Viewpoints: Change in teacher credentialing is a step backward

Many parents of school-age children are probably aware that this is an absolutely transformational time for K-12 public education in California.

The implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the Smarter Balanced testing system for the 2014-15 school year will mark the arrival of revolutionary changes in how students are taught and assessed.

But in the midst of this academic progress there has been a controversial step back in teacher preparation standards for required core academic subjects.

Currently, the teaching of core subjects requires either a single subject credential for grades K-12 or the elementary multiple subject credential. But recently, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, asserting it was raising standards, voted for a special teaching authorization that would lower credentials for some teachers.

The revisions eliminate five of the seven current requirements for teaching an academic subject. The most critical elimination: removing the requirement that teachers have bachelor’s degree.

That’s right. The commission has effectively lowered teaching standards by giving the OK for school districts to allow core academic subjects to be taught by instructors who do not have four-year degrees or, for that matter, may not even have taken any college courses. Core academic subjects with rigorous knowledge standards that are required for high school graduation include English, mathematics, physical education, history-social science and science.

The momentous question educators and observers statewide are asking: Since when did the Legislature give the commission legal authority to waive the minimum requirement of a baccalaureate for teaching a core academic subject?

But that’s not all.

In addition to eliminating the degree requirement, the commission dropped the mandate for teachers to take reading, pedagogy (teaching methods) and technology courses, and English Learners certification. The two requirements the commission maintained were the California Basic Educational Skills Test and California Subject Examination for Teachers.

Way to go, California.

Just as the state’s 1,000-plus school systems are poised to take a great academic leap forward, the commission chose to disregard well-reasoned arguments against the proposed changes by several education groups: the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance; the California Mathematics Council; the California Science Teachers Association; the California Teachers Association; and department heads from 16 California State University campuses.

Why would the commission want to lower standards for teachers? Some quickly point to a plausible answer: The commission wanted the changes as a way to appease Gov. Jerry Brown. The governor has long been a steadfast advocate of the cadet corps, which uses instructors with basic military drill credentials.

The cadet corps, consisting of about 6,000 middle and high school students, is a unit of the California Military Department.

The ROTC and basic military drill instructors are typically retired military personnel from the enlisted ranks who are not required to have taken courses in higher education nor to hold a bachelor’s degree. If the regulations are passed, these instructors will be able to obtain the special teaching authorization by simply passing two state tests.

The proposed regulation changes are broadly stated and very confusing. There is wording that refers to “fitness training” and “physical education courses in (basic military drills)” with physical education credit for just these areas, but not for “regular” physical education. Huh? What graduation credit requirements are going to be met and not met? The commission’s action, unfortunately, could cause major collateral damage – the undermining of the state system of K-12 accreditation/certification. That’s because the action can be precedent-setting for all core academic subject areas.

School administrators statewide will be tempted to have regular curriculum courses taught by unqualified or under-qualified individuals. It will no doubt become a slippery slope.

This week, the commission submitted its changes to the state Office of Administrative Law for legal review, which is required before the new authorization can take effect. If the Office of Administrative Law finds the proposed changes violate legislative intent, it will reject the revisions. But then the commission can appeal directly to the governor.

And what do you think the odds are that Gov. Jerry Brown will simply say “no problem”?

This is a problem. Parents and the public at large need to let the governor know that our children deserve qualified teachers for all core academic subjects.