Nontraditional Teachers May Be In Mich.'s Future

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Michael Tenbusch, a former teacher who thinks that Michigan should loosen rules on teacher training. i

Michael Tenbusch, a former teacher who works for the United Way, says that when it comes to teachers, there should be a bigger pool of talent to draw on. Larry Abramson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Larry Abramson/NPR
Michael Tenbusch, a former teacher who thinks that Michigan should loosen rules on teacher training.

Michael Tenbusch, a former teacher who works for the United Way, says that when it comes to teachers, there should be a bigger pool of talent to draw on.

Larry Abramson/NPR

If you're a teacher in Michigan, odds are you went through a traditional teaching college. That's because the state requires nearly all elementary and secondary school teachers to get traditional training.

But the promise of federal funds is pressuring Michigan to loosen those rules and allow teachers with alternative certification.

Michael Tenbusch, a former teacher who works for the United Way, says he thinks that for Michigan's economy to improve, it needs to draw a new crop of schoolteachers to the profession. Tenbusch is still bullish about the town he grew up in. As he walks the halls of Cody High School in Detroit, Tenbusch wonders how he can get more cockeyed optimists to join him.

"We need to get more idealists into our classrooms," Tenbusch says.

A few years ago, Cody was a failing school. The United Way helped raise money to pay for a restructuring program that broke up the school into smaller, focused academies. Tenbusch helped lead that turnaround effort. Now, the halls are quiet and neat and the hand-picked staff is all fired up about the new school. But even this radical reform effort had to rely on teachers already in the school system. Tenbusch says to deal with Detroit's economic woes, he needs a bigger pool of talent to draw on.

"We know that there simply are not enough teachers in the district in order to fill every classroom with the best teacher possible," he says.

Between layoffs and continuing troubles in the auto industry, the drumbeat of bad news about Michigan would be enough to discourage a saint — yet there are still a lot of optimists left here.

Tenbusch himself was once a nontraditional teacher who taught for adults. He says he became a teacher because he wanted to make a difference, not because he'd gone to teachers college. So he supports a move to open up alternative certification in Michigan.

So does Jonathan Matthews, who runs one of the academies at Cody High School. He says that as his school grows, he wants to attract the unemployed autoworkers and others who don't have the time or inclination to study at a teachers college.

"As we grow we're going to need to be able to expand our net and pull in professionals from all kinds of fields. As we start looking at going to some specialty courses, we will need engineers, we will need former attorneys, former businesspersons to teach some of these special classes," Matthews says.

There is resistance, including skepticism from teachers unions.

According to Doug Pratt of the Michigan Education Association, the alternative certification effort is predicated on a teacher shortage that doesn't exist in Michigan. He points out that Michigan is home to some of the biggest and best teacher colleges in the country. And, he says, the state is an exporter of teachers and has no need to attract new talent.

"Why are we watering down standards when we don't have to?" Pratt says.

And those who teach future teachers say that alternative certification threatens one industry that is still thriving in Michigan: teacher education.

Race To The Top

At Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich., nearly 8,000 education students preparing to enter the classroom. EMU student Jeni Hellum from Lansing just transferred here from a community college. Even though her path to teaching will be long, she says the college route is worth the trouble.

"A Michigan teaching license is bar none one of the best licenses you can get in the United States. And I think in the long run, it's going to be better for us as teachers. It makes us more marketable," Hellum says.

Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a big booster of alternative training for teachers, says teacher colleges should be the focus of any education reform efforts.

Bill Price, a professor at Eastern Michigan University, says you just have to look at the scale of the task.

"We're talking about a huge, huge need across the country. We have 54 million kids in schools across the United States, so it's a huge task to prepare that number of people and have all them be outstanding," Price says.

The debate about alternative certification is an old one, but something new has entered the equation: the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal Race to the Top fund, a federal program offering more than $4 billion to states that show they are committed to education reform. To get that money, states must prove they are reform minded. Among other things, that means opening up avenues to alternative teaching certificates.

Aides to Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm say she has her eyes on that money.

"We are determined Michigan is going to be one of the states that wins Race to the Top," says Chuck Wilbur, a key education adviser to Granholm. "We need the best possible people to become teachers. And if we can capture the best and the brightest and give them an alternate but quality pathway to become teachers, we need to do that for our kids."

Last week, Michigan lawmakers signaled an end to the state's tight certification rules and approved legislation that would allow those with alternative training to become teachers.

The data is mixed on whether alternative programs produce better teachers than traditional college-based routes. Better research is under way, but could take years. So it may be some time before this debate is based on information rather than on which route can attract federal aid.



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