Proposed Bills Could Improve Teacher Quality in the Tar Heel State

Increasing teacher pay to improve teaching quality has grabbed media attention for months. But North Carolina’s General Assembly has been trying to figure out how to get better teachers into the classroom in other ways, too. Three proposed bills have a chance to make a difference. But what makes them stand out from other education proposals is that they focus on letting teachers skip the traditional path through education school.

Legislators in the current short session want to make it easier for teachers to enter the profession by removing bureaucratic barriers that unnecessarily restrict potential educators. The proposed changes may help improve teacher quality by pulling in non-traditional teachers with valuable experience—but the changes could also lower quality if they’re not well-crafted.

Two new bills in the House come on top of an important provision from last year in the Senate:

  • HB 634 would expand “lateral entry programs,” which prepare potential teachers to obtain a teaching license even if they did not earn a degree through an education school.

 

  • HB 681 would excuse military spouses who taught out of state and moved to North Carolina with their spouse from testing requirements for North Carolina teacher licenses.

 

  • SB 462 recommends the UNC system to consider adopting UTeach, a program that trains STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) college students to become high school STEM teachers.

Though it’s not guaranteed that the General Assembly will act on the bills this session, the bills may show the direction of future changes in education policy.

The provision with the biggest potential impact is SB 462. UTeach is a program that has expanded to 46 universities in 22 states and the District of Columbia from its origin at the University of Texas at Austin. It pulls STEM students into teaching, rather than taking aspiring teachers and training them in STEM subjects. So far, more than 3,000 graduates nationwide have gone through a UTeach program and nearly 7,000 students were enrolled in one as of spring 2017.

UTeach is a partnership between a university’s college of education and college of science. The basic idea is to streamline the education curriculum to make sure STEM students can earn a teaching certification within four years. UTeach students take courses on STEM teaching and learning rather than joining education students in their normal curriculum, said Kimberly Hughes, director of the UTeach Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, in a Martin Center interview. “Master teachers” guide students through their courses. After students complete the program and graduate, UTeach supports them for two years with feedback and mentoring.

For UTeach to be effective in North Carolina, it will need faculty support, according to Hughes. “You need to get buy-in from the faculty” in the education and science schools, she said. “If they’re not on board…it’s not worth it trying to shove something down their throats.”

While UTeach requires integration and input from an education school, HB 634 bypasses an education school’s control altogether with its proposed expansion of lateral entry programs. If it passes, the bill would mandate the State Board of Education to approve up to four lateral entry programs subject to meeting standards set by the Board. The programs could be from either the private non-profit or for-profit sectors.

In North Carolina’s current lateral-entry system, prospective teachers complete a licensure program through a college of education or a Regional Alternative Licensing Center controlled by the Department of Public Instruction. Lateral entry teachers are required to have at least 80 hours of classroom teaching experience, take teacher coaching sessions, and pass subject knowledge tests, among other requirements. They will need to hold a bachelor’s degree as well. In theory, these programs bring in aspiring teachers with the requisite knowledge of the subject they intend to teach.

But some aspiring teachers who already have teaching experience are prevented from re-entering the classroom because of state regulation. HB 681 would make it easier for military spouses to get a teaching license in by exempting them from testing requirements. If the military transfers the teacher’s spouse to a base in North Carolina and the teacher has at least three years of experience in the last five years, then the bill would waive testing requirements for a license. If the teacher does not have the necessary experience, then they would be eligible for a two-year license as they gain experience if their performance evaluations meet expectations.

North Carolina is one of five states considering bills that make it easier for military spouses to continue teaching, according to the Department of Defense’s State Liaison Office.

If all three bills become law, North Carolina public schools may have more competition for teaching positions. The overriding concern, however, is whether the increase in licensed teachers could pull down average teacher quality and harm student outcomes. A February report from the UNC system on teacher preparation shed some light on this problem: out-of-state teachers performed worse UNC system-trained teachers except in English instruction. (Of course, it is possible that UNC’s self-interest played a part in those findings.)

UTeach, on the other hand, may be more promising; the programs’ results appear to be nearly as good as those of the Teach for America program. (Teach for America is a national lateral entry program that selects only outstanding recent graduates, often from prestigious schools. The UNC study found that its participants outperformed all other teachers in North Carolina). Two research studies found that UTeach graduates improved math and science student outcomes far more than participants in other alternative teacher programs. But those studies may not be definitive because one study was done by UTeach itself, and the other only evaluated UTeach in Texas. Much of the program’s success could depend on how it’s designed—and the quality of STEM students who enroll.

If UTeach results suggest cautious optimism, teachers licensed through non-traditional methods and teachers trained out of state suggest skepticism. They haven’t yet shown equivalent success to teachers trained in North Carolina’s education schools. And they might be too few in number to affect overall teacher quality, anyway. Creating lateral entry programs that better prepare non-traditional teachers could help, but it will be incremental improvement rather than headline-grabbing change.

And quality concerns might not be the only problem with non-traditional teacher entry. Longevity could be a problem too, as public school teachers who graduated from a private or public North Carolina education school stayed in teaching longer than non-traditional teachers. After five years, for instance, almost 70 percent of UNC system-educated teachers still taught in a North Carolina public school, according to UNC system data. Only 54 percent of alternative entry teachers and 11 percent of Teach For America teachers did the same. If non-traditional programs cannot keep teachers in schools for the long term, the benefits of pulling in non-traditional teachers might not last.

Caveats aside, creating more pathways into teaching should be a benefit. Without question, it will reduce the average cost of producing teachers. It will also help fill some holes, such as the shortage of STEM teachers. And should education schools have monopoly control on entry into the public school system? Or can outside pressure push education schools to improve teacher training? At least with UTeach, cooperation between the education school and the science school could spark innovation. And innovation is key to fixing errors and getting better teachers for North Carolina students.