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Ga. cracks down on teacher certification

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

ATLANTA -- Georgia teachers will soon have to be pickier about where they enroll in graduate programs if they want a raise.

New state rules prohibit teachers looking to qualify for the $6,000-per-year average pay bump for advanced degrees -- or a "certification upgrade" -- from getting a master's or doctorate at non-accredited institutions. That means no more graduate programs at some for-profit colleges, which have seen enrollment spikes in Georgia and other states in the past few years.

The changes are aimed at cracking down on teachers pursuing graduate programs at institutions with inadequate curriculum, said Kelly Henson, head of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which oversees teacher certification.

"The rules in Georgia prior to the policy change essentially allowed -- with a few exceptions -- an educator to get a degree in virtually any subject or field from virtually any institution and qualify for a compensation upgrade," Henson said. "We believe in the value of advanced degrees and we believe that educators should be compensated for the completion of meaningful, relevant and rigorous advanced degrees."

The new rules come as the Obama administration cracks down on for-profit colleges with federal regulations aimed at protecting students from taking out too much debt to attend schools that may do nothing for their job prospects. The "gainful employment" rules released earlier this month ban for-profit schools from accessing federal financial aid dollars if too many of their graduates are unable to find jobs that pay enough to allow them to afford their student loan payments.

The rules were passed in December, but teachers have until July 15 to enroll in a non-accredited program before the policies take effect. After that, the colleges must be accredited by either National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education or the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.

The state will also accept degrees from top research institutions like Harvard or Yale that are not accredited by either organization but are of high quality, Henson said.

The changes come as some for-profit institutions operating in Georgia are in the process of getting accredited.

At the Georgia campus of Walden University, a for-profit college based in Minneapolis, more than 2,500 students are working on master's degrees or doctorates in education programs, said Bonnie Copeland, vice president for education policy and regulation. Walden is a candidate for NCATE accreditation, which should be in place by early next year, Copeland said.

"We had pursued NCATE accreditation before this rule was even proposed," Copeland said. "We felt our programs warranted this kind of national recognition. We thought it was wise for us to pursue NCATE because it's the gold standard."

At Argosy University, a private, for-profit institution owned by the Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corporation, administrators are working to meet the commission's standards. The university also has applied for NCATE accreditation, spokeswoman Anne Dean said.

"We are currently engaged in a process of examining our programs and adapting them where necessary to ensure that they are in harmony with the new requirements," Dean said.

Under the new rule, educators who want a certification upgrade must also get the degree in an area relevant to their job to get the raise. For example, an educator can't get an advanced degree in, say, real estate or rock climbing and qualify for the upgrade.

The teachers who enroll in programs before July 15 have a limited amount of time to complete their degrees -- two years for master's and specialist degrees and four years for a doctorate.

For teachers, the new rules can be confusing.

Robert Meaders, a social studies teacher at Marietta Middle School, said he's scrambling to find a program that meets the new requirements. He said many institutions are revamping their degree programs to meet the new rules, which means it's difficult to enroll anywhere right now because the programs aren't accepting students.

Meaders has not had a raise in about four years and said he wants to get an advanced degree to increase his pay.

"I see the reasoning behind it as a tax payer that you wouldn't want people sitting on these degrees and raking in the money for a job they're not doing," Meaders said. "Yes, there are bad teachers that are parasites on the system getting paid for doing nothing. Then there are those that work their tails off for their students and aren't getting paid."

State officials say the new rules are necessary because the state ranks third in the country for compensation for advanced degrees but has been at the bottom for the rigor of those degrees. Many states pay teachers just $1,200 more for getting a graduate degree.

Professional Standards Commission officials have toured the state over the past few months to talk with groups of teachers about the changes. Teacher organizations say educators were given ample warning before the new rule took effect.

"We don't want people going to fly-by-night educational institutions to get degrees," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which represents 81,000 teachers across the state. "I think teacher quality is a big issue, and that includes teacher education and professional education."