Teacher certification changes aim to upgrade preparation

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Under new state certification rules, teacher candidates will face more demanding coursework and a stronger focus on the age group they will be certified to teach.

Currently, an elementary school certificate covers kindergarten through 9th grade. Under the new system, the elementary license will cover 1st through 6th grades. Kindergarten will be grouped with early childhood education, thus assuring preparation in that area.

The current middle-grades endorsement, which spans 5th and 8th grades and right now is an add-on to an elementary or secondary certificate, will become a license of its own.

The goal “is to narrow the grade range in order to hone expertise for particular grades,” explains Mary Fergus, spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education, which approved the changes at its August meeting.

At the same time, the narrower certification bands will reduce the flexibility of principals in hiring teachers.

Coursework changes

The changes to teacher certification aren’t just about age ranges. In addition, teacher preparation programs must redesign their curricula to ensure that teacher candidates themselves meet, and can teach students to meet, the Common Core State Standards.

New coursework also has been added on teaching students who are English learners, and on teaching reading in the content areas.

Also, the new rules beef up subject matter requirements for elementary teachers, who typically are responsible for all subjects in a self-contained classroom. Under the new rules, aspiring teachers must take coursework in at least four areas of the sciences, and four areas of the social sciences.

The state is also creating a new endorsement in gifted education.

The changes will affect only new teachers. Admissions to current teacher preparation programs will stop in 2014 for elementary and early childhood teachers; current students must graduate by January 2017. For middle-grades teacher certification programs, current students must graduate by January 2018.

Challenging logistics

Teacher preparation programs will be required to create partnerships with community colleges to better prepare teacher candidates who don’t start at 4-year universities.

Vicki Chou, the outgoing education dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago, foresees preparation programs having a gap where they are not able to admit new students into teaching programs because their new programs won’t be up and running.

Also, getting students through the old programs at the same time as others start in the new programs will pose fiscal challenges, she says.

“We are going to have to break apart every single program, and we’re going to have to re-make them according to the new grade bands,” Chou said.