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New rules test teachers' patience

Educators call changes to certification confusing, discouraging

As a teacher, Karen Tokos has credentials that any school would treasure.

With degrees from the University of Chicago and Stanford, she has taught high school biology and chemistry for eight years, including the past two at Newton North High School. She speaks of her decision to go into education earnestly, citing a realization that her talents were more suited to a classroom than a research laboratory.

"I felt like I couldn't really make an impact [in a lab] the way I could as a teacher," said Tokos, who is 33.

But Tokos is one of many teachers in the region and across the state who have discovered that their licenses to teach in Massachusetts are in jeopardy. Their dilemma, which some union officials fear could drive promising educators away from the field, stems from changes to Massachusetts regulations requiring teachers pursuing a master's degree in education to enroll in state-approved master's programs more heavily focused on the subjects they teach.

Tokos, for example, has an undergraduate biology degree but didn't take enough science courses to meet the requirement while earning her master's degree in education.

The changes do not affect tenured teachers, only those who are in the process of earning their professional licenses. Licenses are typically granted by the state after a teacher has worked for three years in Massachusetts, participated in mentoring programs, and completed a master's degree or another program of advanced study.

Teachers have until Wednesday to seek an "accommodation" that would grandfather them under previous rules, which did not require teachers earning a master's in education to complete as much course work in their specialty, such as English or math.

Those teachers who get accommodations have until 2005 to complete the remaining requirements for their professional license. Those who don't will have to abide by the new rules in order to teach.

Carol Gilbert, director of educator preparation and quality at the state Department of Education, said the changes were made to improve student achievement by ensuring that teachers have more training in the subjects they teach.

"The stronger the subject knowledge of the teacher, the stronger the performance. . . of the student," Gilbert said.

She added that many changes to the state regulations were voted on in 2001, and that teachers and colleges have had two years to familiarize themselves with the new rules.

Nora Todd, a professional development specialist with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said the effort to make sure teachers are more qualified is laudable. But the cost could outweigh the benifits, Todd and others say, if the changes and the confusion they've caused discourage teachers from staying in the classroom.

"How are we going to staff classrooms if we make it so difficult for people to come into the profession?" said Cheryl Turgel, president of the Newton Teachers Association. "It needs to be a user-friendly process."

Pat Foley, an assistant superintendent in Westborough, estimates that the new regulations affect about 30 teachers in her district. Although she expects all of them to get an accomodation, she said the changes have still been confusing.

"It's just not making life easy for them at all," she said.

Although many affected teachers will receive the accommodation and carry on, many have found it difficult to determine whether their certification is under threat.

"I can't decipher what I'm supposed to be doing," said Todd Young, a music teacher at Needham's Pollard Middle School. "It seems like everywhere I turn, someone tells me something different."

Young earned degrees from Berklee College of Music and Boston University and, after several years teaching part-time, is now in his second year as a full-time teacher. He is unsure whether his master's program meets state guidelines, so he has decided to seek the accommodation just to be safe.

"I just can't conceptualize why they make it so difficult," Young said. "I wish we could focus more on our job."

The Massachusetts Teachers Association spent the summer fielding calls from confused teachers and is concerned that state education officials have not properly notified those affected by the changes.

Heidi Perlman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said staffing cuts have made it difficult for the department to respond to questions, and that many teachers have been directed to the department's website for information on licensing.

The changes to the certification requirements have forced some colleges to rethink their programs. Framingham State College, which has about 1,200 students in its graduate education program, has begun designing some new programs that meet the state guidelines, as well as shorter certificate programs for teachers who may need additional study in their specialty fields.

Scott Greenberg, the college's associate vice president of academic affairs and dean of graduate and continuing education, said he believes teacher training should encompass course work in both education and the teacher's chosen field.

"The question is, how do you make better teachers?" Greenberg said.

Todd, of the Teachers Association, expressed concern that too much focus on subject matter would squeeze out course work in the theory and practice of teaching. She also fears it will limit the number of programs in which prospective teachers can enroll.

The Department of Education would not comment on any individual teacher's case, but Tokos has learned she doesn't qualify for the waiver.

Before coming to Massachusetts, she taught for six years in California and Virginia. But the state does not recognize that time toward her bank of professional experience.

And, because Tokos teaches both biology and chemistry, the state is dividing her experience in Massachusetts in half, she said, meaning that although she has already taught here for two years, she has received credit for just one year of experience in each subject. At that rate, it would take her four more years to get a license instead of two, she said, so she would not be able to complete the requirements by 2005.

Tokos, who came to Massachusetts with her husband, described her job in Newton as "ideal," but said that rather than return to school, she is considering leaving the state. In a field already plagued by heavy attrition, she is unsure about what the new regulations accomplish.

"I think we need to nurture and support the individuals who express an interest in teaching," she said.

Emily Shartin can be reached at eshartin@globe.com.

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