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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education last month adopted a rule allowing schools to hire individuals with professional expertise in a subject but who may not have teaching experience.
But the rule, which board members favored in a unanimous vote, has sparked debate among teachers, administrators and various education groups both in favor and against the new policy.
Many opposed to it fear that it sets too low a standard for prospective educators, and that a lack of pedagogical training could detract from students' ability to learn.
Others say it's a step up from other current alternative routes to teacher licensure, providing a pathway to teaching for people with valuable expertise in various subjects.
Those and other viewpoints surfaced in a public hearing held Tuesday by the State School Board at the request of various education advocacy groups. Chairman David Crandall said the board will revisit the rule in its Aug. 12 meeting, but it's unclear what changes, if any, will be made.
If the rule is not modified, it could go into effect as soon as next month.
"There were a lot of comments directly related to the rule and probably even more that were probably beyond that, pointing to problems maybe in the teaching profession," Crandall said. "We appreciate all the comments that were made. We do listen."
The rule gives schools the option of hiring prospective educators who have workforce experience in a content area, though teaching experience isn't required. To qualify for the job, applicants must have a bachelor's degree or higher in their field, submit college transcripts, pass Utah's test required for teacher certification and a background check, and complete an ethics review.
Once hired, they must undergo at least three years of supervision and mentoring from an experienced teacher as designated by the school. After that, education leaders can grant the person a teaching license.
The rule, called the Academic Pathway to Teaching, could become one of a variety of alternative licensure options currently used by school administrators in hiring nontraditional teachers.
State School Board member Leslie Castle said the new rule was originally intended to provide a route more rigorous and rewarding than other alternative pathways.
"We're trying to upgrade who we allow to come into our classrooms," Castle said.
Other board members see it as a way to widen the pipeline of new educators for schools affected by an intensifying statewide teacher shortage. Five years ago, 2,417 new educators entered the classroom, but by 2015, only 58 percent of them remained, according to data from the Utah State Board of Education.
That shortage is most acute in subjects such as math, science, computer science and technical trades. And for schools in rural areas, talent can be especially hard to find, Castle said.
But some say the rule is only a temporary fix to a systemic issue, falling short of addressing a complex mixture of low teacher compensation, burdensome policies, large class sizes and other issues contributing to low teacher retention.
"Until you focus on the underlying reasons why people are leaving the profession, recruiting will not solve the problem permanently," said Doug Corey, a professor in BYU's department of math education and former president of the Utah Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators.
"Retaining one teacher to make it a career is worth recruiting 10 short-time teachers and is so much better for students because there's a better chance that that teacher will become a true master at their craft," he said.
The new rule also drew ire from organizations such as the Utah Teacher Association, the Utah chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, and the Utah House Democratic Caucus. Many of them expressed concerns that it sets too low an expectation for incoming educators, putting student learning at risk.
"Our students deserve a high-quality teacher ready on Day 1," said Heidi Matthews, who became president of the UEA this month. "Sure, content knowledge is important. But it is far more important that the person in front of the class is able to reach each individual student."
"It seems incongruous to us that while the same time the state is raising the standards for the students, we're lowering them for the teachers," said Kim Irvine, a former president of the Utah Council of Teachers of English.
But no school is obligated to hire new teachers through the rule, especially if they lack the resources to train them. Some school administrators said the extra autonomy gives them another tool in finding educators that meet the needs of individual classrooms.
"Our directors, our principals, those who run our local (schools), you have the responsibility, knowing what's happening in your classrooms, to verify that this person is prepared to teach in your classroom. If not, don't hire them," said Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.
Cindy Phillips, executive director of Weilenmann School of Discovery in Park City, said the new rule has "significant advantages" over current policies, giving schools "the opportunity of hiring an individual with demonstrated depth of content knowledge (who is) willing to submit to customized (school) requirements to learn pedagogical skills."
April Thompson is a science teacher at Lakeview Academy in Saratoga Springs. She majored in molecular biology in college and became a teacher through another alternative route to licensure.
It was a lengthy, expensive and "bureaucratic" process that seemed to discourage her from attaining her goal of becoming a teacher, not to mention already living on a teacher's salary while being a single parent to five children, Thompson said.
That's why additional options are needed for incoming teachers, even if it means acquiring pedagogical training when entering the classroom, she said.
"I think having the heart of a teacher means that you're willing to learn," Thompson said. "I love what I do. I could have made a lot more money (outside the classroom). … But my heart is in the classroom, my heart is the students, and it's so frustrating to be told over and over and over again that I just couldn't do it when I knew I could."