As the cost of higher education soars, it’s heartening to hear of universities and professors looking for new ways to meet student needs. Localized innovations allow universities and reformers to experiment and find out what works. And those small changes, once proven, can lead to big shifts in how universities operate. This kind of trial and error is the hallmark of America’s federalist system—allowing states to act as laboratories of democracy.
Universities, too, can be laboratories—of innovation in post-secondary and adult education. Students, taxpayers, and employers will all be better off if universities work to discover better ways to educate students in their programs.
One North Carolina program is an example of this innovation in action. Pathway to Practice is a new online, competency-based program for lateral-entry teachers in North Carolina, offered jointly by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. The program takes 12 to 18 months to complete and tuition is less than $5,000 per student. In its first year, 54 students have enrolled from two dozen rural and urban districts across the state, including Wake, Charlotte/Mecklenburg, Cullowhee, McDowell, and Tyrrell.
The program was created to help address North Carolina’s teacher shortage, particularly in rural and low-income counties, by providing a new avenue for licensing teachers. “Lateral entry” teachers are individuals who have content knowledge and have been hired to fill teaching vacancies but aren’t yet licensed to teach in North Carolina. The students enrolled in the program are already working in classrooms across the state. Focusing on lateral entry is an innovation in itself: more than 90 percent of North Carolina teachers come through traditional bachelor’s degrees programs in schools of education. Only about 4.5 percent of North Carolina’s teachers make a lateral entry into the profession—often later in life as a second career.
One of the program’s creators, professor Diana B. Lys of UNC-Chapel Hill, is particularly excited that lateral-entry programs can have an immediate effect on the classroom. “Growing traditional teacher preparation programs may yield results in 2-4 years, [which is] still needed and still incredibly valuable. But with Pathways to Practice we are able to support lateral entry teachers in classrooms today, working with NC school children,” she said.
Pathway to Practice is also different in its delivery. Unlike traditional university programs, Pathway to Practice is competency-based. Competency-based education is an approach that hinges on students’ mastery of a concept instead of how much time they spend learning it; it’s a flexible, learning-based system instead of a rigid, time-based system. Competency-based education allows universities to harness technological advances in ways that student credit hour models do not. When the focus is on mastery of the material, education can be personalized, self-paced, and happen anytime, anywhere.
The Pathway to Practice program is one of only a few joint programs offered at UNC system schools. As I wrote in 2016, such collaborations across campuses offer several benefits. They increase student access to courses that aren’t offered at their own institutions. They help schools use resources more efficiently. And they foster collaborations between professors who wouldn’t ordinarily work together. To date, most joint programs are focused on foreign language learning—an appropriate response to declining student demand and difficulties in offering students enough courses to fulfill major requirements. Other fields will small enrollments could also benefit from such programs.
Since the program is new, its creators rely on student evaluations to shape the program’s future. Michael Maher, assistant dean for professional education and accreditation at NC State, said, “Initial feedback from participants has been positive. One of the great things about the program is our ability to make changes quickly and efficiently. As the first cohort has progressed, we’ve already identified areas we can improve on and have made those changes to the program.”
The program will also be evaluated in the same way as traditional programs. Students are required to submit edTPA scores prior to program completion. (edTPA is a performance-based, subject-specific assessment used by teacher preparation programs throughout the United States). The program’s creators also plan to evaluate teacher and student (value add) performance ratings and to get feedback via survey or focus group from program graduates to identify what they liked and what needs improvement. Such testing is necessary to ensure that new programs are effective additions or replacements to what already exists.
Evaluation is especially important in the case of lateral-entry teaching programs. As Terry Stoops pointed out in this article for the Martin Center, alternative-entry teachers have historically underperformed their traditionally-trained counterparts across all grades and subjects. But a program like this one, which focuses on concept mastery, may be able to close the gap by ensuring that all graduates have acquired the necessary tools for successful teaching.
It’s too early to say whether this new program will usher in more changes in teacher preparation. But slow, careful, iterative innovation can certainly help lead the way. Pathways to Practice is an excellent example of how measurable, replicable, scalable programs can be tested and implemented to make UNC more efficient and effective. Students and reformers should welcome more innovations like this one.
Jenna A. Robinson is president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.