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Does the rise in alternatively trained teachers spell trouble?

TAMPA — So many teacher sex scandals. So many people becoming teachers without formal education degrees.

Would you connect the dots?

It was no problem for Hillsborough School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez, who observed last week that "a large portion of our cases involving this kind of behavior have come, frankly, from non-education majors who have come to us late in life."

Jade Moore, the teachers union chief in Pinellas County, also draws a connection between teaching as a second career choice and allegations of sexual misconduct.

"The odds go up," he said. "It reflects the fact that we don't have classically trained teachers anymore because we don't pay enough."

In Hillsborough, six educators have been accused of having sex with students in recent years. Half took alternative paths to schools. The other half were education majors.

Advocates of nontraditional teachers reject the attempt to link a few high-profile embarrassments to the benefits that come with building a more robust and qualified teacher pool.

"The fact is the teachers unions and a number of other powers-that-be in public education don't like this," said Stanford University political science professor Terry Moe, who has studied Florida's education system.

• • •

Hillsborough school officials can't say what percentage of their teachers skipped education college, but it's a growing minority. Last school year, more than 600 of the 1,500 teachers hired in Hillsborough were non-education majors. Many go into areas where there are shortages, such as math, science and special education.

Programs to create teachers with nontraditional backgrounds are taking off in Florida and across the nation. Supporters say they bring candidates with stronger academic credentials to the classroom, and that they do just as well as graduates of education schools.

In fact, a task force of experts is recommending that Florida, already a leader on this front, should make it even easier for any college graduate to teach.

"There's no evidence that all of these hurdles make for better teachers," said Moe, who served on the panel. "It's basically an unnecessary and very costly restriction on the supply of potential teachers."

A Hoover Institution task force review, initiated by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, strongly questioned the quality of education programs. It reported that teacher training programs disproportionately attract lower-achieving university students.

• • •

Florida is the only state that already requires every school district to have an alternative certification program, which allows non-education majors to earn a teaching credential.

A potential teacher needs a bachelor's degree and proof of content knowledge to qualify for a temporary degree. Nontraditional teachers have to pass the same certification exams as other teachers. And pursuing alternative paths to the classroom still requires significant investments of time and money.

Alternative programs have grown in the face of critical teachers shortages, particularly in middle and high schools. Texas now gets more new teachers through alternative programs than from traditional teaching routes, said Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Alternative Certification.

She said nearly 90 percent of the teachers who complete alternative programs are still there after five years. Dropouts mostly leave in the first six months. And two years into teaching, there's not much difference between alternatively certified teachers and those with classic training.

"The research is showing its a draw," Feistritzer said.

Still, Pinellas schools prefer to hire traditionally trained teachers, looking to alternative routes when they're unable to attract enough.

"We can't actually get enough of the education majors," said Sandra Hopkins, a senior human resource specialist and recruiter, bemoaning the lack of secondary teachers she saw on a recruiting trip to Michigan last week. "It's out of scarcity."

In Hillsborough, career switchers and non-education majors have several options. Those already hired as teachers can participate in the district-run alternative certification program. Or they can seek a master's in education, enroll in an educator preparation institute at a community college, or take online programs.

Hillsborough school officials stress the rigor of their program, which has produced 1,600 teachers in a decade. Three-fourths are still teaching in the county.

Participants spend more than 160 hours studying topics from classroom management to technology in the classroom. They balance evening and weekend classes with full-time teaching jobs. The program, which can be completed in one to three years, uses classroom observation and mentoring to ease the transition.

"It allows us to bring in folks who have life experiences," said Scott Richman, supervisor of staff development, who trained as a veterinarian before becoming a science teacher. "It is something that really allows kids to connect."

And the few bad apples aren't the only ones getting headlines. Hillsborough's "Teacher of the Year'' in 2007 is a graduate of its alternative certification program.

James Gibbs III, a math teacher at Burns Middle School, said he wouldn't have made the transition after 24 years in the military without the option.

"I would not have gone back to school to take such a circuitous route to teaching," said Gibbs, who already had a master's degree in public administration.

The 49-year-old instructor, in his sixth year teaching, also recognizes the value of studying teaching in college, like his daughter is doing. But he wouldn't draw lines between preparation and a handful of teachers embarrassing the rest.

He observed: "I really don't see a correlation between being an alternatively certified teacher and being a traditionally certified teacher in terms of making mistakes."

Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this story.

>>FAST FACTS

Teacher sex scandals in Hillsborough

With education degrees:

Debra Lafave: Bachelor's in English education, University of South Florida. Former Greco Middle School teacher pleaded guilty in 2005 to having sex with a 14-year-old student.

Jaymee Wallace: Bachelor's in education and math, University of Tampa. Former Wharton High School teacher and coach pleaded guilty to having a sexual relationship with a student who played on her girls basketball team.

Mary Jo Spack: Bachelor's in English education, USF, earned after working in other fields for years. Former Freedom High School teacher accused of having sex with a 17-year-old boy after buying liquor and bringing him to a motel.

Without education degrees:

Christina Butler: Bachelor's in history, UT, alternatively certified teacher. Former Middleton High special education teacher accused of having sex up to a dozen times with a 16-year-old boy.

Stephanie Ragusa: Bachelor's in political science, USF, alternatively certified teacher. Former Davidsen Middle School teacher accused of having sex with two students.

Ronald Lewis: Not required to have teaching credentials to coach soccer and work as a vocational aide at Newsome High. Accused of seven counts of unlawful sex with a minor girl student.

Does the rise in alternatively trained teachers spell trouble? 04/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2008 9:41am]

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