3 Myths About State Certification
Myth #1: "Certification doesn't mean anything to people outside of the Association."
Though both the Wisconsin and Michigan programs were born from the state associations, they are quickly gaining acceptance from a wide range of education institutions and organizations.
For example, in Michigan, the ESP Center for Professional Learning is supported not only by MEA, but also by the Michigan State Department of Education, Lansing College, and Genessee Intermediate School District. It is the first comprehensive statewide program designed to deliver training for school support staff in a structured program.
The Center itself also does not provide instruction for the certificate. Organizations that offer a large number of courses and workshops in Michigan -- such as community colleges and professional organizations -- have a designated coordinator who submits approval forms to the Center and who acts as the verification officer for approved courses and workshops. At a recent Michigan conference, Tom Watkins, State Superintendent of Public Education, called the certificate program "something that's been long overdue" for public school support staff.
Myth #2: "Certification is nothing more than a piece of paper."
Both the Wisconsin and Michigan programs were designed to make ESPs become more aware of their personal and professional merit, and the important contributions they make collectively to student learning.
This translates into 40 hours of structured professional development that becomes progressively challenging and focused as study continues -- an approach known as "career continuum." Participants move from study in a broad variety of basic content areas to more concentrated learning in specific topics.
"It's not just a piece of paper," states Special Education Aide Julie McFaul of Greendale, Wisconsin -- one of the first ESP members to earn the WEA Certificate. "It's about improving myself to benefit the students."
Greendale Library Aide Gina Hand, agrees: "I strongly believe support staff need to advance their education goals as much as professional staff. We need to keep up with changing curriculum and technology."
In fact, experts say that certification programs are a guarantee to the public that those engaged in providing services to the public -- be it in medicine, law, construction or education -- are equipped with the proper training and experience to do their jobs.
Certification also provides the professional development opportunities support staff need to keep their skills up to date and advance on the job.
As early as 1998, contracts in some Wisconsin districts called for financial incentives for support staff that participated in or completed the program. Such incentives include stipends, salary scale increases, reimbursement of certification expenses and release time, and funding for ESP professional development.
"Now, educational support professionals not only can earn a certificate to hang on their wall, they may be rewarded financially for the accomplishments," says WEA Professional Development Academy Director Debra Berndt, who oversees the ESP Certificate Program.
But even in districts that don't yet financially reward certificate holders, recipients agree it generally gains them increased respect, helps them improve their job performance and may help open up opportunities for career advancement.
Myth #3: "Not many ESPs are interested in earning a certificate."
More than 50 support professionals in Michigan are currently enrolled in the program, and over 5,000 ESP in Wisconsin have received sate certificates. And because response to the Wisconsin program has been so great, Wisconsin ESP members have pushed for and received higher levels of training and more certification opportunities in their local areas (see "Wisconsin: Taking learning on the road").
Additionally, Wisconsin added a "Level Two" certificate that requires an additional 80 hours of instruction, an individual learning plan, a reflective summary of learning experiences and two years of work experience in an education setting. Plans for a similar Level Two certificate are now underway in Michigan, and a full program will be offered by 2004.
"The certificate program is recognition that the knowledge of support professionals counts, and that they play an important role in the district," adds T.C. Motzkus, staff developer for West Bend schools in Wisconsin. There, support staff can earn all the credits necessary for a certificate by taking courses within the district at no charge.
"Teachers are not the only teachers," she adds. "In the community, we're all teaching at all times. We all have something to offer."
Why a Certification Program?
Recognizing an existing need, Michigan's ESP Center for Professional Learning, MEA and the community colleges worked to develop an indepth Certificate Program for ESP members. In Wisconsin, the WEAC Professional Development Academy worked closely with the University of Wisconsin system. The goals of both state programs are to:
State Certification Resources
The Michigan ESP Center for Professional Learning
(517) 333-6260, http://www.mea.org/
To next section: "Wisconsin: Taking learning on the road"