With teachers in short supply, should Florida make it easier for them to get the job?

Two bills would ease the path for teachers who have trouble passing Florida’s general knowledge test. But some say the legislation goes too far.
A proposed change in Florida law would give teachers more time to pass the general knowledge test and, in some case, allow them to get their teaching certificate through a mentoring program. [iStockphoto.com]
A proposed change in Florida law would give teachers more time to pass the general knowledge test and, in some case, allow them to get their teaching certificate through a mentoring program. [iStockphoto.com]
April 11, 2019

Florida has a well-documented teacher shortage. It also has a test that many aspiring teachers have found to be a stumbling block as they try to enter the profession.

State lawmakers say they want to help fix both problems.

They’ve proposed giving teachers more time — three years instead of one — to pass the general knowledge exam after they are first hired. And for those who just can’t pass, they’ve called for a two-year mentorship program, after which a mentor teacher and the school principal could deem the newer teacher competent and qualified for certification anyway.

“We don’t want to have a situation where we have people who simply can’t get into the profession just because of a test, which, to be frank, doesn’t test the area they’re going to be teaching,” said state Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican who is sponsoring the legislation (HB 7061 / SB 1576).

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He noted that teachers still would have to pass content and professional practices tests.

The sentiment has gone over well with many teachers, after seeing colleagues — mostly career changers on temporary licenses — lose their jobs because they failed the test or a portion of it (usually math).

But the idea of a workaround to the exam of basic math, reading and writing skills isn’t winning support in all corners. Not even in some you might expect.

“I don’t know that I support doing away with the test,” said Fed Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union. “I do support taking the time to look at why teachers are having such a difficult time passing the test.”

Ingram agreed with the notion that some educators, particularly those in career and technical fields who haven’t attended school in several years, might face problems with some of the test material.

That doesn’t mean they can’t be a good teacher, he said.

“But it also doesn’t mean we should retreat on our values of what a teacher should know,” he added.

Sharing that view is none other than Patricia Levesque, chief executive of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which is often at odds with the teachers union.

Levesque said the general knowledge test is intended to ensure that the person standing in front of a classroom of children has good communication skills, can use proper grammar and has enough critical thinking skills to help students solve problems.

Teachers should have those abilities regardless of the course they teach, she suggested. And if they don’t remember them all right on their first attempt, she said, they should at least have the aptitude to study and learn them.

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“If even after three years this person has not been able to train himself or herself, that is troubling to me,” Levesque said. “It’s one thing to give people more time to pass. It’s another thing to waive (the test) completely.”

Two former state education commissioners have concerns, as well.

Pam Stewart, who retired in December, long fought pressure to change or eliminate the exam amid criticism it was hurting teachers’ careers. During her tenure, the Department of Education toughened the test that some teachers previously derided as way too easy.

“Demonstrating a command of ‘general knowledge’ is one step in verifying an educator’s level of knowledge,” Stewart said via email.

She, too, offered support for the compromise of providing more years to pass the test. But giving a mentor teacher and principal waiver authority was too much for Stewart.

“I don’t believe it is appropriate to add subjectivity into the process,” she said.

That concerned former commissioner John Winn, as well.

Winn applauded many of the recommendations in the legislation, such as surveying college of education students for feedback on their preparation programs and lowering retake fees, which the state recently did through a rule change.

But he also saw a potential burden being placed on mentor teachers and principals in the waiver program proposed in the legislation.

“Who wants to mentor this teacher who failed the test?” Winn asked. “It puts them in a situation where they work side-by-side in a classroom, then after two years you’re in a situation of saying you have the right to work or you don’t.”

He also listed other concerns, such as the accountability of a principal or mentor who vouches for a teacher who turns out to perform poorly.

“There are many situations that may not have been contemplated,” Winn said.

He suggested the state might want to start with extending the testing window, and requiring districts to provide added supports to struggling teachers. That intervention might be successful enough to not require any sort of waiver, he said.

Robyn White, a high school principal in Pasco County, said she has seen some “very phenomenal” teachers labor over the general knowledge test, and even lose their jobs because they couldn’t pass.

She agreed that it’s critical for schools to find a way to keep such teachers around.

But the Wiregrass Ranch High leader also shared the concerns about possible inconsistency among school-based decision makers, as well as the chance that subjectivity might sneak in.

“I don’t know if I would agree if it was a math teacher and they couldn’t pass the math portion,” White said. “If I have a school counselor who really doesn’t use that math, why am I going to hold them to the same standard? … I’ll be interested to see more.”

Florida is not alone in contemplating such changes to its teacher certification process.

Many states have basic skills or general knowledge exams, either created specifically for them or through a standardized testing company. The goal, as Levesque noted, is to have a standard way of determining whether teachers have certain abilities needed in their classrooms.

“This is a common question that a lot of states are thinking about in the face of teacher shortages,” said researcher Desiree Carver-Thomas of the California-based Learning Policy Institute.

Some are looking at assessing teachers in different ways, such as portfolios and written reflections, she said.

Some accept alternative qualifications, such as an SAT, a graduate school test like the GRE, a master’s degree or National Board certification.

Indiana officials are considering doing away with their basic skills exam, which they have noted does not predict teacher classroom ability, said Risa Regnier, the state’s director of educator licensing.

Already, Indiana changed its test once so that students take it at the beginning of their college teaching programs, not the end. That way, they don’t go through a four-year program only to learn they cannot get certified. But now, Regnier said, the universities are saying they have enough other criteria in place to select students that the tests seem unneeded.

Still, she said, the state hasn’t gone so far as to eliminate the exam for career-technical teachers coming from outside the traditional training route.

If those teachers need help getting up to speed on basic skills, “the state has supports to provide for them,” Regnier said, citing completion of certain community college courses as an example. “They’re teaching our students and they should have some level of proficiency in those basic skills.”

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Patrick Riccards, chief strategy officer for the New Jersey-based Woodrow Wilson Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers several teaching fellowships, found it ironic that Florida would consider lowering its criteria to become a teacher at the same time it touts its efforts to fill classrooms with the “best and brightest.”

In Texas, he said, some teacher preparation programs have become adept at reducing expectations as a way to find more educators. The problem, Riccards said, is those new teachers don’t always last very long.

Then schools have to go look again.

Teachers want to be treated as professionals, he added. Not passing a basic skills test doesn’t seem to match up with that goal.

If large percentages of teachers are being excluded because of the exam, Carver-Thomas said, “the question isn’t, How do we lower the bar? But, How do we know we have the right bar?”

Donalds, the bill’s sponsor, said he has heard questions and concerns he hadn’t thought about when he first proposed the legislation. He told colleagues last week that he plans to continue refining the measure as it moves forward.

The key, he stressed, is to get and keep as many good teachers as possible into the schools. And with no substantial data showing completion of the general knowledge exam affects a teacher’s ability to teach, he said, perhaps its time has passed.

His bill next heads to the House Education Committee. Its Senate companion has not yet been heard in any committee.

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