By Amanda Costikyan Jones
WASHINGTON – President Clinton wants them gone within five years. Gov. Parris Glendening plans to punish school districts that keep too many of them around.
But there were still 2,714 “provisionally certified” teachers in Maryland public schools in November, and state officials worry that they will not be able to find certified teachers to replace them if they are eliminated.
“Systems may have to rely on long-term substitutes (instead) … so we have to be careful … so we don’t end up forcing even less-qualified teachers into the classroom,” said Ronald Peiffer, a spokesman for the state Education Department.
Peiffer said he is “very worried” about the shortage of fully certified teachers, particularly in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County.
As of November, 14.5 percent of teachers in Prince George’s County and 16.6 percent of teachers in Baltimore City held provisional certificates. Statewide, the figure was 5.5 percent.
Provisionally certified teachers hold regular teaching assignments but have not met all of the state’s requirements for coursework and teacher testing. The minimum requirement is a bachelor’s degree in any field.
“They have to become certified,” said Roger Plunkett, principal of Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. “You wouldn’t want a doctor operating on you who was not trained.”
State education officials agree that full certification is the ideal.
Assistant State Superintendent Lawrence Leak said he supports efforts by Clinton and Glendening to end or greatly reduce provisional certification. Still, he said, the new proposals “will cause some dilemmas for certain school districts.”
Leak said it can be difficult for districts to find certified teachers in certain subject areas. Many districts hire provisional teachers to teach in subject shortage areas, mainly math, science, technology, special education and English for speakers of other languages.
And Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, with their high rates of provisional teachers, have been labeled “areas of geographical shortage” by the state board of education.
Plunkett said he supports the Clinton and Glendening initiatives even though he believes Maryland teacher shortages are spreading and will reach Howard County, where his school is located, before much longer.
“I think that problem is going to grow,” he said. “There’s going to be a dearth of teachers.”
Still, he said, allowing uncertified teachers to remain in classrooms is not the answer.
Clinton’s plan, mentioned in his State of the Union address and released in a preliminary form last month, makes no special provisions so far for subject or geographical shortage areas. It would order school districts “to phase out, over five years, the use of teachers with emergency (provisional) certificates” or risk cuts in federal aid.
Glendening announced a similar plan that is currently before the General Assembly. His proposal would give districts three years to ensure that at least 98 percent of their teachers are fully certified or risk losing some state funding.
The governor agreed last week to consider extending that deadline for Prince George’s County, if the county’s state senators can propose a viable alternate plan. The governor might let Prince George’s “perhaps phase (the requirement) in a little more gradually than some of the other jurisdictions,” press secretary Ray Feldmann said.
Feldmann said any extension of the deadline would likely be offered to Baltimore City as well. Still, he said, the governor “wants every jurisdiction in Maryland to have no more than 2 percent noncertified teachers.”
The state teachers’ union agrees.
“We have been opposed to the emergency certificates for years,” said Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.
“We don’t believe you should be bringing unqualified teachers into the classroom,” he said. “What the association wants is for the emphasis to be onto the qualified teachers and off of the warm bodies.”
Maryland officials have crafted a number of initiatives designed to ultimately replace uncertified teachers with those who have filled all their requirements.
Until recently, the state granted most provisional teachers an unlimited number of one-year certificate renewals, as long as they took six credits of required coursework each year.
But in June, the Department of Education adopted time limits on provisional certificates, based on the reason a renewal is needed.
“What the cap does is it says that if you need a provisional certificate because you need coursework, you have at most four years to do that,” Leak said. “After that, we don’t give you any more.”
He said the rules for teachers who fail the tests are even stricter.
“If you need the tests and that’s all you need, you’ve got two years and then you’re out,” Leak said.
But there is still a safeguard to keep superintendents from finding themselves with teacherless classrooms.
“There is a waiver that superintendents can petition (for) based on critical shortage,” either in subject areas or geographically, Leak said.
Because of that waiver, Pence said he is doubtful that real change will come about as a result of the new policy.
“The regulation allows the state superintendent to waive the regulation,” he said.
And he challenged the state’s past claims that districts often hire uncertified teachers because there are no certified teachers available.
“They’re only doing it because she (state superintendent Nancy Grasmick) implicitly or explicitly allows it,” Pence said.
In addition to toughening the standards for certificate renewal, the state is taking measures to attract more teacher who are fully certified. These measures include mentoring programs for new teachers, a marketing program to attract people to the profession and financial incentives for teachers who meet certain criteria.
Plunkett said he believes the answer to Maryland’s dwindling supply of teachers is within reach.
Teacher training and mentoring, he said, will help provisional teachers who are already in the classroom shore up their qualifications. “We can get people certified,” he said.
And he supports other programs to attract new people to the profession. Wilde Lake just reinstated its future teachers’ club, something Plunkett said many high schools and colleges eliminated years ago.
“I believe the people are out there,” he said. “We just have to recruit them.”