Dear Seven Oaks Families & Friends,
I’m writing because Seven Oaks once again finds itself in the news. This latest coverage raises questions about the qualifications of our teachers, who collectively have a hundred years of teaching experience. Our critics expect you to be scandalized to learn that we have teachers who don’t have a license in hand. Well, as I’ve been telling families from day one, it’s true! We do have uncertified teachers. We reject the notion that the only capable teachers are licensed ones. Some licensed teachers are good and some are bad. Some unlicensed teachers are good and others are bad. Our goal has always been to hire the best available teacher for each available position, whether certified or not, within the guidelines laid out in law. Thankfully, Indiana has given charter schools some leeway in hiring.
Indiana intended for charter schools to be innovative. The hope is that they would offer parents a meaningful choice in education. To that end, they granted charters some flexibility in hiring and in the choice of curriculum. This flexibility allows us to offer a rigorous education in the liberal arts and sciences, with instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue. It also means that we are able to hire teachers like Ms. Hoit, who is finishing her Ph.D. in classics. Or Ms. Holland, who spent the last three years running a children’s music theater in downtown Chicago. Or Mrs. James, who spent time teaching in France and then worked for an education consulting firm before coming to Seven Oaks. Or Mr. Barnett, who knows eight languages and competed in the math olympics in high school and who turned down a funded Ph.D. program to teach fifth grade.
The standard rule for Indiana charter schools is that 90% of their full-time teachers must be licensed or in the process of obtaining a license. As it happens, at the beginning of the year, 11 of our 16 full-time teachers did not have a license in hand. But, as the law requires, all are progressing toward a more permanent form of licensure. Here’s where there’s some potential for confusion. Unlicensed teachers start with something the state rather misleadingly calls an “emergency permit.” As long as a charter school teacher is progressing toward licensure, this permit is renewed annually for up to three years. In the case of our teachers, several of our teachers began the year already on the cusp of licensure. One needed to renew her Indiana license after having taught for a number of years in a private school; another was waiting for her license to transfer from another state. Several more are eligible for what is called an “advanced degree permit.” Dr. Smith (Ph.D., American History, Notre Dame), Ms. Hoit (Ph.D. [ABD], Classics, Bryn Mawr), and Mr. Moschel (MA, Humanities, St. Johns), are eligible to sit for content and pedagogy exams and receive a so-called “advanced degree permit.” In fact, Dr. Smith has completed his tests, and Ms. Hoit lacks just one.
So why the news coverage? If you’ve hired good teachers and you’re following the law, what’s the big deal? Yesterday, I went before the State Board of Education to ask for a waiver from the 90% rule. The law invites schools to request a waiver, and so we did. We asked that up to 50% of our teachers be allowed to remain uncertified.
And why did we do that? If all our teachers are in the process of obtaining licensure, why the request? The reason lies in a lack of clarity about something called a “charter license.” According to the law, someone is eligible for a charter license if they have a bachelor's degree from an accredited school with a GPA of 3.0 or higher and they take licensure exams for the areas they wish to teach. When we hired our teachers, we made the understandable mistake of thinking that "charter licenses" are licenses. (After all, charter licensure is listed as an option on the Alternative Licensure page of the Department of Education website.) We carefully read the statute; and in the end we were persuaded that charter licenses would satisfy the 90% licensure requirement. Shortly before school started, however, we discovered that the Indiana Department of Education reads the law differently. A charter license, we are told, is not a form of licensure.
The DOE’s interpretation particularly affects our elementary and fine arts teachers. Their only other option is an alternative licensure program called a "transition to teach" (T2T) program. Problem solved, right? Unfortunately, T2T programs are typically 24 credit hours at roughly $500 per credit.
A broader perspective is helpful here. Teacher certification is a novelty of the last hundred years. Even now, the states with the strongest growth in classical charter schools are the states that allow the greatest freedom in hiring. In Texas, Arkansas, and Colorado, charter school teachers aren’t required to be licensed at all. Other places allow a larger percentage to remain uncertified. In New Hampshire, for instance, 50% of charter school teachers have to be certified or have three years of experience. Some states require alternative certification programs, but at far less time and expense than Indiana. In Ohio, for instance, charter school teachers must complete an alternative certification program that is a mix of online modules and classroom experience, but it only costs $200 and is completed within six months.
Doubtless many in this state who have been through a T2T program have found the sacrifice worthwhile. In the case of a classical charter school, however, the usefulness of these programs is somewhat diminished. The reason lies in the fact that these programs were not designed with classical charter schools in mind. Every certification program I’m aware of promotes a philosophy of education, methodology, and curriculum at odds with that of a classical school.
And so I went to the State Board of Education on a fact-finding mission. The board of Seven Oaks wanted to know whether our unlicensed teachers would need to undertake the time and expense of an alternative certification program, or whether the State Board of Education would be open to a waiver—given our innovative philosophy of education, curriculum, and pedagogy. The State Board rejected our request for a waiver. And so now we know. Alternative certification is our only option for some of our unlicensed teachers. In the eyes of the educational gatekeepers, this step is necessary to make sure that teachers like Mrs. Helton, Mrs. James, and Ms. Holland, are fit to teach.
Okay, so you asked and were denied. You’re moving on. You’re following the law. You have decent teachers. What’s the fuss? Ah well, here I can only speculate. There seems to be an orthodoxy in the educational community that every teacher must pass through a state-approved program that teaches the teacher to teach. The presumption seems to be that it is easier to learn content on the job than methodology.
Where does that leave our teachers? Of course, the DOE’s interpretation of the law and the SBOE’s denial of the waiver fall hardest on our unlicensed teachers. They will have to divert time and money to a program that will add little to their ability to teach. But they have time. Again, charter school teachers have three years from the time they start teaching to obtain a permanent form of licensure. The typical alternative certification program takes no more than two years, even while teaching full-time.
Stephen Shipp, Ph.D.
Seven Oaks Classical School