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Needed reform rankles LA education establishment

A debate over teacher training in Louisiana has brewed, exposing traditional fault lines separating those more interested in protecting the status quo and those willing to embrace innovation that improves the dismal condition of the state’s education quality.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will consider next month a change to teacher preparation curricula that includes a one-year apprenticeship requirement for those hired by virtue of having an education degree. That would roughly double the current requirement, where at the end of university study a student teacher shadows an experienced one for a term. Not only could it provide better preparation but it also might improve retention, as students get a better idea of the job.

Since the effort would require stipends for the mentors and trainees involved, some have claimed that the extra expense makes the idea infeasible. Superintendent John White estimates the three-year rollout would cost $7.5 million, although others call that an underestimation and allege that as school districts face budgetary pressures brought on by flat state funding (and a partial rollback of a state bonus of two year ago aimed at classroom salaries) this should obviate the move.

That excuse rings hollow. Even if the cost doubled, that would represent around 0.00004 percent of the entire state spending on education, much smaller than a drop in the bucket. And, as White points out, federal funding sources for these kinds of initiatives remain plentiful.

Rather, many district superintendents and representatives of school boards, principals, and higher education oppose the measure because it could increase the proportion of teachers that come through the alternative certification route. In these programs, often conducted by universities but also through nonprofit and private providers, people with degrees outside of education go through intensive training in education delivery and then must pass the same exam as graduates with education degrees for employment as teachers.

The education establishment does not like alternative certification because success by these graduates erodes the notion that it – administrators, unions, and university education faculties – has a monopoly on what constitutes expert knowledge in education, and therefore policy-makers must defer always to its pronouncements, especially in fiscal and personnel matters. Teachers certified alternatively come from outside the self-interested bubble, reducing the establishment’s ability to create cartel-like conditions in the profession and to inculcate its worldview into all members of the profession.

But alternative certification continues to grow – at present about half of Louisiana’s teachers attained certification alternatively – precisely because it works. In fact, the most recent research indicates those trained this way do as well as teachers traditionally trained in terms of student achievement, and typically score higher on licensing exams. This should not surprise, for typically traditional education degrees require only a modicum of coursework in a substantive field, compared to more substantial knowledge requirements in a major field of study. Nor should equivalent quality seem accidental because university schools of education do a fair portion of the alternative certification.

Still, it’s far less controllable by the establishment, and one possible reaction to imposing the standards of increased preparation for an education degree would be more students heading to alternative certification – even as that costs extra money and time. Yet rather than embrace that potential outcome, the education establishment fears it.

That should not prevent the change from becoming policy. Tellingly, supportive voices for it come from districts that have tried it and teacher groups that do not concentrate on collective bargaining. If the alteration produces better quality teachers likelier not to quit within the initial year of teaching, then BESE should adopt it.

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