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Elections 2016: Florida Lawmakers Rethink Teacher Certifications To Address Shortages

Students at Jacksonville's Lee High School switch out of math class, Tuesday. Higher-level math is one of the toughest subjects to keep staffed.
Lindsey Kilbride
Students at Jacksonville's Lee High School switch out of math class, Tuesday. Higher-level math is one of the toughest subjects to keep staffed.

It’s lunchtime at Jacksonville’s Lee High School, and Principal Scott Schneider walks down the school’s math hall. He says Lee has had its share of teacher vacancies.

“I think we hired approximately 15 teachers over the summer, and quite a few of them are in the math department,” Schneider said.

He says positions in math and other STEM subjects are the hardest to fill. That’s true across the state as well. The Florida Department of Education says science, English, and math are facing critical teacher shortages.

On the first day of school last year, 2,000 teacher positions in Florida were either vacant or held by instructors who weren’t certified to teach their subjects.

Listen to this story on Redux

Many schools are recruiting professionals in STEM fields to come into the classroom - people like Cameron Philipp-Edmonds. A couple of years ago, he was working at a software firm just outside Jacksonville.

“I got kind of sick of cubicle life,” he said.

So he interviewed at a Duval County middle school to teach computer coding.

“Within about 30 minutes, I was offered a job, and I took it,” Philipp-Edmonds said.

Rethinking Requirements For New Teachers

South Florida Republican Representative Manny Diaz, Jr. wants to make it easier for people like Philipp-Edmonds to move into teaching.

Right now, new hires at Florida public schools can start teaching with only a bachelor’s degree. Later, they have to pass tests in general knowledge, educational competency, and the subject area they teach. Within three years, they also have to take courses in subjects like classroom management and instructional strategies. They have to pay for those classes themselves.

Diaz said that last requirement might not make sense for a new teacher who’s doing well without the extra classes.

“You’re a hit. It goes well,” Diaz said. “You’re performing for kids, and then I tell you within three years you[’ve] got to go back to school and take five classes. That’s going to be a huge disincentive.”

In the last legislative session, he helped pass a billthat exempts high-performing STEM teachers from the required extra classes if they have advanced degrees. He wants to look into expanding that exemption to people who have STEM bachelor’s degrees too.

Dan Weisberg, CEO of the national nonprofit, The New Teacher Project thinks Diaz may be on the right track.

“Putting up unproductive barriers to those people entering the profession is a bad idea,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that you let anybody in off the street.”

But career-switcher Cameron Philipp-Edmonds thinks it’s already too easy to become a teacher. He says knowing how to code didn’t prepare him to teach kids how to code.

“It was scary, especially because I had no real training,” he said. “In fact, my first training in classroom management came in November of that year, after I had been teaching for about three months.”

He says he didn’t know how to deal with students who weren’t interested in coding, or who weren’t even reading on grade level. He quit his teaching job after just one year.

Rep. Diaz does say all teachers should get some kind of professional development. Career switchers could be paired with mentors, for example, he suggested.

Mark Pudlow with the statewide teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, wants to make sure the training begins before a teacher steps in front of a class.

“You need to be prepared,” he said. “You need to understand a little bit about how children learn and what kind of strategies work best as far as helping children learn.”

Diaz’s Democratic opponent, Ivette Gonzalez Petkovich, says reducing certification barriers might help with Florida’s teacher shortage, but she would rather concentrate on giving teachers better pay and more autonomy in the classroom.

The Research

A 2016 study from the independent Learning Policy Institute found pay is a big factor in teacher recruitment and retention, as are programs like paid residencies that let new teachers apprentice under experienced instructors.

Dan Weisberg with The New Teacher Project said his study found low- or no-cost options can also help schools hold onto high-performing teachers.

“Recognizing that a great teacher is great,” Weisberg said, “asking him or her to please come back and continue to teach in the school, providing leadership opportunities for those teachers.”

Back at Jacksonville's Lee High School, Principal Scott Schneider said he’s used those kinds of strategies, and most of his teachers have stayed. The school is now fully staffed.

“Truthfully, when I talk to teachers and people that leave our profession, it’s not because of the financial means,” Schneider said. “It’s usually because they don’t feel supported, and they don’t feel that they’re respected and valued.”

Rep. Manny Diaz still wants to explore the possibility of lowering teacher certification barriers. In November, he’ll find out if he’ll get to keep his House seat and move his ideas forward.

Copyright 2020 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Lindsey Kilbride joined WJCT News in 2015 after completing the radio documentary program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.