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Should Michigan ease teaching standards to lure career-tech instructors?

David Narhi never saw himself as a teacher.

Until last fall, Narhi worked as an automotive technician for Copper Country Ford, a Ford Motor Co. dealership in the Upper Peninsula city of Houghton. Before that, he said, he’d served four years as an aircraft mechanic in the Navy.

Then a teaching job opened up in the Copper Country Intermediate School District, which runs an automotive technology program at a vocational center in Hancock, across the Keweenaw Waterway from Houghton. It happens to be the same program Narhi attended as a high school student.

“I didn’t want to see the program go away, so I thought I would take a chance,” he said. “I figured it would challenge me personally and professionally. It really has.”

The state wants to recruit more people like Narhi from the private sector into career-tech classrooms at public schools to combat a shortage of teachers that the Snyder administration says has led to cancellation of specialized courses in schools across Michigan.

Gov. Rick Snyder: The revolution has started. Now Michigan must lead it.

Michigan already allows people with relevant business or industry experience to work as teachers in vocational programs without requiring them to have teaching credentials, provided they eventually get certified. State educators, led by Michigan Department of Education Superintendent Brian Whiston, want to give career-tech instructors more time to earn their teaching certificates to speed up the hiring process and attract more potential candidates.

They can get a state permit that authorizes them to teach, provided they have at least a high school diploma or equivalent and at least 4,000 hours of work experience in their field.

Republican lawmakers in the state House have proposed a similar plan, though their bill would let non-certified vocational teachers skip getting a teaching credential indefinitely, so long as they were rated “effective” or “highly effective” during their first three years of teaching and met other benchmarks.

The latter idea has critics, including teachers and some secondary school principals, concerned that schools will shortchange quality instruction in order to fill a classroom. They contend that people without teaching experience may know their subject and be good with kids, but lack the ability to manage a classroom or be effective at helping students master content.

“If I don’t need a teaching certificate to be a teacher, why would I ever get one?” said Bob Kefgen, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, which represents at least 1,700 head and assistant principals across the state.

“We require people to have licenses and credentials to be a cosmetologist, to be a welder, to be a lot of things, but what we’re actually saying is you don’t need a certificate to be a teacher,” said Kefgen, whose group opposes the House bill. “We’re doing a disservice to teachers if we’re just filling out classrooms with warm bodies, instead of people who actually know how to teach.”

Some vocational program leaders say, however, they have struggled to attract certified career-tech teachers when they have job openings, or have lost candidates who didn’t want to go through a rigorous certification process.

“It’s almost impossible to find someone who has a teaching degree and all the relevant experience,” said Joe Anderson, principal of Livonia Career Technical Center, which enrolls about 875 students mainly from Livonia and Northville in Wayne County.

“They just don’t exist.”

Fixing a teacher shortage

Regardless of their thoughts on the approach, this point generally has consensus: Schools that aren’t preparing at least some of their students for careers after graduation, especially in high-demand skilled trades fields, are not doing their job.

Gov. Rick Snyder has focused on expanding skilled trades employment during his two terms in office, in part because a rapidly changing economy requires people to have more advanced training and skills than they once did, and because an aging workforce is leaving employers without sufficient talent in the pipeline to replace retiring workers.

Snyder’s administration is targeting K-12 public schools as the launch pad for many of these efforts, including improving career counseling, exposing students to careers through exploration and internships, and expanding enrollment in career-tech programs.

Snyder last week unveiled a major talent initiative that attempts to prepare Michigan’s workforce for jobs in fields considered to be high-demand, such as information technology, manufacturing and other professional trades.

“We’re currently holding ourselves back,” Snyder said during a news conference in Detroit to roll out a $100 million initiative that includes scholarships for students and grants to schools that partner with companies to train students on the equipment and technology used on the job.

“The old models need to evolve to keep up with where the world’s going,” Snyder said. “In Michigan, we should know that better than anyone.”

Yet Michigan’s career-tech system also is fragmented.

Some counties have millages that can support vocational programs, such as construction trades, health occupations, culinary arts, welding and automotive repair. Others don’t. Some have standalone vocational centers that serve multiple schools in a region, while other students attend classes inside their traditional high school.

Enrollment slid in recent years. Slightly more than 109,000 students in grades nine through 12 are enrolled in career-tech programs across Michigan this year, roughly 23 percent of all high schoolers, state data show. That’s down from a recent peak of more than 118,000 students in 2011, when Snyder took office, though enrollment has been trending up since 2015.

Finding enough teachers with the expertise to run the courses has proven challenging. Michigan is expected to have 1,530 career-tech teachers in 2024, 140 fewer than in 2014, according to the Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives. One reason could be that enrollment has gone down.

The hope is that with enrollment gains over the past couple of school years, plus more emphasis in Lansing on expanding talent, “there will be an increased demand for teachers with these skills,” said Dave Murray, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development.

A shortage of teachers can mean that even if a school has the equipment and student interest to offer a course in a given subject, it can wind up canceled if no instructor is available.

The state said it doesn’t have a definitive list of how many classes have been pulled due to a lack of teachers, but Roger Curtis, director of the state’s talent department, said he knows anecdotally of at least 50 statewide in that boat.

The state’s talent and education departments have joined forces on what’s being called the Career Pathways Alliance, an effort to unite business leaders and educators around ways to increase Michigan’s talent pool.

The idea of recruiting new career-tech teachers directly from the private sector is an outgrowth of the alliance, Curtis said.

“We need someone that comes in and has the health care experience, has the information technology experience, has the advanced manufacturing or CNC (machining) experience, has the tool and die (experience),” he said. “We’re not worried about making them a good teacher. We can do that.”

In the near term, Whiston, the state superintendent, issued an order last June directing Michigan Department of Education staff to allow non-certified career-tech teachers to take up to 10 years, rather than the current eight, to obtain a teaching credential.

The state wants to make it easier for career-tech teaching candidates to enter the classroom and get certified as teachers, Curtis said.

Some career-tech teachers might take a pay cut to enter teaching from a private-sector career, he said, and it could be difficult for them to go back to get a bachelor’s degree.

It’s difficult to say definitively whether teaching in a vocational classroom would require a pay cut. Teachers’ wages are negotiated in employment contracts between teachers unions and school districts, and vary by district.

Secondary-level career-technical educators earn an average salary of $64,330, according to federal data from May 2016, the most recent available. That statistic is misleading, though, because it would include teachers who earn more money for being a longtime teacher and for having advanced degrees. It doesn’t single out what a new teacher would earn, especially when switching careers from the private sector.

A teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no more than two years of teaching experience earned an average of $36,620 in 2011-12, the most recent data available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

When considering other types of professions taught in career-tech programs, registered nurses earned an average salary of $69,100, while automotive service technicians and mechanics earned an average of $40,380, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Livonia, almost every instructor who comes to the school from industry has to work on earning a teaching credential, said Anderson, the center’s  principal. A recent example: He hired a teacher who has a background in athletic training and physical therapy to lead a sports medicine course this year. That teacher has a bachelor’s degree, though not in education, and now is on track to take classes to earn a teaching certificate, Anderson said.

A chef of more than 30 years recently took a job as a paraprofessional in Livonia’s culinary arts program in large part to have regular, daytime hours after years of working in a kitchen until midnight, Anderson said.

Finding people skilled to teach auto technology or construction trades is particularly challenging, he said.

“When you post these positions, you aren’t getting very many applicants because there just aren’t very many people out there that are looking to do this,” Anderson said. “For one, it’s usually a major pay cut for a lot of these people. … For a lot of people (who do come) it has to be a lifestyle decision. They’re looking to do something different.”

Teachers raise fears about quality

The House bill would allow career-tech teachers to teach with no requirement that they obtain a teaching credential within a set number of years.

It passed the House by a 61-49 margin in December. The Senate’s economic development committee heard testimony on the bill last week, though it didn’t vote.

Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth and committee chairman, said at last week’s hearing that the bill and others in a broader legislative package are expected to be amended in coming weeks.

At issue is whether the bill should simply waive the requirement to get a teaching certificate, or would offer an alternative, speedier path to certification for new teachers without a teaching degree.

The Michigan Education Association, which represents teachers, views the bill as “a dilution of the teaching profession.”

David Crim, a spokesman for the state’s largest teachers union, said the Republican-controlled Legislature has passed bills that have gone after educators’ wages, benefits, pensions and collective bargaining rights.

Crim contends the Legislature’s choices have had a cumulative effect of reducing enrollment in college teaching programs by half over the past 10 years. Average teaching salaries fell last year for the fifth straight year.

Lawmakers have devalued teaching “to the point where students are choosing not to become teachers,” he said. “You can see how an education association who represents tens of thousands of teachers who had to go through significant training, how this might be a problem for us.”

He added: “The ultimate losers are the students.”

Kefgen, of the secondary school principals’ group, said his members would support creating an expedited path to help new vocational teachers get teaching certificates. “Let’s look at that and what we can do to make that more achievable,” he said, “rather than just going around it.”

The concerns are merited, said Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools, whose district is looking to add a second vocational center in the next 18 months.

Yet they’re also indicative of the siloed thinking that has long dominated public education, she said. This might mean that a career-tech instructor with an industry background takes a different route than many teachers do, she added, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

“I’m not taking anything away from them by adding these people. Quite the contrary,” Weatherall Neal sad. “I am asking them as master teachers to help us prepare these people to teach.”

Learning on the job

For Narhi, the automotive teacher in the Upper Peninsula, changing careers has been challenging — but also rewarding.

It’s “so drastically different,” he said of going from a dealership to the classroom. “You are wearing a lot of hats as a teacher.”

He took the job because he didn’t want to see the class fade away for lack of interest, or an instructor. He said he hopes he can improve it, and maybe become a role model to students.

Narhi said he gets advice from his school district, and other teachers, but he also has invested a lot of effort in understanding the material so he can explain it to his kids, and learning how to adjust his approach between students who already mastered the basics and those who are just learning what’s beneath the hood.

His high school students, he said, are his customers — only this time in a classroom, not a car lot.

“Managing students and a classroom takes a lot of mental energy,” Narhi said. “You learn most everything as you go, is what I have found out so far. It’s a long and steep learning curve.”

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