Sunday, July 18, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Ira Madnikoff seemed to be just the kind of social studies teacher the Clark County School District was eager to hire. He came from Florida with four years’ experience and a strong track record, and he had a law degree to boot.
But when Madnikoff went to the Nevada Education Department’s Las Vegas office in 2007 to see about getting a teaching license, he was in for a shock — in the eyes of the Silver State, he wasn’t qualified. The Clark County principals who had expressed interest in bringing him on board were out of luck.
When it comes to teacher licensing, Nevada offers reciprocity with many states, which means teachers who are in good standing can move and resume their careers, albeit with certain conditions. Nevada also has an “alternative route to licensure” program to encourage people who have a bachelor’s degree to consider teaching. People can qualify in less time than it takes to follow the traditional college path of taking education classes, passing the requisite competency exams and completing an apprenticeship as a student teacher.
Critics say Nevada’s reciprocity regulations are too rigid to truly encourage the kind of diversity the profession needs, and the “alternative” path isn’t much shorter than the traditional one, which discourages would-be applicants. But state education officials say they face a difficult challenge: How to bring top teachers to Nevada without lowering the professional bar.
To be sure, Nevada needs teachers. Like the rest of the country, the state is experiencing a “graying” of the profession as more teachers reach retirement age. In Clark County, although enrollment is expected to decline for a second consecutive year, the district is continually hunting for teachers in high-need areas such as math, science and special education. Turnover is high in the nation’s fifth-largest district — 50 percent of new teachers leave within five years.
Until recently, Nevada has not offered reciprocity to teachers who went through alternative licensing programs in other states on the grounds that the expedited process didn’t meet Nevada’s standards.
That’s where Madnikoff ran into trouble.
In Florida, Madnikoff’s bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, completing additional education classes and passing the required competency exams were enough to satisfy that state’s alternative licensing requirements. In Nevada, however, his college classes apparently didn’t qualify him to teach social studies to grades six through 12. His law degree won him no extra credit. And Madnikoff said he never got a straight answer as to what classes would help him make up the deficit.
“I would have gone to UNLV right then and signed up for all of them,” Madnikoff said. “I’m still waiting for them to tell me.”
Madnikoff spent months trying to resolve the issue, even traveling to Carson City to ask for help from lawmakers. Adding to his frustration was what he called the lack of clear response — and eventually, any response at all — from the Nevada Education Department.
Worn down by the process, Madnikoff decided to look at private schools, which have greater flexibility when it comes to hiring educators. He landed at the Adelson Educational Campus in Summerlin, where he teaches middle school. His law degree, and his experience teaching high school honors and Advanced Placement classes, were considered a plus by the private school, which has allowed him to develop advanced curriculum to challenge his students.
Madnikoff said he’s grateful that Florida was more receptive when he decided to become a teacher in 2003.
“If I had started here in Nevada and been treated this way, it would have turned me off completely from teaching,” Madnikoff, 32, said. “I can’t imagine the number of great people who are being pushed away.”
In a December report, Harvard University professor Paul Peterson evaluated the nation’s teacher licensing policies and found 47 states offered some form of alternative routes to licensure.
If the requirements for the alternative license were substantially similar to those for a regular teaching license — mandating a similar number of credit hours in education classes such as instructional theory and classroom management — the program was rated as merely “symbolic.” Peterson found 21 states had “genuine” alternative routes because they significantly reduced requirements for course work, or required only that a competency test be passed. Those programs were more likely to attract minorities, who are vastly underrepresented in the nation’s public schools.
Nevada’s alternative licensure program falls into Peterson’s “symbolic” category, because its requirements do not differ substantially from the testing and course work necessary for a standard license.
Told of Madnikoff’s experiences by the Sun, Peterson called it “a wonderful example of a problem that’s vastly bigger than one individual — many people in a highly mobile society find themselves living in a state where they can’t be of help educating the next generation.”
There is little evidence that the certification process has any bearing on a teacher’s classroom effectiveness, Peterson said. From 2003 to 2007, students in states with “genuine” alternative options showed more improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than their peers in other states.
Florida is an example of where genuine alternative teacher certification appears to be improving the overall quality of instruction and student achievement, Peterson said. Test scores there have risen significantly in recent years.
In the late 1990s, Florida “looked like many other Southern states lagging behind the national average,” said Peterson, who is director of Harvard’s Education Policy and Governance Program. “Alternative certification is one of the reforms that helped them achieve the record they have.”
Both Democrat Rory Reid and Republican Brian Sandoval, who will face off in November in the gubernatorial election, say they want to revamp Nevada’s teacher licensing regulations to ensure better classroom instruction. Reid wants to tie license renewals to performance, making it easier for districts to dismiss individuals who fall short of the mark, and allow top educators to earn more pay. Sandoval’s concept leans heavily on Florida as a model for more flexibility in alternative routes to licensure.
In 2009, the National Council on Teacher Quality gave Nevada a D minus grade when it came to expanding the teaching pool and labeled the alternative licensing program “disingenuous.”
Nevada requires individuals to pass competency tests in their subject areas, which is good, said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington. But the state lacks a minimum requirement for GPAs or college entrance exam scores to improve the caliber of the applicant pool. (That’s already a requirement for school administrators’ licenses.)
Nevada should also be more specific in the course work it expects teachers to complete, rather than just setting a number of credit hours, Jacobs said.
“They need to have the essentials — classroom management, early reading instruction if they’re teaching at the elementary level,” Jacobs said. “Alternative route teachers trying to learn on the job don’t need to take the history of education.”
Nevada is taking steps — albeit small ones — toward improving its alternative licensing program, and the state’s Professional Standards Commission recently adopted several code revisions with that goal in mind.
Districts can now hire a teacher who has completed a nontraditional route to licensure in another state (provided it’s on the Nevada Education Department’s forthcoming list of approved programs) and the district agrees to provide extra support. The new hires have three years to complete the required course work. And in order to be in compliance with federal education law, the state has revised a requirement on competency exams eliminating a long-standing grace period that allowed applicants to receive a provisional license and later show proof they had passed all of their tests. As of this month, all teachers, those seeking both traditional and nontraditional routes to licensure, must pass the competency exams before applying for a license.
Jacobs’ recommendation that Nevada lay out exactly what classes it wants teachers to complete, and not just the total number of requisite hours, is a point well taken, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Keith Rheault said. A task force is examining the issue.
Nevada has made significant progress in the past 10 years when it comes to reciprocity and accepting licenses from other states, but it’s sensible to proceed cautiously, Rheault said.
“We can’t lower the bar just to get people in the door,” he said. “That doesn’t help anyone.”
If Nevada wins federal funding through the “Race to the Top” grant competition, which could mean hundreds of millions of dollars to help turn around underperforming schools, it has agreed to consider establishing an alternative licensing program that can be completed in two years.
Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, said the teachers union supports regulation changes, provided the standards for rigor and instructional supervision are not watered down.
“You can’t just put bodies in a classroom with little preparation,” Warne said. “Just because you have a pulse doesn’t mean you can teach.”