Task Force Tackles Cumbersome Teacher Certification Process as State Faces Shortfall


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With more than 1,000 unfilled teaching positions across the state, a legislative task force is preparing recommendations on how to streamline the teacher certification process in Connecticut, which experts and people in the field say is cumbersome, expensive and hinders candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. 

The CT Educator Certification Council, created last year, is expected to provide suggestions to the legislature in February. 

Daniel Pearson, the director of Educators for Excellence, told CT Examiner that his organization advocated for the task force, citing the ongoing teacher shortage. He referred to teacher certification as an “archaic process” that needed to be modified. 

“Over the years we’ve tweaked it, but we haven’t really kept with the times,” he said. “With the fiscal cliff coming with the [federal coronavirus funds] running out and with the staffing shortages still being record high, this is a time to really work together.” 

Pearson noted that the state made emergency exceptions during the pandemic permitting individuals to teach without undergoing the traditional teacher preparation process. 

A November study from the Wheelock Educational Policy Center at Boston University found that teachers granted an emergency license to teach in Massachusetts during the pandemic showed little difference in their student growth metrics and teacher evaluations when compared to teachers who had gone through conventional preparation. 

In Connecticut, prospective teachers must navigate a three-tiered certification process after graduating from an Educator Preparation Program and passing an exam in their content area. The individuals get an initial certification, and then can apply for a provisional certificate after completing 10 months of classroom teaching. Finally, after an additional 30 months of classroom teaching and earning a master’s degree in education, teachers can achieve professional-level certification.

But council members and researchers are questioning whether certain requirements truly signify a qualified teacher, or if they act as stumbling blocks preventing individuals with diverse experiences from entering the teaching pool.

Elizabeth Chu, executive director at the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University and a council member, told CT Examiner that states across the country were having difficulty recruiting and diversifying partly because of these complicated and, in some cases, unnecessary, requirements for teacher preparation. She noted that the current teacher certification system dates back to the 1990s. 

“By and large, many states have systems that are very difficult to navigate from a pre-service aspiring educator’s perspective,” she said. “They are laden with steps that are weak or not at all predictors of a teacher’s readiness to teach, and then their continued efficacy in the classroom.”

The best way to support a teacher’s success, she said,  is to ensure there are high-quality preparatory programs that are both navigable and provide support for new teachers after they graduate. 

Complicated and expensive

Switching one’s teaching specialization isn’t simple either, as resident Beth Agdish discovered. 

Agdish graduated with her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Hartford in 1998. A year later, she got a master’s degree in elementary education and began teaching elementary school in West Hartford and Newington. But after about a decade, she said she felt burnt out and decided to try something different. 

Agdish took online classes at the University of Arizona, eventually getting certified as a high school English teacher. Shortly afterward, she pursued an opportunity to work with special education students in Hartford — which required another round of classes at the University of Arizona, more tests and more fees.

For Agdish, the cost of the university programs wasn’t prohibitive, but it was time-consuming. 

“I had a kid, I was married and all that,” she said. “And there’s a lot of work. I was teaching full time and I was running clubs and groups … and then taking classes online. And although those classes were four to five weeks, it was difficult.” 

After completing the required courses for each program, Agdish had to take a test, known as a Praxis exam, to qualify for certification. Most Praxis exams cost $130 for each attempt, followed by an additional $200 for the initial certification, $250 to obtain a provisional license, and then $375 to upgrade to a professional certification. 

“Although once you get professional [certification] you don’t have to renew it, it has increased in price since 30 years ago,” said Agdish, who now works at Hartford’s Environmental Sciences Magnet School. “It’s extremely expensive, and we don’t get paid a lot of money to be able to have that, but it’s something that’s necessary.” 

On Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont announced a proposal to eliminate the initial $200 initial certification fee for educators.  

According to Jonathan Costa, assistant executive director of EdAdvance and the council’s facilitator, the council is trying to streamline a variety of pathways for individuals to become teachers. This includes students going through the traditional pathway, but also those coming from other careers who might be interested in teaching.

One potential change would allow out-of-state educators to teach in Connecticut without undertaking additional training or certification.  

“A lot of times it’s literally a line-by-line item for reciprocity. … If their transcript doesn’t have the exact classes that our programs have, even if there’s comparable ones, and even if they’ve been teaching 20 years, they have to go and take that class,” Pearson said. “And as higher ed continues to increase tuition prices, all these things are barriers and not indicative of teacher quality.” 

Costa added that Connecticut has reciprocity with 14 states, and that 10 more were in the process of being added, but the council was looking at how to streamline the procedure further. 

He also said the current system has many silos — certifications that restrict teachers to specific grade levels or subject matter. While it’s possible to apply for a waiver, Costa said it can take the State Department of Education months to go through the many waiver applications being submitted. A better process, Costa said, would be to let local districts decide what their teachers could or could not teach. 

Another area of focus, Pearson said, are the tests required to become a teacher — from edTPA, which is used in some educator preparation programs, or the content-area specific Praxis exams. Instead, he said, the focus should be on giving aspiring educators more time to teach.

“A lot of folks come in with the content matter, and they come in with high marks on their Praxis or edTPA. But they lack the programs that actually get them inside the classroom — the classroom management skills,” he said. 

Pearson said one reason why teachers tend to leave after three years is the difference between their expectations and the reality of what it’s like to be in a classroom. 

“That’s why we’re really hopeful that the recommendations that come from this task force are going to be geared more towards apprenticeship — really get them inside the classroom as soon as possible,” he said. 

Fewer teachers, low salaries

Connecticut was short 1,200 teachers last year, especially in special education, math, science, bilingual teachers and world language, according to data from the State Department of Education. Around 70 percent of those shortages are in the state’s lowest-performing districts, many of them urban and serving mostly minority students. 

Teacher preparation programs are also seeing a decline in the number of students graduating every year. At UConn, 149 students are expected to graduate from education programs this year, compared to 188 students the year before the pandemic. 

Dorothea Anagnostopoulos, associate dean of academic affairs at UConn’s Neag School of Education, said the number of students entering teacher preparation programs has been declining across the country for the last decade, which she attributed to low salaries and recent political rhetoric. At the same time, she said, there was an increase in teachers leaving the profession, leading to a squeeze in the available workforce. 

Anagnostopoulos told CT Examiner she doesn’t know what could be causing the drop, but speculated that it might have to do with the desire for remote work post-pandemic. 

Katherine Roe, education department chair at Western Connecticut State University and president of the Connecticut chapter of the AACTE, a consortium of 13 public and private colleges that offer educator preparation programs, said the shortage in teacher candidates enrolled in college programs reflects a larger decline in college enrollments across the country and the ongoing aftershock of the pandemic. 

But Roe recognized the barriers that some teaching certification requirements placed on aspiring students, particularly those of low income. 

“We’re a Hispanic-serving institution, and we serve the community of Danbury,” Roe said of Western. “All of those individuals in this area work full-time, support their family, take care of their siblings, do full-time education, and then do student teaching. Student teaching is a full-day job. You have to go home, you have to write lesson plans. On top of that, you have coursework to do.” 

According to data from the Connecticut State Colleges and University System, the number of students graduating from teacher preparation programs at the four state universities declined from about 1,100 in 2016-17 to about 950 in 2021-22. 

For Roe, much of the solution lies in obtaining more financial help for students. She noted that certification fees could be as much as $1500. Tuition and fees at Western cost just short of $13,000 annually for a four-year degree. 

Roe suggested offering a stipend for students doing student-teaching, which she said amounts to 70 days of unpaid, full-time work, and raised the possibility of free tuition for teachers. 

But the financial pressure doesn’t end after a student graduates, she said. The cost of living in Connecticut is high, and teacher salaries are not. 

“You go into a four-year degree, then you have to have a master’s degree to make $51,000. How do you live in Connecticut?” she said. 

Roe said the state should consider offering bonuses to teachers who stay in Connecticut, or give stipends to students working in shortage areas like special education and STEM. 

“And I don’t mean in the short term,” she said. “I believe that we need a line item in the budget … and this might be indefinitely until we really mitigate this teacher shortage.”

As for the exams, Roe said, the solution wasn’t to abolish them outright. But she said there might be room for changes, like allowing teachers who don’t pass the exam the first time to begin their student teaching and pass mastery exams, or to consolidate the Praxis for elementary education — a series of six different tests — into one exam. 

Roe said the apprenticeship and residency programs piloted by the state could be a “game changer” as well. The residency program lets graduate students on an accelerated master’s degree track get paid for their practical work, under the advice of a mentor. The apprenticeship program also lets student teachers get paid for work in the classroom. The program is being piloted in New Britain and Waterbury. 

Agdish said she’d also like to see changes to the way that paraeducators are treated, and that more weight be given to the experience that paraprofessionals have in the classroom. 

“Sometimes they have better experience and they actually know the kids for longer than some of these teachers have. And I think that they should be put in a more professional role,” she said.

Agdish highlighted that the mentorship she received was a valuable part of her time in a teacher preparation program. However, she noted that the demanding process prospective teachers undergo, coupled with burnout and insufficient support, might drive people away from the profession. 

“I feel like I had a really good experience and now I’m trying to help other people, but I think, in general, there’s just too much pressure, and people are realizing that they can go someplace else for more money,” she said. “There’s just … a lot of expectations to get more and more and more done, and it makes things really hard. There’s only so many hours in the day.”

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.