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Should teachers teach subjects beyond their certification?

Gabriella Canales By Gabriella Canales

April 2, 2017 at 11:06 p.m.
Updated April 2, 2017 at 11:18 p.m.

Laura Escalante, a billingual prekindergarten teacher at Hopkins Elementary School, gives instruction to her Spanish-speaking students on Friday. Escalante is an interim teacher who is working on earning her certification.

Laura Escalante, a billingual prekindergarten teacher at Hopkins Elementary School, gives instruction to her Spanish-speaking students on Friday. Escalante is an interim teacher who is working on earning her certification.    CAROLINA ASTRAIN/CASTRAIN@VICAD.COM for The Victoria Advocate

A District of Innovation is a designation given by the state to certain public school districts that allows them more local control to set their standards of operation.

Legislation approved in 2015 defines how a school district that has an acceptable rating should be given the designation.

For VISD, which is a District of Innovation, the distinction means it can manage its school start date and define its career and college readiness criteria.

Calhoun County school district proposed a District of Innovation plan that would exempt the district from teacher certification for bilingual educators, areas outside initial certification and career and technology courses. The result is that non-certified instructors in these areas can teach those classes.

Another benefit of the District of Innovation status allows a school district to be more innovative with curriculum, instructional methods, parental involvement and campus governance.

About 180 districts have posted plans on the Texas Education Agency website.

So, under the District of Innovation status, some raise the question: Should teachers be allowed to teach subjects that are beyond their certification?

PRO: Exemptions allow for flexibility

A teacher certification exemption allows a school district the ability to find applicants for hard-to-fill positions, said James Cowley, superintendent of Calhoun County school district.

"Bilingual teachers are few and far between, and we are in a great competition to find well-qualified teachers," Cowley said.

In the district's bilingual education program, the most common language spoken by students is Spanish.

"There are individuals with degrees who are fluent in English and Spanish," Cowley said. "We are looking at plugging those individuals into those classrooms."

The difference between certified educators and non-certified educators is training, he said. However, the gap can be filled with individualized training, which the district intends to offer.

Staff development and flexibility to meet local needs are among the goals of the district's plan, he said.

The district's plan will be discussed at a public meeting Tuesday so community members can provide comments. If enough positive feedback is given, the plan will move to the school board for approval.

The District of Innovation status allows school districts to go outside the state requirements to address some needs, said Susanne Carroll, VISD's executive director of curriculum, instruction and accountability.

Teacher certification is not an area VISD officials are pursuing, and it will not be in any of the changes to district's plan, she said.

The option had been discussed several times by Greg Bonewald, VISD's human resources director, Carroll said.

"It's a real struggle to find those certified in those particular content areas," she said. "You can have teachers who are highly qualified but not necessarily certified."

Lou Lloyd-Zannini, University of Houston-Victoria associate professor of education, has worked with several Calhoun County officials on its District of Innovation plan committee.

The plan addresses the needs of the area, he said.

Teacher certification means a person has learned and mastered their discipline and knows how to interact with students and identify student growth. They also know management and how to teach.

When a need arises for a certain position, a method can be taken toward filling the position with a teacher who is not certified in that specific area, he said.

Vetting, background checks, training, monitoring and offering a non-certified teacher the opportunity to earn certification are ways to find and help a good candidate.

An advantage of the exemption is that populations can be served when there is not a certified instructor, he said.

Another advantage is the teacher can work on his or her certification while in a position, he said.

Spanish speakers are a growing population, he said.

Having a native speaker in the classroom or a person skilled in that language is better than having a person who cannot communicate, he said.

"You want someone who is highly qualified and certified, but if that is not available then this is the next best thing, or not someone doesn't get served," Lloyd-Zannini said.

Con: Exemptions could lead to unintentional results

The distinction of District of Innovation removes important safeguards in education, said Ray McMurrey, secretary-treasurer for the Texas American Federation of Teachers.

The purpose of teacher certification in Texas is to assure students are not put in a class with unqualified teachers, which is important to parents, he said.

"They (districts) basically say, we have a demand to teach this class, and instead of going out, finding and doing the front-end work of recruiting teachers, we are just going to fill a hole," said McMurrey, who worked 18 years as a teacher and coach.

A drawback is that there is no way to know whether the person is qualified; it is only assumed, he said.

Certified teachers are not just teaching content, he said.

"They are teaching social and emotional behavior and have an understanding of child psychology," he said. "They are not only an expert in their field, but they are taught to deal with children."

District of Innovation plans give too much power to the superintendent and parents lose control, McMurrey said.

"Regardless of the category or classification, we need to make sure we follow standards for instructors and teachers," he said.

The district should be proactive in recruiting efforts and offer incentives, he said.

"We don't have to settle and say, 'Give these kids less,'" he said. "If we are willing to put anyone in front of our children, then we are gambling with our children."

Plans that extend teacher certification requirements beyond career and technology courses are not common, said Monty Exter, lobbyist for the Association of Professional Educators.

Legislation exists that allow districts to hire teachers who don't have traditional certification to teach career and technology. A license or working knowledge of that area and 20 hours of professional development is required.

"If they are not able to manage a classroom, then knowledge is not going to do those students much good," he said.

Extending the requirements to bilingual and second-area certification is problematic, he said.

Knowing how to teach promotes success and is learned in bilingual education certification, he said.

Teachers will be working with English Language Learners, or ELL, Exter said.

A highly trained bilingual educator knows how to track student growth compared to someone who just knows how to speak a foreign language, he said.

When instructors teach subjects outside their certification area, research shows it is not a good idea, he said.

A degree in a subject does not equal teacher certification, he said.

"The better you know the content, the better you are able to impart knowledge on students," he said. "Employees and parents should receive ample notice of what they might be losing under the new innovation plan."


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