The fallout from HB 189: Alternative certification programs are in need of an overhaul

The Florida Senate today approved by a 38-1 vote a proposal to allow master’s degree holders in STEM fields to earn permanent teaching certifications without the coursework that teachers in other subjects (or STEM teachers without masters’ degrees) are required to take if they earn a rating of “highly effective” while teaching on temporary certificates or as adjuncts.  The proposal (HB 189) had already passed the House, so it now heads to Governor Scott.  The bill is this year’s “fix” for addressing the shortage of teachers in science and math.

The bill will affect STEM professionals and graduate students who decide to enter the teaching profession through alternative certification tracks.  Students in traditional teacher education programs earn permanent certification through their programs.

HB 189 does not address the salary penalty that engineers, physicists, computer scientists and mathematicians would pay to enter the teaching profession, so the changes in the bill will likely attract mostly master’s degree holders in life and environmental sciences who have more limited career opportunities in their fields.  The bill is likely to have little impact on the shortages of teachers in computer science, math and physics.

But perhaps the bigger issue is one that several teachers who have communicated with me about this bill have shared:  The courses presently required for alternative certification do not help them be better teachers, and they are therefore a waste of time, money and effort.

What do STEM professionals entering the teaching profession through alternative certification need to learn in their coursework?  We’ll assume here that these professionals already have strong grasps of their subject areas – that’s the premise of alternative certification programs.  There are two primary knowledge gaps cited by the alternatively certified teachers I’ve talked with.  One is classroom management.  How do you keep a room with thirty or thirty-five students with varying levels of interest orderly so that the motivated  students (or better yet, all the students) can learn?  The other is what we call pedagogical content knowledge, or “PCK”.  How do students learn physics?  (or computer science or math) What pedagogical strategies should be adopted to give the largest number of students the best opportunity to learn with understanding?  (Hint:  Not traditional lecturing)  STEM professionals are among those few who succeeded in the lecture model that excluded many other students from success.  Unless someone tells them that inquiry-driven instruction works better for more students, they don’t know.  And therefore they do worked for them – lecture.

The alternatively certified teachers I talked with wished that their coursework had focused on the issues of classroom management and pedagogical content knowledge.  Instead, these issues were ignored.  Therefore, these teachers didn’t see the changes to alternative certification requirements in HB 189 as a problem.  Since the required courses were worthless, the bill is seen as a way for a select group of alternative certification candidates to be spared from a major waste of time.  They wish everybody could be exempted.

We are being bombarded with the message that traditional teacher education programs are in dire need of reform.  The message in HB 189 is that it’s not just the traditional programs that need reform – alternative certification programs need an overhaul, too.

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