard of for public schools. The state also raised its starting pay for all teachers to $18,500 -- which, outside of Alaska, is the highest in the United States. When the state set up the alternate route, moreover, it did away with most ``emergency'' certificates, which occasionally had enabled totally unqualified people to get into the classroom, sometimes for years.

In all, the alternate route attracted over 1,000 candidates, of whom the 121 were hired. Ellen Schecter, of the State Department of Education, says the first crop has ``far exceeded our wildest expectations.''

Opposition to the alternate route has centered in the state teachers colleges, which in the past have functioned as gatekeepers to the teaching profession. Teacher-educators have raised the specter of untrained incompetents overseeing the nation's classrooms.

Mary Futrell, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teacher union, echoed this theme when she charged that ``alternative certification policies make a mockery of the education reform movement.''

Supporters of the alternate route point out, on the other hand, that the teachers colleges have turned out more than their share of duds. ``One does not necessarily become a teacher by sitting in the classroom in teachers college,'' observes Janet Rothenberg, a former New Jersey teacher who has been active on education issues with the League of Women Voters.

Teacher training courses are not known for their rigor, and there is wide agreement that classroom experience -- which alternate-route teachers get -- is the most valuable part of traditional teacher training anyway.

``There have been no more problems with these 12 than there would be with any 12 newly hired teachers,'' Dr. King says, adding that they have an ``extremely good grasp of their [course] content.'' Paul Greenman, an alternate route science teacher in Westfield, says he felt guilty about his lack of experience until he learned that many who came up through the standard procedure had proven incompetent or ``shattered like glass'' once they got into the classroom. ``The only way to train for this kind of t hing is just to get in there and do it,'' Tracy Williams says.

Dr. Leo Klagholz, director of teacher preparation and certification for the state, and himself a former classroom teacher, points out that private and parochial schools, which have to demonstrate their worth to attract students, generally don't require their teachers to be certified.

``We had to say [to the teachers' colleges] that no one owns this process,'' Klagholz says.

As the program is laid out, provisional teachers spend their first 20 days as teaching assistants, while attending four hours of class at night and on Saturdays. Then they assume full teaching responsibilities, attend class once a week and get regular classroom evaluations for the rest of the year.

In general, the new teachers think that the evening courses have value, especially the opportunity to raise problems they are encountering in the classroom. But they object to the hectic schedule of the first few weeks -- a ``madhouse'' Greenman called it -- when, in practice, they often end up teaching all day and then trooping off to three to four hours of class at night. ``I wish they didn't have to do it,'' says Dr. Green. ``Not a whole lot [of formal instruction] is necessary.''

Overall, however, New Jersey's experiment in attracting more -- and better -- people to the teaching profession appears to be working well to date.

One group that has expressed interest, Klagholz says, is the Peace Corps. For years, Peace Corps volunteers have returned from teaching in other countries, only to find they couldn't get teaching jobs here because they didn't have certificates. Now there's at least one state to which such idealistic people can go.

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