As an alternative to traditional, brick-and-mortar teacher colleges, Western Governors University (WGU)—an online institution based in Salt Lake City—has created a completely online, accredited, degree-granting teacher college.

WGU will streamline teacher preparation by giving credit for demonstrated competency, not just university seat time. Federal education officials are touting the program as a convenient way for current teachers who are not certified to earn the credentials they need under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

The college will provide teacher certification and degrees in reading, math, science, technology, and English as a second language.

From now on, according to the Improving Teacher Quality component of NCLB, school districts that receive Title I funds must hire only “highly qualified” teachers—meaning those who are certified in the subjects they’re teaching. By the end of 2005-06 school year, all teachers will have to meet the same requirement.

Although educators applaud the federal government’s effort to improve teacher quality, they say meeting these requirements puts an extra burden on school systems already plagued by a shortage of teachers, particularly in science and math.

Unqualified and emergency-credentialed teachers fill classrooms nationwide. One in four high school instructors teaches out of his or her area of expertise, according to U.S. Department of Education (ED) data. This average increases to 34 percent if only high-poverty schools are counted.

The new WGU program aims to address this situation.

“The Teachers College will be a boon to states seeking training for current teachers and paraprofessionals to help them meet education requirements under NCLB and speed their licensure. The program will also aid recruiting second-career professionals,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who announced the college’s formal launch March 10 with Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt and WGU President Bob Mendenhall.

Mendenhall said the college—which is ideal for training paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides, uncertified teachers, and second-career professionals—is different from other teacher colleges because it is based on competency rather than hours served.

Prospective teachers are tested to determine their competency in critical knowledge and skills instead of the number of hours they’ve spent in college.

“It maintains very rigorous standards for teachers and ensures that they demonstrate their true competency—not just that they’ve sat through a number of required courses,” Paige said of the program.

He added that the college harnesses the power of the internet to provide innovative options to those who might be turned off by the hoops and hurdles of traditional teacher preparation and certification programs.

“Think of the implications,” Paige said. “Right now, a soldier stationed in Kuwait but nearing retirement can go online to Western Governors University and take the courses to become a teacher. Once he or she is stateside again, he could hook up with Troops to Teachers, another [ED] program, to find a high-need school where he can serve again.”

The program also will empower paraprofessionals in rural school districts—where access to local universities often is limited—to become highly qualified, he said.

WGU began creating the college in 2001 with a $10 million, five-year Star Schools grant from ED. The grant money was used to acquire the course materials and to operate the technology needed to maintain the virtual college.

In addition to the Star Schools grant, funding from foundations, corporate partners, and federal teacher education grants help support the program.

The college offers three program tracks. The first allows paraprofessionals already in schools to earn an associate’s degree, then a bachelor’s degree and teacher licensure. The second enables uncertified teachers and second-career professionals to apply their existing competencies to become certified as teachers and—if they wish—earn a master’s degree. The third program lets existing teachers upgrade their skills.

WGU’s Teachers College is accredited by four of the nation’s six regional accreditation commissions. The college also is in the process of seeking individual state approvals and already has received approval from Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. Through reciprocity agreements with these three states, the program’s teacher licensure is accepted in a total of 46 states.

WGU has offered a master’s degree in learning and technology for the past two years and has a current enrollment of more than 250 students.

Students who wish to enroll at WGU’s Teachers College can use federal financial aid to pay for their tuition. Also, the Western Governors Foundation has committed to raise 1,000 scholarships for teachers in the western United States to attend the online college. WGU also has a national scholarship fund and has received federal grants to provide additional scholarships.

Educators polled by eSchool News had mixed views of the idea of a completely online, degree-granting teacher college.

“They are missing the point of education being a human process,” said Ken Eastwood, superintendent of the Oswego City School District in New York. “Fish-wrapped degrees are not viewed positively—especially in these types of areas.”

“Nursing a great suspicion of the curriculum of most colleges of education, I would normally greet this news with great eagerness. Given that the individuals seeking online degrees in this instance are already subject matter experts, however, what they need most is training in how to teach and manage the classroom environment. While online resources would supplement [this instruction] greatly, it would be difficult for me to imagine good pedagogy for teacher training in something completely digital,” said Rick Bauer, chief information officer for The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa.

Links:

Western Governors University Teachers College
http://www.wgu.edu/tc