Commission reverses itself, authorizes military instructors to teach physical education

April 29, 2014

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing reversed itself and voted earlier this month to offer military instructors a limited authorization to teach physical education. In the eyes of physical educators, respect for their field was dealt another blow.

The move would allow military instructors, who are not required to hold a bachelor’s degree, to teach physical education – but only fitness and drill and only in the context of their Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) and basic military drill classes. However limited, the proposed teaching authorization is viewed by some as a rebuke to the national push for improved teacher quality.

“You are giving a supplemental authorization to someone who doesn’t have a teacher credential and may not have a bachelor’s degree,” said Alicia Williamson, a commissioner who voted against the proposal, which passed 7-4. “It undermines the teaching profession. There is no other core subject we’d ever do this for.”

Others see it as just the opposite – a way to improve the quality of physical education instruction already being provided in JROTC courses, which, at the discretion of local school boards, can be taken by students to fulfill the physical education requirement needed for high school graduation.

The matter, which has been contentiously debated before the commission since last September, is not yet settled. Before the proposed “special teaching authorization” in physical education is adopted, the commissioners will vote again on the issue at their June meeting.

If approved, the new teaching authorization would likely make it easier for school boards to justify granting physical education credit for military training classes, the commission acknowledged in its proposal. The issue of physical education credit for military training has been a firecracker on several school boards, with some board members in favor of military training on campus, some against, and others in favor of military training but not if it takes away from physical education instruction.

“I am not anti-JROTC,” said Sandra Lee Fewer, president of the San Francisco Board of Education. But childhood obesity is a problem and the state has decided that physical education is an academic priority, she said. “That is why teachers with P.E. credentials should be the only ones allowed to fulfill that requirement,” she said. “In San Francisco, it became a political battle.”

Physical education is the only required high school area of study that school boards routinely allow students to fulfill with courses taught by instructors who don’t hold a bachelor’s degree or a single-subject credential in the content area. Local school boards have said they waive the requirement because students need flexibility in their schedules to take electives or re-take classes in other subject areas.

By passing two tests, one in basic academic skills and another in knowledge of physical education, military instructors could add the physical education teaching authorization to their ROTC or military drill credential. The authorization would apply to grades 12 and below, but military instructors would not be allowed to teach physical education to the general student body.

Formally recognizing military instructors for a higher level of competence will encourage them “to become better prepared and more knowledgeable, safer and more responsible in the work that they already are doing,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, chair of the credentialing commission.

JROTC and military drill are high school electives that use Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and other military curriculum covering fitness, leadership, civics and U.S. history, among other topics. California has 360 JROTC high school programs; each program must enroll at least 100 students, according to military specifications. The new teaching authorization also would be available to instructors in the California Cadet Corps program, which is run under the California National Guard and the California Military Department. The Cadet Corps has 6,000 students in the state, according to the group.

To hold a preliminary teaching credential for JROTC or military drill, instructors must have four years of military experience and hold a high school diploma or have passed the General Educational Development (GED) tests. To advance to what’s called a “clear” credential, military instructors must teach at least one course for four semesters and complete 135 hours of preparation in a program approved by the credentialing commission. They also must complete a course in health education and receive training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Leaders of military programs said that their instructors have taken pains to improve their physical education preparation. “We are making a concerted effort to ensure that the lessons delivered are … in line with California content standards,” said Lt. Col. Mark Ryan, assistant executive officer of the California Cadet Corps.

For JROTC instructors, who usually are retired military personnel, the new authorization would be optional – it is not required for their work, the commission said.

That led Jane Robb, an instructional specialist with the California Teachers Association, to question why the new authorization was needed. “It appears to us that this item is basically being used to bolster the efforts to convince local school boards, when that issue comes before them, to allow basic military drill to count toward P.E. credit for high school graduation,” Robb said.

The commission’s report stated that the lack of a physical education credential for military instructors “may explain the reticence of some local governing boards to recognize these courses as meeting the physical education graduation requirements.”

Teri Burns, a senior director of the California School Boards Association, praised the proposed authorization because it would inform school boards as they try to decide whether to grant physical education credit for military instruction. “It allows a fuller discussion at a board meeting of ‘Is this what we want to do? Should the board be giving credit? Should it not?’” Burns said.

Being able to grant physical education credit is extremely helpful in sustaining enrollment in military classes, said Brigadier General James Gabrielli of the California National Guard. “Approving this request will reverse the trend in the California Cadet Corps and Junior ROTC programs that have suffered steady attrition due to local school district policies that have eliminated physical education credit,” he told commissioners when they first considered the proposal last fall.

But Darling-Hammond said that telling school boards whether to grant P.E. credit for JROTC is beyond the purview of the commission. Encouraging instructors to improve their training is not. “It our job to raise competence and not to lower standards,” she said.

“We are fighting this,” said Joanie Verderber, a past president of the Sacramento-based California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, the leading physical education teacher organization in the state. She said she regretted that the issue has pitted JROTC against physical education.

“Both stand individually and have merit of themselves,” she said. But, she said, “When we have courses that are identified in education law as part of the basic requirement for a high school diploma, those courses are taught by someone who holds a single subject credential and must have a baccalaureate degree.”


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