Jack Oliver had a bachelor's degree in business management and two decades of technical training in the Coast Guard when he decided he wanted to teach in Maryland public schools. But to become a certified teacher, Oliver learned, he would need more than just years of practical experience.
So Oliver, 50, is working toward a full-time teaching certificate, one of a number of mid-career professionals who want to become educators.
Among other requirements, he needs to pass the Praxis I exam, which is administered by the state and tests general knowledge; spend more than 100 hours studying the techniques of teaching; and take college courses to get his certification -- a commitment of time and finances that Oliver said is a challenge to balance.
The demands of the alternative process of becoming a certified teacher in Maryland were examined in a recent study by the Maryland Public Policy Institute, an independent research group concerned with state education policy. In a report last month, analyst Tom Neumark wrote that a key to curbing the state's perpetual teacher shortage is to make becoming a certified teacher easier for people who have years of real-world experience.
Neumark said he looked at years of teacher staffing reports and thought: "What's a practical solution to this? If we were less restrictive in the education world, there wouldn't be these problems."
He wants people such as Oliver to be able to earn certification by passing a single test for teaching ability -- either one prepared by the state or the one written by the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence, a group of teachers, policymakers and education officials.
His findings echo those of others from the Washington region who found that alternative certification programs are an inefficient way to bring talented educators into school systems. Recent reports by the Calvert Institute for Policy Research and the Abell Foundation, both groups that study many categories of state and local policy in Maryland, say strict certification requirements are daunting and limit the number and diversity of teachers by discouraging interested professionals from applying.
But Maryland education officials say the requirements are there for a reason: Experience in a field does not necessarily make someone a capable teacher.
"In an era of increased student accountability, I think we want to be careful about lowering our standards and expectations for the professionals who work with our students," said John Smeallie, the assistant state superintendent for certification and accreditation.
He continued: "What the requirements really say is we want folks to have demonstrated expertise in their field. It may be that teaching looks easy, but it's harder than it looks. There's a science to teaching, and we do folks a disservice if we let them think they can go right into a classroom and deal with young people."
The state offers five certification programs, one of which -- the alternative Resident Teacher Certificate -- is specifically geared for professionals in other fields looking to switch into teaching. This program requires a bachelor's degree with a B average in the subject area a person plans to teach as well as 135 hours of study in college coursework or in a local school system. According to state guidelines, this study should focus on teaching techniques and theories, classroom management, and human growth and development.
This summer, the Professional Standards and Teacher Education Board, which works with the state Board of Education on teaching regulations, proposed legislative changes that would open up the Resident Teacher Certificate program to more people. Smeallie said the state is looking for ways to streamline its alternative certification program to make it more attractive -- particularly to former military personnel such as Oliver -- without lessening requirements or reducing the rigor of the program.
As part of the state's Quality Teacher Incentive Act of 1999, Maryland also offers financial incentives, including scholarships and tax credits, to encourage talented people to go into -- and to stay in -- teaching.
Thelma Monk, the director of the staffing department for Montgomery County schools, said the state's alternative certification requirements are "abbreviated but still strenuous" to balance the need to recruit teachers with the need to adequately train them.
"That's the beauty of the program," she said. "It is challenging. It does require courses be taken, but not all at one time. And you're taking the courses while you're practicing the art of teaching. It's the perfect blend of theory and practice."
Monk expects that from 100 to 150 people in Montgomery will participate this year in the alternative certification program. Smeallie said the program is also heavily used by Howard and Prince George's counties.
Neumark's study says that this number ought to be higher and that the Resident Teacher Certificate program is not necessarily the best way to produce good teachers. Just as businesses can hire job candidates without master's degrees in business administration, he writes, public schools should be able to hire teachers they deem qualified but who have not completed the course work prescribed for state certification.
He believes that instead of requiring a certain amount of classroom study, Maryland should allow anyone with a bachelor's degree who demonstrates teaching competence on a test to teach. In his model, individual school districts would be able to require additional course work as they see fit.
A plan like that, albeit troublesome to state education officials, might have saved Oliver time and money.
He trained in telecommunications in the military, and he worked in private industry for four years after he got out of the Coast Guard. He teaches technology education at Westminster High School in Carroll County. Working toward certification, he takes online classes in the techniques of teaching from Grand Canyon University, which is based in Arizona.
It has been a long path, but Oliver, who teaches in one of the nine disciplines that have critical teacher shortages in Maryland, said he sees the merits of opening up alternative certification programs.
"I understand the logic of the state's requirements, to a point," he said. "I have some significant training and background in teaching in a military environment, but I understand there's the psychology of the children to address.
"I understand there's techniques in classroom management you need to learn," he said. "But I'm not sure, given our current situation, with the lack of availability of teachers, that things should necessarily be this way."