One of the criticisms we often hear in the Idaho public charter school space is that we don’t do a good enough job of sharing lessons and innovations from the work of our school partners and their educators. We’ve tried in recent years to do more to share (see: The Rise of Learning Societies, Idaho Charters Leverage State Borrowing Law to Save Millions on Building Costs, and Students teach what they’ve learned at community event).
The purpose of the following piece on the charter school pathway in Idaho for flexible teacher certification is to share early lessons from recent changes to state law. We believe, and hope, this can be helpful to school districts, especially rural school districts struggling to find and place teachers in hard to staff subjects. We share knowing there is controversy around this flexibility and other charter school policies such as flexibility for school administrators. But, as charter schools are supposed to be generators of innovation, we share and readily take the good with the controversial.
Terry Ryan CEO, Bluum
The Sky Hasn’t Fallen: Alternative Teacher Certification in Idaho Public Charter Schools
By Alan Gottlieb
Idaho has a thriving charter school sector with over 30,000 students enrolled in one of the state’s 70+ schools. It features some of the highest-performing schools in the state, but until recently charters had little choice but to hire teachers certified through traditional schools of education.
Some teachers obtained interim certificates through Teach for America or the American Board of Certification for Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) that allowed them to teach for three years. But charters had no authority to design their own teacher preparation pathways, or to hire people with a wealth of life and professional experience but no teaching degree.
While Idaho created a more streamlined, low-cost, online certification program through the College of Southern Idaho in 2018, aimed primarily at certifying and retaining rural educators, charter advocates say it did not provide a more customized approach that many charter schools desire or require.
That changed in 2022, when the state legislature passed Senate Bill 1291, allowing charters to create their own alternative certification pathways. This law change represents more than a bureaucratic nicety: It gives charters the freedom to customize their teacher licensing programs to the particular needs of their schools and specific learning models.
Senate Bill 1291 lets charter schools issue school-specific teaching credentials to individuals who are at least 18 years old, possess a bachelor’s degree, and complete a criminal background check. This bill also mandates that these individuals receive mentoring and professional development training.
ElizaBeth Rahman is one of the first teachers to take advantage of the new law. She is in her first year teaching science at Gem Prep Pocatello charter school. Were it not for the alternative certification program the Gem Innovation Schools launched with the support of Bluum, Rahman said, she never would have entered the teaching field.
After starting college 20 years ago, then attending culinary school, and then spending time as a stay-at-home mom, Rahman re-enrolled at Idaho State University in 2018 and graduated last December with a bachelor’s degree in Earth and Environmental Systems.
Her first inclination was to find a job in geology. But she quickly found that the career paths she envisioned were tough to break into.
That’s when she decided to look into teaching science as a second career. She applied to Gem Prep, got hired, and immediately dove into the charter network’s new weeklong, immersive, in-person summer training program. That has been augmented by monthly virtual sessions and on-site mentoring.
“I would not have thought of teaching as a potential career path if it weren’t for this program,” Rahman said recently, during a planning period between classes. Enrolling in a program that would take at least two-and-a-half years to earn a teaching credential was not in the cards.
“This has the potential to really increase and improve the teacher workforce,” Rahman said. “It opens the door for people who are educated and passionate about their field and want to pass that knowledge and passion on.”
It seems counterintuitive that Idaho came so late to the alternative certification arena. After all, bluer states like Colorado have long allowed charter schools to get waivers from teacher licensing requirements. Why did it take Idaho, with its innate skepticism about government regulation, so long?
Bluum and its partner the Idaho Charter School Network (ICSN) played a key role in getting the alternative certification law passed. ICSN lobbyist Blake Youde said a variety of factors explain why it took until 2022. One is that policymakers have been increasingly comfortable over time that Idaho’s charter sector has fully matured in the years since the state’s charter school law was passed in 1998. They are aware that some of the state’s best and most innovative schools are public charter schools.
This gave lawmakers confidence that charters are up to the responsibility of ensuring that teachers are qualified and prepared to educate the state’s students, Youde said.
Another reason it took so long for Idaho to pass an alternative certification law is that because so many of Idaho’s school districts are small and rural, with many of their teachers coming from the community, significant numbers of policymakers and residents simply didn’t give the issue much thought. Teachers always got certified a certain way, why make changes?
Finally, Youde said, policymakers and advocates hit on a politically palatable balance in SB 1291. In 2021, the year before the law passed, a bill that would also have allowed rural districts to certify their own teachers died after the Idaho Association of School Administrators, which supported the bill in the state House of Representatives, pulled its support under heavy pressure from the teachers union when it reached the State Senate.
In the 2022 version, only charters were allowed to create alternative certification pathways, and opposition was much weaker.
Opponents of the law, however, still see it as not only unnecessary, but possibly damaging to the teaching profession.
Christina Linder, a former high-ranking Idaho Department of Education official who helped design the College of Southern Idaho program, said that program allows educators to work as teachers in classrooms while earning their certification, which typically takes five semesters.
This, she said, undercuts the major arguments proponents put forward to get the alternative certification law passed. Career-changing professionals can jump into teaching right away, and can get certified, while working, for a total of about $500, once state grants subsidizing the CSI program are factored in.
“It’s not that I’m necessarily opposed to alternative certification, I just don’t get why people feel there is a need for it,” Linder said.
Her main concern, Linder said, is that the law contains few guardrails for ensuring that charter-certified teachers are being adequately prepared to serve students well. For every rigorous, well-designed Gem Prep program, she said, there could well be one-off certification programs that provide little in the way of useful training.
“Our teachers across the state already struggle with being seen as true professionals. Anyone that has ever taught (well) understands the incredible complexity of meeting multiple student needs within the confines of the current system,” Linder said.
“When Idaho publicly de-professionalized teaching, for no defensible reason, I think it put another crack in the public education system. If charters want the benefit of public funds, they should be willing to meet the most foundational of public education requirements.”
Charter school leaders and proponents said that Linder misses the point of the law with her objections. Multiple studies have shown that traditional schools of education, in Idaho and across the country, do an uneven job at best of preparing teachers to be effective, they said.
“Charter school models are pretty tight and development around these specific models of learning and teaching add more value than a sort of one-size-fits-all teacher certification pathway,” said Terry Ryan, Bluum’s CEO who earlier in his career sat on the CAEP Commission that set standards for schools of education across the country. “I don’t think what they are doing at Gem Prep is the only way to do things, but I certainly believe we need alternative pathways, especially for areas in Idaho where we have teacher shortages like STEM subjects.”
Once alternative certification was signed into law, Bluum began working with Gem Prep to create a training program for newly certified teachers. Max Koltuv, Bluum’s chief academic program officer, said the challenge was building a program affordable to enrollees that provided the rigor and quality necessary to produce teachers prepared to hit the ground running.
“We wanted to ensure that this was done in a responsible way,” Koltuv said. “There are other places in the country that have passed similar laws where people have kind of hidden away. ‘I want my brother-in-law to teach in the school so now he’s certified.’ That’s what we wanted to avoid.”
Koltuv, who helped found the Relay Graduate School of Education, worked with Gem Innovation Schools Chief Academic Officer Laurie Wolfe and her team, and curriculum specialist Kristin Levine from Colorado to put together the program, which Gem opened to teachers from outside the network as well.
Wolfe said Gem Prep wanted to create a certification program that “primarily targets career-changers.” The state’s schools of education are graduating fewer students each year, and teacher shortages abound. Finding subject-matter experts who want to become teachers makes sense in this context, she said.
The program, currently in its first year and with five participants, is rigorous, Wolfe said. Following a weeklong in-person, intensive introductory seminar over the summer, the newly minted teachers dispersed to their schools and began teaching. They receive regular homework assignments and meet virtually once per month.
The homework is tied directly to the work they’re doing in the classroom, and requires students to provide evidence of what they have learned and how they are applying it.
“If we teach you a new strategy, we want evidence that you’re actually trying it out and how it’s going,” Wolfe said. “That might be video, that might be data from assessments. There could be a multitude of things used for evidence.”
Wolfe said the design team put together the program by “backwards-planning,” asking themselves what skills they wanted their teachers to have, based on what the most successful Gem Prep educators demonstrate each day in classrooms across the network. Once they had determined what those skills are, they devised a training program explicitly focused on teaching them.
“We bucketed it into two broad categories,” Wolfe said. “One is classroom environment: How do you set up and run your classroom so it’s efficient and effective? Part of this is instructional planning. How do you plan your lessons and develop high-quality questions, and engagement strategies for students to set you up for success?”
The second category the program focuses on is what Wolfe called professional responsibilities. Those include communicating with parents, documenting grades, and working with other staff members.
The lead teacher in the Gem Prep program is Nanette Merrill, principal of Gem Prep’s Meridian North campus. She said that during the weeklong, intensive launch of the program last July, she tried to teach modeling the techniques the training was designed to impart to the new teachers.
“One of the comments I heard at the end of the week was that every teacher should have to do this training, because even pre-service programs in schools don’t necessarily teach all the teaching strategies that we were teaching them and coaching them on,” Merrill said.
“It’s all about good, research-based teaching practices that apply to any grade, any content, any school. It’s not just the Gem Prep way.”
Merrill said programs like this one could help reverse the teacher shortage that is growing year over year across the country. “This has the potential to really be a game changer in our profession. It could be a way to bring those who desire to teach into our profession with a shorter, intense process that prepares them to succeed. Who wouldn’t want that?”
Alan Gottlieb is a Colorado-based writer, editor, journalist, communications consultant, and nonprofit entrepreneur who owns Write.Edit.Think, LLC. He founded EdNews Colorado, which later merged with Gotham Schools to form Chalkbeat. He does consulting work for Bluum, an Idaho-based non-profit education group.