Utah has a severe teacher shortage, so it decided to do something about it. Under a new rule, schools can now hire people to teach who have no training in the profession. None whatsoever.

This is just the newest piece of evidence that the supposed national initiative started by the 2001 No Child Left Behind law to ensure “highly qualified” teachers in every classroom is at best unsuccessful and at worst a sham.

In June, the Utah Board of Education approved a new rule that would make it easier for schools to fill teaching vacancies by allowing them to hire people who can meet some minimum criteria, including having a bachelor’s degree, paying the applicable licensing fee and passing a test. Veteran teachers are supposed to mentor the new teachers for a few years, though how many will want to take on that responsibility is unclear.

Education officials in the state have been trying to figure out why 2 in 5 teachers leave the state’s public schools within five years, as the Salt Lake Tribune reported here, and have asked researchers to help them.  The Utah State Office of Education says that 42 percent of new teachers quit within five years, and most districts report openings at the beginnings of every school year. Officials said there are numerous reasons for the shortage, including a decline over the past several years in college graduates with education degrees and slow recruiting.

Last month, education officials held hearings on the new rule in which veteran teachers blasted the initiative. The Tribune said:

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.

Board members were quoted as defending their decision. The newspaper quoted board Vice Chairman David Thomas as saying, “I don’t view this as an attack on traditional teachers.”

Working teachers, however, have felt under attack for years now in the era of corporate school reform in which many policymakers have targeted teachers as being singularly responsible for poor academic performance by students. Polls show that teacher morale is the lowest it has been in years, and teacher shortages have been reported in states across the country. And Utah isn’t the first state to look at hiring non-trained teachers as a remedy. In Alabama, for example, the state Board of Education early this year passed a resolution allow the hiring in many public school classrooms of non-trained, non-certified “adjunct” teachers who have only a high school degree or equivalent. College degree not required.

While saying they want every student to have a high-quality teacher, policymakers have taken steps that don’t match the rhetoric.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which was the K-12 education law of the land until it was replaced in December 2015, required that all classes have “highly qualified teachers.” Though there is no broad consensus on a definition, NCLB said they were teachers who had a bachelor’s degree and full state certification while demonstrating knowledge of the subject matter taught. The idea was to ensure that all students had qualified teachers, especially those in high-poverty schools, which, a 2012 Stanford University study showed, are 3 to 10 times as likely to have uncertified, not fully prepared teachers as students in mostly white and affluent schools.

But just after then-President George W. Bush signed NCLB into law early in 2002, the Education Department issued a ruling saying that teachers in training could be designed as “highly qualified” by expanding the original language of the law to include trainees in alternative programs who were “making satisfactory progress” toward completing the full requirements for state certification. Congress continued to allow teachers in alternative programs — including Teach For America, which gave new college graduates five weeks of summer training before placing them in high-needs schools — to be considered highly qualified.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced NCLB last December, has its own problems with teacher preparation, according to Kenneth Zeichner, a professor of teacher education at the University of Washington at Seattle, who wrote in this Answer Sheet post that, among other things, “Provisions in the legislation for the establishment of teacher preparation academies are written to primarily support nontraditional, non-university programs such as those funded by venture philanthropists.”

Ultimately, while ensuring “highly qualified” teachers in every classroom is commonly cited as an admirable goal for education policymakers to pursue, they somehow find a way not to.