What’s with the fixation on educator certification in Lorain?

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Last week, the Elyria Chronicle published a piece headlined “Another Lorain Schools hire lacks state certification.” The hire in question is Scott Dieter, who has been selected by CEO David Hardy to serve as the director of early childhood education for Lorain City Schools, which was placed under the auspices of an Academic Distress Commission approximately one year ago.

The problem, as trumpeted by the article, is that Dieter does not have an Ohio license for his position. This apparently has Lorain’s school board president Tony Dimacchia furious. “[Hardy] has hired yet another employee with zero credentials to be an educational leader in our district,” Dimacchia fumed. “It’s amazing that all of a sudden we can hire whomever we want regardless of their educational background or education license or credentials, in any position in a public school.”

Descriptors like “zero credentials” and implications of a questionable education background are likely to make casual readers gasp in horror and wonder what on earth CEO Hardy was thinking. After all, this is the education of children we’re talking about. But is Dimacchia’s declaration accurate?

Well, that depends. In Ohio, there are two different ways to become an administrator, an umbrella term which covers the roles of superintendent, principal, and administrative specialist. Dieter wasn’t hired to be a superintendent or a principal, so it’s likely that the certificate Dieter lacks—and the one that Dimacchia is so fired up about—is the administrative specialist license. According to the Ohio Administrative Code (OAC), this certificate is for “working in a central office or supervisory capacity.” As the director of early childhood education, that’s exactly what Dieter would be doing—working in central office to monitor and implement early childhood programs, as well as supervising a staff who share the same goals.

The OAC has two requirements for an administrative specialist license: two years of successful teaching experience under a professional teaching license; and the successful completion of an approved preparation program, with a concentration in one of a few specific fields. According to Dieter’s LinkedIn page, he does have two years of teaching experience—but those years were in Tennessee, not Ohio, and so he likely doesn’t have an Ohio professional teaching license. Dieter doesn’t seem to have completed an approved (read: traditional) administrator preparation program either. As a result, Dieter can’t obtain an administrative specialist license via the traditional route.

But that’s only the traditional route. Ohio also offers an alternative administrative specialist license. To obtain this license, there are four initial requirements: 1) A baccalaureate degree or higher from an accredited institution; 2) a graduate or undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher; 3) five or more years of documented successful work experience in teaching, administration, education, or management; and 4) a position as an administrative specialist and board resolution of appointment to that position.

As far as I can tell, Dieter meets all these requirements. He graduated from Ohio State. His GPA isn’t listed, but it’s likely high given that he was accepted to Teach For America (TFA) around the same time The New York Times was writing about how hard it was for Ivy League graduates to get into to the program. He has two years of experience teaching, and three years of experience working as a “Manager, Teacher Leadership Development” for TFA—a position that includes teacher coaching and administrative duties that are pretty closely aligned to what he’ll be doing in Lorain. He also spent two years as the Director of Education Leadership Initiatives for TFA in Cleveland. As for the last requirement—a board resolution of his appointment—his selection by Hardy probably fulfills that requirement due to the wide-ranging authority given to ADC district CEOs. The upshot? Dieter is perfectly qualified to apply for and receive an alternative administrative specialist license. But you’d never know that from the news coverage.

To be fair, it’s unclear whether Dieter actually has applied for such a license. If he has, and is just waiting for the Ohio bureaucracy to award it, then Dimacchia will soon lose the right to say that Dieter has “zero credentials.” But even if Dieter doesn’t apply for the license, Dimacchia is still wrong to think that the only thing that qualifies someone to work in a school is a credential. After all, if credentials were a guarantee for success, then Lorain should never have found itself in academic distress.

Take, for instance, some of the data about Teach For America. Statewide studies of the relative effectiveness of teacher education programs in Tennessee—where Dieter was a corps member—consistently place TFA at or near the top in terms of participants’ effects on student achievement. (You can find this and other studies on Teach For America here.) Dan Goldhaber has found similar results from TFA teachers and concluded that there is only a weak link between teacher licensure requirements and student achievement.

Yes, this data is about teachers and not administrators. But the fact that Dieter was a member of an organization with such positive results for students—and that he also has five years of experience as an administrator for that same organization—should be a clear indicator that his job performance won’t be hindered by his lack of formal credentials. The headline and commentary within the article which imply that Dieter’s lack of credential is somehow a serious problem is nothing more than pointless bluster.

Unless, of course, Dieter’s lack of credential isn’t really the problem—a logical conclusion given how many potshots the article takes at Teach For America and charter schools. The worst part is that they aren’t even accurate. Dimacchia accused Hardy of running the district into the ground in order to “make it a charter school.” While chartering is an outside possibility on the far fringes of the ADC process, CEO Hardy went on record just two months ago to say that isn’t going to happen. (Charters, by the way, have absolutely nothing to do with Dieter’s qualifications.)

Meanwhile Stephen Dyer, an education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio, was also interviewed and argued that TFA corps members “are not union and therefore can be paid much less” than the district’s other teachers. But that’s not true either. According to TFA’s own website, corps members don’t work for TFA. They are full-time, salaried employees of the district or school that hires them, and their salary and benefits are “the same as other beginning teachers working for the same employer.” The statement that TFA corps members aren’t union members is also questionable. When I was a TFA corps member, I was told explicitly by TFA staff that if I wanted to join the local union, I was more than welcome to. Things could be different up in Lorain. But I doubt it. (It’s also unclear what TFA corps members’ salaries and union membership statuses have to do with Dieter’s qualifications, other than the fact that both Dieter and Hardy were TFA corps members once upon a time.)

In the end, the most telling aspect of this article is the focus of those interviewed based on their quotes. Dimacchia railed about the importance of credentials that reinforce the pathway into educational leadership that he supports, as well as the traditional status quo that protects his job. Both are now on the chopping block after years of poor performance that landed Lorain in academic distress. Dyer opted to talk about privatizing public education and the friction between TFA corps members and union teachers. Hardy, meanwhile, talked about the positive impact his new hire would have on kids. “Scott is a transformational leader who puts scholars first,” he said. “He is extremely talented and focused on the right thing—creating pathways for our youngest scholars to reach their full potential.”

I can’t speak for the folks in Lorain. But if it were me, I’d take my chances with the guy who puts the focus on kids and their success, not adults and the systems that sustain them.

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.