Utah’s Plan to Recruit Teachers: Help Wanted, No Experience Necessary

Experts say hiking pay, improving working conditions, and not ditching credentialing requirements would attract people to the job.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Jun 21, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

The state of Utah recently took an action that, if it were in the form of a help-wanted ad, might read: Teachers wanted. No experience necessary.

That’s because the Utah State Board of Education, faced with a shortage of teachers, voted last week to allow professionals with relevant experience in areas such as computer science or business to join the teaching ranks. A bachelor’s degree is the only entry-level qualification.

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The move, which won unanimous approval from the board, is designed not only to stem the exodus of teachers from the profession but to draw new ones into the classroom by relaxing the standards to get them there.

Education analysts, however, say the idea is a short-term solution to a longer-term paradox: how to get and keep quality teachers in a demanding profession with high standards and low pay.

Marla Kilfoyle, a manager at the advocacy group Badass Teacher Association, told TakePart the situation is the result of the near-constant “de-professionalization” of the teaching profession—along with standardized tests, assessments, and top-down mandates—that is driving teachers away. Administrators, Kilfoyle said, have come to believe that “anybody can do it.”

“Would they do this with doctors?” she said of Utah’s plans to hire people without teaching experience or advanced degrees in education. “I don’t think it’s a setup—I know it is. I hate to sound like a tinfoil hatter, but this is a manufactured crisis.”

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The move in Utah to draw people with in-depth knowledge into the classroom makes for an awkward balancing act, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“There are two desirable [requirements] everyone agrees on: Teachers who have high content knowledge are the best teachers, and teachers with strong teaching skills are the best teachers. Balancing those is a constant issue,” Carnevale said in an interview. “But you don’t want one and not the other. It shouldn’t be an either-or. It should be both.”

There’s no question that Utah has experienced a brain drain from its public school system.

According to the Utah State Office of Education, 42 percent of teachers bail out within their first five years of classroom work. More disturbing: About a third of them quit within their first year, according to the data.

Meanwhile, fewer Utah college graduates are becoming teachers, according to Deseret News. At the same time, Utah’s student population is exploding: Nearly 12,000 new students enrolled in the state’s public schools last year.

Under the Board of Education’s plan, prospective educators who work in what Carnevale calls “higher-focus” fields—math, science, or business, as opposed to English, social studies, or history—can become teachers with just a bachelor’s degree, provided they pass a background check, submit college transcripts, and take the state teacher-certification test.

If hired, they would have to undergo three years of supervision and monitoring by a “master teacher” before becoming licensed.

Yet there’s no mention in the plan of a salary hike for those teachers, and Carnevale says the plan reflects the constant struggle to attract teachers to a profession that pays less to its veterans than most college graduates earn in their first job.

While teaching offers relatively good job security, “competing on wages is tough to do,” making it harder to get and retain teachers “skilled in the craft of teaching,” Carnevale said. If the economy continues its upward trajectory, he said, salaries will rise, making it even harder to attract talent, because “the competition for college grads goes up.”

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But Kilfoyle said the low wages are part of “the atmosphere that’s being created by [administrators’] attempt to remake schools into a business model.” The fallout, she said, lands on black and Latino kids in urban areas, who tend to get teachers that quit the profession early and are replaced by less well-trained professionals who may not know how to reach them.

Hiring a teacher with knowledge of a subject but no teaching experience “is all well and good—he knows the content. But how does he deliver the content? How does he do a lesson plan?” Kilfoyle asked. Critical skills—including dealing with parents, controlling and managing a classroom, and finding ways to reach difficult students—“shouldn’t be on-the-job-training,” she said.

Utah isn’t alone in ditching credentialing requirments. Administrators in Alabama and Wisconsin have made similar moves, and other states are likely to follow suit.

“We’re struggling,” Mary Scott Hunter, a member of the Alabama State Board of Education, told AL.com in January about the decision to allow uncredentialed, part-time adjunct instructors to work in the state’s public schools. “It’s not ideal, but we just have to get teachers into the classroom.”

While states may be facing a real need for teachers, they shouldn’t take shortcuts or shortchange students, Kilfoyle said.

“At the end of the day, it hurts the kids,” she said. “All kids deserve a licensed, experienced teacher in front of them.”