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A beyond-capacity crowd gave overwhelmingly critical feedback to the state school board Tuesday evening over a new program to grant teaching licenses to would-be educators. The Academic Pathway to Teaching rule, adopted by the board in June, allows individuals without classroom training to work as teachers if they hold a bachelor's degree and can demonstrate mastery of a course subject.
The policy, which requires a candidate to be mentored by a veteran educator, is intended to recruit career professionals to the classroom and fill staffing gaps left by low teacher-retention rates and a decline in students studying education.
But many educators and educator groups have spoken out against the policy, saying it will exacerbate Utah's teacher shortage and harm student learning by devaluing teachers and the programs that train them.
"Instead of a fixing a leak in the dam, it's going to be plugging the hole with a stick of dynamite," said Roger Donohoe, a Hyde Park teacher who won a Huntsman Award for Excellence in Education in 2014.
Lincoln Elementary School science teacher Cara Baldree described the policy as "absolutely demoralizing and insulting" by implying that knowledge in a subject area makes a person an automatic teacher.
"Just because you comprehend third-grade math doesn't mean you can teach third-grade math," she said.
Members of the school board heard three hours of public testimony from a crowd that required overflow accommodations at the Utah Board of Education.
While some spoke in favor of the rule, including teachers who had used pre-existing alternate licensure programs to enter the profession, a large majority of speakers opposed the rule, including representatives from the Utah Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers Utah, the Utah Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators, the Utah Foreign Language Association, the Utah Council of Teachers of English and the Utah House Democratic Caucus.
Doug Corey, a Brigham Young University professor, said the new policy creates a double standard for students who enroll in traditional university education programs.
And university programs, he said, might be bypassed in the future for alternates that promise content knowledge at a quick turnaround instead of courses on classroom management and pedagogy.
"The new teacher-training programs will be three-week programs offered by private companies," Corey said.
Utah already lacks the resources, he said, to offer ongoing professional improvement to teachers. And candidates for the Academic Pathway to Teaching would face those same challenges without the years of training and classroom practice of their peers.
"That sounds like guaranteed poor outcomes and hurt students," Corey said.
Other commenters objected to the program's requirement of a teaching mentor without offering resources or incentives to veteran educators who would be burdened with training duties in addition to managing their own classrooms.
"If veteran teachers are given one more assignment without pay, you may well lose those teachers," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, a former teacher.
Her colleague Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, suggested systemic issues, like low funding and large class sizes, would need to be addressed before the licensure program could be successful.
But board member Leslie Castle questioned why the Utah House Democrats have not used their positions in the Legislature to address those issues.
"In the past, you've had that power and have not done that," she said.
Briscoe responded, saying "I have run legislation to fund public schools every year."
Castle and board Chairman David Crandall recently were defeated in their re-election bids by failing to earn the top two vote totals in the primary elections for their board seats.
Castle, in particular, drew opposition from the UEA, in part due to her support for the new teacher licensing route and her efforts to reform teacher discipline.
Sutherland Institute policy analyst Christine Cooke spoke in favor of the Academic Pathway to Teaching rule. She said it is unwise to shape policy based on tradition or the assumption that the "old way works best."
"The rule allows Utah to tap into an important pool of talent and ability," she said.
And Daniel Baker, a director of American Preparatory Schools, the private company that operates the network of American Preparatory Academy charters, said the policy is "another tool in the administrative toolbox."
He would never expect a veteran teacher to mentor a peer, he said, without offering a financial incentive or a flexible schedule.
"I don't like throwing out this whole rule because some people can't apply it effectively," he said.
But Heidi Matthews, recently elected Utah Education Association president, said she has witnessed firsthand how experienced teachers are expected to allocate their own time to help educators with alternative or provisional licenses, many who are "sunk from the get-go."
"What other profession does this?" she said. "We don't let someone work on our car, clean our teeth, unclog our drain we don't even let people cut our hair if they don't have a license that means something."
Crandall said the school board would be presented with a report of public feedback on the new rule before its August meeting.
Discussion on potential changes, if any, would occur at that time, he said.
"The rule, if there is no action by the board, would just take effect," he said.