Gonzalo Torres was a personal banker when the teaching bug bit.
Though his degree was in finance, he found, to his surprise, that the Houston Independent School District (HISD) had a program for professionals who want to teach without going back to school for a separate degree.
Now, after a year of education courses, mentoring, and exams, he's in his second year as head of a bilingual fourth-grade class at an inner-city school - one of 800 Houston professionals who take this alternate route each year. He's considered one of the district's most dedicated teachers, but he questions the logic of a new statewide program that makes it easier for college grads to join him. The program, passed last week by the State Board of Education, allows college graduates without education degrees to teach simply by passing a test. No college courses required.
It's the latest step in states' effort to fill vacant teaching positions, and among the most radical. While teacher shortages are easing in some areas, they remain a problem elsewhere, especially in the Sun Belt. Texas, for instance, needs 45,000 new teachers annually - more than double the 20,000 new certifications it issued last year, according to the State Board of Educator Certification.
"We don't see this as a cure for our teaching shortages," says Marty De Leon, legislative council for the Texas Association of School Boards, which supports the new program. "But it will provide one more staffing option."
Texas isn't alone in resorting to more expedient routes: 43 other states had alternative paths to certification in 2002. But the battle here has sparked a fierce debate over standards, with many educators and academics arguing that such programs draw less committed teachers and diminish the profession's prestige.
Under the plan - which had failed twice in the Legislature and still needs a final vote from the Educator Certification Board April 2 - college graduates can teach grades 8-12 in subjects that relate to their majors, once they've passed a subject-area exam and a certification test. They're provided with mentoring and support in the first two years, and their certificates are valid for two years, after which the state can issue a permanent certificate.
But critics say the program would put untrained teachers into classrooms at a critical time. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires "highly qualified" teachers in classrooms by 2005, though states set their own standards for the label.
"[Teaching] is a profession. It's not just babysitting a bunch of kids," says Linda Bauer, a member of the State Board of Education who voted against the proposal. "If we want them to continue in the profession beyond two years, we've got to have people who have invested some time" in becoming teachers.
Most states have incentives for recruiting and keeping teachers, from raising salaries and giving signing bonuses to forgiving loans, coaxing retirees back, and mentoring new teachers.
In addition to tapping professionals, many states are looking overseas to fill positions. Texas is in the forefront, with nearly a third of America's 10,000 foreign teachers working in its public schools.
Spanish-speaking teachers are especially critical here. The Dallas Independent School District, for instance, is recruiting teachers on both sides of the border. It needs 220 Spanish-speaking teachers next year and is offering alternative certification programs for them as well.
While some states are doing better filling teaching positions because of the tight economy, there's still a significant challenge - even outside the Sun Belt. "There are a whole lot of baby-boomer teachers getting close to retirement and we are going to be in quite a pinch when they do," says Michael Petrilli, a senior aide in the US Department of Education's department of innovation and improvement. To that end, he says, "We have encouraged states to make changes to the traditional system of certification. It's possible to raise standards for new teachers, and at the same time, lower some of the barriers that keep talented people from ... the classroom."
The question as to who makes a better teacher is hotly debated. Few studies compare the quality of teachers who've come from traditional routes to those who follow alternative routes, but many studies do show that the smarter the teacher, the better the student, says Mr. Petrilli.
For his part, Torres says the five college-level education courses required in HISD's program were invaluable. (HISD is unsure if it will use the new voluntary statewide program, which could take effect April 22, since its alternative certification program is working so well).
"I found those courses very helpful because, to tell you the truth, there were a lot of issues about child development and cognitive ability that I had no clue about," says Torres. "There is no way that someone who doesn't have the proper training in education is going to be successful in the classroom."