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Nearly three dozen people with little or no teaching experience have become licensed educators in Utah so far under a much-debated new policy that took effect in August.

By Annie Knox

For the Deseret News

One month into this school year, about 200 Juab High School students lack the main thing they need to learn to fix broken tractors and irrigation systems: a teacher.

After weeks of fruitless searching for a qualified instructor, Principal Royd Darrington is planning to hire an engineer who never has guided a classroom or managed scores of teens at a time. The untrained job applicant in Nephi isn't alone.

Thirty-one people with little or no teaching experience have become licensed educators so far under a much-debated Utah policy that took effect in August, according to Utah State Board of Education data from last week. The policy, aimed at addressing a statewide teacher shortfall, issues teaching permits to those with bachelor's degrees who pass a subject test and clear a background check.

The Academic Pathway to Teaching puts specialists at the head of classrooms instead of substitutes who may lack teaching credentials and expertise, the board maintains. But critics contend learning will stall under teachers whose only experience comes after they're hired.

“Am I scared to death about some of the realities? Yeah. It’s scary to bring somebody into a building without experience,” said Darrington. But under the new route, “I can still salvage somebody who has industry experience, while hopefully being able to support them.”

Utah joins several other states in relaxing teacher requirements amid a nationwide shortage. A 2016 Oklahoma law allows career people with four-year degrees to teach subjects within their field. Wisconsin also has allowed teachers to renew temporary licenses, even if they haven’t passed exams required for an extended permit.

Instead of further relaxing the rules, the Utah Legislature may intervene to tighten them. One lawmaker is seeking to require more training before newcomers can permanently join the workforce of 28,000 teachers in the Beehive State. That’s after a trial period of two years in a school.

The new path approved Aug. 12 requires supervision from a seasoned teacher, and it’s up to individual districts and charter schools to train and evaluate the new crop. It’s a streamlined version of longtime teaching certificate programs for people who don’t have education degrees. The existing permits require varying degrees of classroom preparation.

In Ogden, administrators are considering hiring a handful of teachers under the new route, but none are on the payroll just yet. The applicants are still completing their paperwork.

“It’s not like the floodgates have opened,” said Jessica Bennington, human resources administrator for the Ogden School District. Her district is recruiting teaching school graduates as well.

For the inexperienced hires, Bennington is planning to require twice-a-month training sessions on how to craft lesson plans that spark students’ curiosity, plus additional seminars in the summertime.

The new fast track to a license “will be one of those things superintendents can use when they’re desperate and they can’t find somebody through the traditional route,” said Linda Hansen, a member of the State School Board. The board may soon overhaul the way it credentials teachers, Hansen said. It has put together a task force to study the issue.

But Francine Johnson, associate dean over graduation, licensing and accreditation at Utah State University’s College of Education, isn’t so sure. Several budding educators in the Logan program are forgoing education coursework to take other classes, Johnson said, telling professors they don’t want to waste time completing the now-unnecessary coursework on guiding learning and managing youngsters.

“The (Academic Pathway to Teaching) totally removes any requirement for teacher preparation to be involved,” Johnson said. “In our opinion, it’s created a two-tier system.”

One lawmaker wants to bridge the gap. Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, the former president of Weber State University, has drafted a bill requiring additional teaching assessments before the board can issue a long-term license.

The measure, Millner recently told an interim education committee, is geared at teachers who come through traditional programs as well as alternate routes to “ensure that they have competency.” The panel is expected to further discuss the bill in November.

Others, such as Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, have said the trick to attracting and retaining teachers is to raise their base pay. An average elementary school instructor in Utah receives a starting salary of $35,000, according to the Division of Workforce Services.

Poulson and her colleagues want more information before making any decision. They have directed researchers at the Utah Education Policy Center to study why roughly 2 in 5 Utah instructors leave the profession before they hit the five-year mark, as the research team reported in July.

Their analysis of U.S. government data from 2012 and 2013 revealed that Utah teachers with one to three years of experience are leaving their jobs faster than the national average. Utah lost 11 percent of those instructors, compared with 7 percent nationally.

Those who left reported a number of reasons, which included “personal life factors” such as moving, health issues and having a baby. Others cited dissatisfaction with their salary and job benefits, or pointed to other career factors.

The center housed at the University of Utah is conducting more studies on preparation and demand for teachers, and plans to release the findings in batches over the next year, said center director Andrea Rorrer.

“We’re looking not only at what is happening,” Rorrer said, “but why. We think that’s the part we need to be attentive to.”

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Statistical models aside, anecdotal evidence shows more and more people are looking to pivot from other careers to education, said Christopher Koch, president of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which is based in Washington, D.C.

“We are definitely seeing an uptick” in people turning to alternate license programs like Utah’s Academic Pathway to Teaching, Koch said.

It’s a trend that has Darrington, the Juab principal, feeling at once skeptical and grateful.

“I would be out of luck without it,” he said. “But at the same time, is it the best solution?”