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Let’s Get It Right Together: Tapping Educators’ Expertise for Successful State Policy

This article appeared in the “Regional Roundup” newsletter of the Council of State Governments West and is reprinted with permission. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

Utah is grappling with many of the same education challenges plaguing other states: high teacher turnover; persistent staffing shortages in key fields, demographic areas, and districts; inadequate access to performance data; and the list goes on. As legislators work to address these challenges, they stand the best chance of success if they develop solutions in collaboration with professional educators. Without the benefit of educator perspectives, well-meaning legislators risk developing and implementing policy that will not adequately address these challenges, and may even contribute to them.

To help inform this work, the state chapters of AACTE recently developed a set of State Policy Statements to Enhance Teacher Preparation that capture a consensus view of the priority areas for educator preparation policy. The 45 state chapters, representing more than 1,100 educator preparation providers (EPPs), spent several months discussing common challenges and proposing solutions before reaching agreement on the final policy statements.

The recommendations include “policy asks” to articulate clearly what is needed in each of three overarching priority areas: (a) respect educators as professionals, (b) strengthen the educator pipeline, and (c) improve data systems. Recent developments in my state of Utah provide a useful illustration of why these recommendations are needed. Two examples in particular are worth mentioning.

Proposed Statewide Data System for Educator Preparation

In Utah, as in many other states, legislators are proposing a new statewide assessment system for educator preparation programs as part of the state’s commitment to continuous improvement. The idea of continuous improvement as informed by assessment data is simply good practice, and something EPPs have historically done. Utah’s children deserve effective teachers, and a statewide assessment system can help ensure that every teacher is held to high standards – but only if policy makers hold those who are on alternative pathways to licensure to the same standards.

Effective collaboration among legislators, educators, and other stakeholders in the early drafting of policy that impacts children and families is critical. The development of Utah’s new statewide assessment system provides an example of what can happen when this does not happen. Educators from across the state have only recently weighed in on the draft policy, which has resulted in a significant revision of the implementation timeline, beginning in fall 2018 rather than the proposed fall 2017. This delay will allow time to plan for statewide implementation and collection of data to inform many important decisions. Collaboration is also critical concerning what the assessment will look like, whether there will be a choice of assessments, how students and/or EPPs will be held accountable for the results of the assessment, and other important areas where multiple perspectives and areas of expertise are needed.

The AACTE recommendations make several useful “policy asks” relevant to this situation, including holding all preparation programs and pathways to clear, consistent, and high standards; requiring all candidates who complete these programs to meet equally high expectations to enter the field; and consulting teacher educators when policies regarding the teaching profession are being discussed, written, and finalized.

Fast-Track Alternative Routes to Licensure Can Be Problematic

In Utah, the new Academic Pathway to Teaching (APT) has caused quite a stir for its fast-track approach to filling school staffing needs. As of June 2016 (under Utah Administrative Rule R277), this pathway allows individuals who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree and passed a content knowledge test to apply for and receive a Level 1 state teaching license for elementary or secondary concentrations. Schools can then hire these individuals to teach under the supervision of a master teacher. The APT license is valid for 3 school years and may be extended for up to 2 more years if the individual is having trouble meeting Level 2 license requirements.

The APT is an easy but dangerous solution to addressing educator workforce needs. Pathways like the APT lack critical components of preparation addressing pedagogy, classroom management, children with disabilities, child and adolescent development, and English language learning, to name several. Allowing underprepared teachers in front of classrooms not only places Utah’s school children at risk but contributes to the erosion of the teaching profession – a counterproductive strategy for strengthening the educator pipeline. (For a more productive view of progress toward enhancing the educator pipeline in Utah, see this recent article.)

In addition to holding all preparation pathways to consistent expectations and requiring all new teachers to meet the same high standards, the AACTE policy statements recommend that all teachers of record be required to complete an accredited, professional preparation program. Failing to hold all programs and teachers to high standards increases inequity and further stratifies educational systems where some students win and some lose. Utah prioritizes prospective teachers’ access to jobs over the quality of their preparation by authorizing APT licenses with differentiated measures that lower license requirements and, consequently, standards. A more positive model can be found in states such as California, Hawaii, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming, which have state partnership agreements with the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation that hold EPPs to high standards that serve students and families well.

I encourage state legislators nationwide to consider the AACTE state policy recommendations as they shape laws and regulations around educator preparation. I look forward to collaborating with our state legislature to help ensure the voices of professional educators are heard in developing education policy to best serve Utah’s deserving children and families, an outcome to which we can all agree.

Melanie Agnew is dean of the School of Education at Westminster College (UT) and president-elect of the Utah Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

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Melanie Agnew

Westminster College