January 20, 2020
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Students lose when quality teachers can’t teach

Maia Zewert | Lincoln County Ne
Maia Zewert | Lincoln County Ne
Pender Makin is Maine’s new commissioner of education.

On Wednesday, the State Board of Education will meet at Brunswick High School to be updated about and possibly approve changes to the rules of Chapter 115 “The Credentialing of Educational Personnel.” There is one action the board can take to help students: delay approval of proposed rules that prevent exceptional teachers from teaching.

We have a new administration, and a new commissioner of education. Rather than approve the proposed rules, the state board would be wise to pause and allow new Education Commissioner Pender Makin to apply her expertise, and more importantly her fresh experience as an administrator in the field, to the Maine’s education system.

K-12 education, like every other job sector in Maine, is at or near crisis stage in finding qualified applicants to fill positions. It is no secret that Maine has some of the most stringent and difficult to navigate certification rules in the country. Burdensome requirements routinely keep great people from teaching our children. Now is the time to make common sense adjustments to allow qualified candidates to teach.

For example, Kim Vogel moved to Eastport in 2017. She is a nurse who served in the Army and Air Force, and was honorably discharged as a captain in 2002. Shead High School was recently in need of a science teacher and Vogel was available. State certification officials told her that she could not be certified in Maine, because she does not have a bachelor’s degree.

Vogel’s academic and employment resume is rich with evidence that she would be successful teaching high school science. She participated in a masters program under a collaborative program offered by Yale, Vanderbilt and the University of Washington, created in response to a shortage of advanced practice nurses. They gave her credit for undergraduate work, and vaulted her straight into the masters program for advanced practice nursing without conferring a bachelor’s degree. She graduated with a 4.0 average. She also has a masters degree in studio art from Texas A&M — again with a 4.0.

Because the new rules would prevent Kim from teaching, the principal of Shead High may now need to fill the science position with a long-term substitute, one that may not have anywhere near the experience or qualifications that Kim has.

Who wins and loses when bureaucracy outweighs local knowledge? First and foremost are students. Local property taxpayers also lose out.

Often candidates will accept a K-12 job with a “provisional” certificate and take two classes a year toward their full endorsement. In most cases, local property taxpayers foot the bill for this redundancy as per local collective bargaining agreements. Even the teachers’ union loses out. “Winners” would be the coffers of higher ed institutions, both in state and online, receiving tuition for classes prescribed by the Department of Education.

Bill Ashby’s story illustrates this beautifully. Ashby is a nationally renowned soccer coach who coached at the University of Maine at Fort Kent where he teaches physical education classes to undergrads. He recently inquired about a career shift to teach high school PE in Maine, but was told that he would need to take 13 classes and the Praxis exam to do that. He would have to take classes that he now teaches!

Sadly, similar stories exist in every Maine school system, and they have for years. The objective of certification is to increase the odds of having high quality. It is not a guarantee. Teachers must prove their aptitude to local officials and peer mentoring teams before reaching continuing contact status. I maintain that documented success in a similar domain is equal to or greater than only an academic transcript.

If Vanderbilt, Yale and the University of Washington can be flexible and reasonable, so can we. Maine’s certification rules favor technicalities and redundancy over proven quality and success. Our students deserve better.

I encourage the State Board of Education to delay approval and to allow Commissioner Makin the opportunity to provide leadership in this matter.

Paul Stearns of Guilford represents District 119 in the Maine Legislature. He is the former superintendent of SAD 4 and a past president of the Maine School Superintendents Association.

This story has been updated to clarify that Bill Ashby is no longer a soccer coach at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

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