Facing a significant teacher shortage, Utah has enacted a law that allows the state to hire teachers who have no formal classroom training.
Utah has seen its student population blossom quickly — about 12,000 new students annually over the past decade — forcing lawmakers to pass a bill this week that allows an alternate pathway for prospective teachers into state classrooms.
Teacher candidates now need only to have expertise in a certain subject matter, possess a bachelor's degree and pass a background check, ethics review and certification test. To help with their integration into the classroom, the new teaching cadre in Utah will be assigned mentors for three years who are veteran teachers to help smooth their transition. Previously, state law required teachers to have taken teacher preparation coursework in college to become teachers.
Some teachers and legislators are upset by the new law, saying it shortchanges students and puts unprepared educators into classrooms.
In a July 1 letter to David Crandall, chairman of the state board of education, 12 members of Utah's House Democratic Caucus sought a broader public hearing about the issue. They acknowledged the continuing problem of finding qualified educators, calling the new changes "dramatic."
They said more stakeholders — teachers, parents, students administrators and the public — should be given the opportunity to weigh in.
"For several years, the legislature and the State Board of Education have faced the reality of a growing shortage of qualified teachers in Utah. Our current teachers are retiring and our college students are not interested in pursuing the profession and are voting with their diplomas — saying no thanks to an underpaid job that comes with overbearing regulation and policy-maker scrutiny and criticism."
They added in their letter: "Effective teaching requires far more than content knowledge; learning how to communicate effectively with children in an educational setting on the job is difficult in the best of circumstances and will not place the best teachers in front of every Utah student. In addition to filling classes with unprepared adults, implementation of this policy will not create a pool of qualified teachers for Utah's classrooms and will continue to damage current teacher morale."
The National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington, D.C. said about 20 percent of the 214,000 new teachers hired each year across the U.S. come from non-traditional routes. Currently, 17 states have alternative certification routes that look much like the one set up in Utah.
Rob Rickenbrode, senior director of teacher preparation strategies at NCTQ, said he thinks the Utah legislature is right to respond to a teacher shortage. But, while his organization believes alternative certification programs have their place, he questions part of the Utah initiative, particularly where subject matter knowledge tests are not comprehensive enough to determine whether a teacher could teach math, language arts, history and the multiple subjects they are responsible for in class.
"What is the appropriate bachelor's degree for an elementary teacher? They teach all subjects … and they have to have broad backgrounds in the liberal arts. In this case, since there is no direct bachelor's degree (for all subjects), the licensing test is very important
but unfortunately, Utah's test doesn't fit the bill."
Elementary education requirements are broad and specific, and Rickenbrode raises concerns especially about early reading — a skill seen as crucial to a student's success in higher grades.
"There is knowledge that an elementary teacher needs to have that they are most likely only going to get in an elementary education program — early reading specifically," he said. "That licensing test needs to make sure that, at the minimum, any prospective elementary teacher knows what they need to know teaching reading — on the content side."
He raises similar concerns at the high school level, noting that the three years of mentoring with a veteran teacher that Utah prescribes may not be enough. "It's not an adequate test. And just because someone knows biology doesn't mean they can teach biology to high school teachers," he said of a mentor's role. "You can't assume that person knows how to teach other adults to become a great teacher."
Rickenbrode said Utah needs to put plenty of resource into its mentoring relationship for the alternative teachers to work, but state lawmakers and educators must also determine just why they have such shortages in the first place.
He said they should consider how teaching stacks up against other professions in Utah in terms of salary and benefits, adding that Utah has lost 40 percent of its teaching force over five years.
"They have to really dig deep to figure out what is going on with retention. Otherwise, under the current plan, they'll have more teachers to hire from. But if nothing is done on the retention side, then they are kicking can down the road."
Lawmakers in Utah have called for more research on why the state has seen such significant teacher attrition rates. The University of Utah's Education Policy Center (UEPC) showed student enrollment up 10 percent, from 537,653 in 2007 to 643,625 in 2016. In a 2015 survey by the Utah School Boards Association, of 31 districts responding, 48 percent reported starting the school year without a certified teacher in every classroom, while 90 percent of those districts said their pool of qualified applicants was shrinking.
Utah's State Office of Education, in a study tracking attrition from 2011 to 2016, found the state following along in the same pattern as national rates. In 2011-2012, however, the teacher attrition rate in Utah doubled the national average with a loss of 15.5 percent.
According to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Post-Secondary Education, in its teacher shortage nationwide list, Utah reported in 2014-15 that shortages in chemistry, foreign language, math, physics and special education. In 2015-2016, the state expected shortages in foreign languages, math, physics and special education.
The UEPC found that enrollment in university teacher preparation programs across the state had dipped from 8,912 enrolled in 2011 to 6,860 in 2014. The center cited as factors influencing statewide teacher shortages as opportunities in other surrounding states, teacher pipeline recruitment, compensation and working conditions, including class size, support and professional development, and school climate.
A study by the website WalletHub.com found that Utah ranked No. 50 in the highest teacher-student ratio. It also ranked Utah No. 50 in the lowest per pupil spending.