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Paras Bhayani Headshot

Will Illinois Education 'Race to the Top'? There's Hope on the Horizon

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For some reason, the State of Illinois thinks I'm qualified to teach history.

I didn't major in history, or even political science. Though I did take a couple history courses in college, they had titles like, "The History of International Institutions" and "The Hindu Novel in the 20th Century" -- not exactly the surveys of American or European history that would qualify me to teach high school.

Instead, I majored in economics -- a field of study that entails heaps of algebra and calculus (both single and multivariable) and a fair bit of statistics and econometrics. In high school, I took BC calculus junior year before moving on to multivariable calculus and differential equations as a senior.

Yet -- and you can probably see where this is going -- the State of Illinois thinks I'm not qualified to teach math.

This bizarre situation is a result of the Illinois State Board of Education's certification requirements, which put in place significant coursework hurdles that bar a number of potentially qualified teachers from the classroom. I personally know dozens of teachers like me -- graduates of top schools who did tons of math in college -- who are unable to teach the subject anywhere except at charter schools (as I do).

Sure, the state's requirements stem from a desire to ensure that teachers know their subjects. But in reality, they are extremely attenuated from this goal. Consider the following:

1.) The state classifies undergraduate coursework in strange ways. The reason I am qualified to teach history is that my quantitative economics classes are classified as social science rather than math, even though most of them were essentially applied math courses.

2.) The coursework requirements greatly advantage education school graduates who take courses in fields like math education, even though they rarely do math coursework beyond single-variable calculus. I went as far as linear algebra -- three or four courses beyond single-variable calculus -- but soon found myself surrounded by Good Will Hunting types who permanently disabused me of the notion that I could major in math. The reason I can't teach math at a traditional school is not due to deficiencies in my education coursework, but because, according to the state requirements, I lack content knowledge.

3.) The coursework requirements don't actually mean that teachers know their content. Because the state has high coursework requirements, it compensates by putting in place extremely easy content tests -- a prospective teacher can pass the test in secondary math without knowing any calculus at all.

Thankfully, this system might soon see some major reforms, as the state board of education is in the midst of developing legislation that would do two things.

First, it would create a "test in" system that would allow people with strong backgrounds in their subjects to pursue certification by demonstrating their knowledge on a test. This is the system that many states use; in Indiana, for example, teachers who wish to be certified have to achieve a certain score on the Praxis, a nationally-recognized test that dozens of states use to certify teachers. To have truly high content standards for teachers, Illinois could require a high passing score on the Praxis or write its own, tougher version.

Second, the legislation would expand the cap on the number of teachers that each alternative-certification program can license. Currently, the alt-cert programs that operate in Illinois -- the Academy of Urban School Leadership, Teach for America, and Chicago Teaching Fellows, to name a few -- can only enroll 260 to 300 teachers per year.

Removing the cap on their enrollment would allow these programs to draw in more qualified teachers, particularly working professionals (like accountants and engineers) qualified to teach hard-to-staff areas like math and science. These programs -- particularly AUSL, whose one-year teacher residency pairs each novice teacher with a mentor who gives him or her a detailed evaluation of every lesson -- do an impressive job of preparing their teachers for the classroom, especially compared to education schools that are heavier on theory than practice.

These bold strokes are part of an effort by Illinois to win a share of the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund, which is designed to reward states and school districts that make progressive reforms to their education systems. Illinois has already taken some steps to put itself in better position to win Race to the Top money, most clearly by moving decisively to lift its charter school cap: Chicago will now have 75 charter schools and the rest of the state will have 45, compared to 30 apiece beforehand.

During the November veto session, when the concept behind the licensing and alternative certification legislation was discussed with a number of key stakeholders, the Illinois Federation of Teachers expressed hesitation about the proposal. This effectively put off consideration of the bill until the spring.

As the legislation comes up again, it is imperative that the state's teachers unions work constructively on the bill, just as they did with the bill that lifted the charter cap. Not only could expanding access to the teaching profession help Illinois win hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money, it would help the state tear down the artificial walls that, for too long, have kept qualified instructors from the classroom.