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Head of the Class: Examining a new teacher licensure rule

Last summer, the Utah State Board of Education made headlines with its rule change to adopt an alternative means of licensure that would allow people with bachelor’s degrees to teach in schools while obtaining a teaching license.

In other words, someone with a bachelor’s degree or higher who wanted to teach school could be hired to do so without having a background or training in teaching.

While the policy has been a divisive one, it isn’t wholly revolutionary, nor is it an end-all to the traditional route for becoming a teacher. What proponents hope is that opening up the process will help make a dent in the teacher shortage, while critics ask whether putting untrained people in classrooms will do more harm than good.

Eager for involvement

According to report released last month from the Office of the State Auditor, non-STEM teachers with education bachelor’s degrees are estimated to be paid $36,577 in their first year—and that pay lags behind most other degrees’ estimated first-year salaries. While STEM teachers are paid slightly more, their salary pales in comparison to jobs in the tech sector.

For a state that prides itself on its tech industry, Utah has a hard time producing enough graduates to fill those spots, in no small part to a lack of rigorous introductions to STEM for kids, says Rich Nelson, CEO of the Utah Technology Council.

“We applaud the approval of this. It’s the only way we’re going to come even close to meeting the [teacher] shortage,” Nelson says. “We need to fundamentally change our compensation to attract STEM teachers, and in the meantime, until that happens, until we get that right, how else are we going to reach this enormous opportunity, this enormous demand other than attracting highly qualified [teachers] from industry—clearly with some guidelines.”

The UTC was heavily in favor of the rule change throughout the process, seeing it as an opportunity for professionals in STEM fields to teach classes in their area of expertise, on either a part-time or full-time basis, particularly for those retired or nearing the end of their careers. For those people, the relatively low salaries would be less of an issue than for someone trying to decide, for example, whether to go into programming or whether to teach it.

“Industry is eager and available to be involved,” says Nelson. “We really ought to use that teaching pool that is more than qualified, more than available, and is willing to come at an attractive salary point because they’re eager to make a difference. They’ve achieved success already. They don’t need the higher compensation. They just want to make a difference. Why wouldn’t we want to tap that enormous STEM teacher/industry talent pool? It’s the only way we’re going to start to address the opportunities in this state, to become the number one education state in America.”

Uneven requirements

However, many teaching professionals have concerns about the qualification of people who come from relevant industries to become teachers—not in their qualification in the subject, but in their ability to convey it to students, manage classrooms and other non-subject skills, says Francine Johnson, associate dean of graduation, educator licensing and accreditation for the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services at Utah State University.

“My concern is the quality of teaching that someone without any teacher ed preparation would have,” says Johnson. “Understanding student development, how to adapt lessons for slower learners and the faster learners, adapting instruction for students who don’t have English as their first language, how to construct a lesson plan, classroom management, understanding student needs—all of those things to me are critical to being a teacher, just like knowing the subject is critical. No one’s arguing that knowing the subject material isn’t critical, but these other things are, too.”

The point of the rule change was to attract more professionals from various industries to bring their talents to the classroom, as well as make it easier for those whose certifications have lapsed or who got their certification in another state. People who go into teaching under the new rule are required to get certification through a two- or three-year evening program, and are evaluated after a year to see if a district will recommend them to get a full license. (New teachers with education degrees are also observed under a certain schedule.)

“What about all of those children who have been in that class for a whole year when it turns out we’re not going to recommend them? That’s my concern—what’s going to happen to the children in the education system, the charter schools, the private schools,” Johnson says.

The school board’s ruling is particularly frustrating as other school board rules require higher and higher requirements for people to get teaching degrees to begin with.

“It really gives flexibility to districts … but institutions of higher education, teacher training programs, we are bound by some really strict requirements, because the Utah State Board of Education States that all teacher training programs must be nationally accredited,” says Johnson.

In order to adhere to those guidelines, students being admitted into teacher education programs must have a 3.0 GPA, an ACT composite score of at least 21 with an English score of at least 20 and a math score of at least 19. Johnson says the state’s requirements are actually higher than the national accreditation’s because of the way it requires schools to calculate the students’ GPAs. This makes it difficult in particular for non-traditional students who might not have had to take an ACT in high school, as well as for students who had a rough semester or two before deciding they wanted to go into education and lack the requisite GPA as a result, she says, or those who simply don’t do well on paper tests.

“We would like to begin a program for Native American students down in the Moab area that have an interest in becoming teachers and then they want to stay and teach on the reservation, but given the admission requirements that we are tied to, with the ACT scores or the GPA, it makes it almost impossible for them to meet the admission requirements. What we would like to do is have flexibility for the admission requirements, but then ensure once they complete the program that they’re leaving with the necessary teaching skills,” Johnson says. “It’s like we’re caught between a rock and a hard spot.”

Johnson says no one is arguing that teachers shouldn’t be well-prepared to step into the classroom, but the dichotomy between what is required for people wanting to get teaching degrees and those who can teach under the new rule seems out of alignment for two groups of people who can vie for the same job. And since the rule change, which went into effect in August, Johnson says she has had students tell her they’re changing their plans—they still want to teach, but are electing to get a bachelor’s degree in another field and gain their certification as they teach, rather than try to raise their GPA or test scores to meet the state’s requirements.

“[Some students] are saying now, ‘I don’t need to take the ACT—I’ve talked to a district and I can get a teaching job and I don’t need to spend time waiting to pass tests or retake tests,'” says Johnson.

Addressing concerns

The number of teachers in Utah’s schools utilizing this new rule is small—less than 100 of the 30,000 educators in the state, says Travis Rawlings, educator licensing coordinator for the Utah State Board of Education. Many of those, too, he says, were already or in the process of being hired by school districts through existing rules allowing for teachers to gain alternative certification. There were already ample means for school districts and private and charter schools to hire teachers without education degrees, with the understanding that those people would go through older programs to get certification as they taught, he says. There are still consequences if someone doesn’t have a license, but this let a person get a license through different ways for emergency or temporary situations as needed.

“The biggest misunderstanding people have is this allows people to teach that were not already allowed to teach. That is a misunderstanding of current rules,” Rawlings says. “It’s a new pathway to a standard license, too, but ultimately it’s not letting anyone in the classroom that already couldn’t be there.”

This rule, he says, essentially has the state taking a step back to give more control to districts and private and charter schools to hire the people they think will be best in the classroom.

The school board does acknowledge the discrepancy in what is expected for teachers through this system and teachers coming from education programs. The board changed a lot of faces between the rule that set those stringent requirements for education programs and this most recent one allowing alternative licensure, but a taskforce is now reviewing their various requirements.

Johnson says the response she and others involved with higher education teaching programs have gotten from the taskforce about the issue has been helpful and engaged, and they’re hopeful for coming changes.

“At the last taskforce meeting we feel like at least higher education is being listened to now, and prior to that we didn’t feel like we were at all,” Johnson says. “I’m hoping that the board will see that we are about quality and we want what’s best for ultimately the kids that our graduates are going to go teach.”