Special Report
Teacher Preparation

Need a STEM Teacher? This District Trains Its Own

By Madeline Will — January 23, 2018 9 min read
Ashlee Clark, a chemistry teacher at Northwest Guilford High School, came to the job through Guilford County’s alternative-licensure program.
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Nearly every school district across the United States has struggled finding enough science, technology, engineering, or math teachers. Could one solution be for districts to recruit content-area experts and both train and license them themselves?

That avenue has been an answer to a persistent STEM teacher shortage in the Guilford County school system in Greensboro, N.C. The 72,000-student district became the first in the state to open an in-house licensure program in 2008—and it’s still one of only a handful of districts across the country with such a program.

That certification pathway has allowed the high-poverty district, which has schools in both urban and rural areas, to hire dozens of STEM teachers. While critics warn that such approaches risk lowering the bar for teacher preparation, officials in Guilford say the teachers they train are bringing real-world STEM experience to the classroom.

“We knew our field, we knew our content, but we didn’t really know how to teach,” said Ashlee Clark, a chemistry teacher at Northwest Guilford High School, who went through the district’s licensure program in the 2015-16 school year. Before entering the program, she was doing animal research in graduate school.

“Initially, it was kind of scary for me because it was really a crash course” into teaching, Clark said. “Something that most people spend four years studying, we had to cram in one year.”

But the alternative-certification program is designed to ease those with STEM backgrounds into teaching through ongoing, timely instruction and mentorship that extends past a teacher’s first year in the classroom.

“The whole purpose was to provide a very, very strong multifaceted structure of support for alternatively certified teachers,” said Amy Holcombe, who was formerly the executive director of talent development for the district. Before the program existed, she said, the district’s alternatively certified teachers weren’t receiving much support. Holcombe saw her own father, who left a career in engineering to teach math in Guilford County, break into tears two months into the job because he felt overwhelmed and isolated.

While the district’s overall teacher attrition rate was between 10 percent and 12 percent, it was 34 percent for alternatively certified teachers, Holcombe said.

Now, she said, teachers who go through the program have a network of support. For the past three years, nearly all the STEM teachers who went through the program have stayed in the district for a second year of teaching.

Ashlee Clark works with sophomore Mary Madison Bradley during class at her Greensboro, N.C., school. Clark was doing animal research in graduate school before joining the school system as a chemistry teacher.

Recruits interview with principals, and if offered a job, undergo an orientation for lateral-entry teachers—a term that encompasses qualified individuals who worked in or studied a non-education field—before they can enter the classroom. During the training, the district lets them know about their licensure options—which can include a university program leading to a master’s degree and a teaching license—but for many, Holcombe said, “our program is a perfect fit, because all they want is a license. They want to be able to teach—and teach right away.”

Those individuals start teaching and attend a class taught by district instructors one night a week. The classes are deemed “just in time” training, because the newbies learn tactics for classroom management, hosting a parent-teacher conference, and developing relationships with students as they need them on the job. On weekends, there are daylong sessions on special topics like diversity and equity or personalized-learning strategies. The new teachers in this program also receive regular on-site coaching for their first three years.

In the spring of the first year, there is a multiday retreat that goes deeper into pedagogy. Over five weeks in the summer, the teachers take in-depth courses focused on teaching and learning. The teachers must pass their Praxis exam within three years of their teaching license being issued, but the district encourages them to pass before graduating.

As the program has grown, Guilford County has split it into two cohorts of teachers: those who want to teach liberal arts subjects, such as foreign language, that also are in short supply—and those who will teach STEM subjects.

Over four school years, 124 STEM teachers have enrolled in the program, including the current class of 25. Among the 31 teachers who started in 2014-15, 71 percent stayed in the classroom past their third year. Guilford County’s goal—made in partnership with 100Kin10, a national nonprofit that is seeking to bolster the ranks of STEM teachers—is to recruit and prepare 150 STEM teachers by 2020.

Guilford’s program is made up of recent college graduates who majored in a STEM field and career-changers.

The former group is an area of active recruitment for the district. Guilford has a partnership with four historically black universities in the area—North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina Central University, and Bennett College, a private women’s school. Holcombe said these partnerships allow the district to tie its diversity-recruitment goals to its need for STEM teachers.

“Guilford County schools is a majority-minority district, so the people that we’re hiring—the talent and leaders that we’re putting in front of our students—look like our students, which we feel is a very good thing,” she said.

District recruiters will go to the colleges’ STEM-related departments to ask students to consider a career in teaching. A couple of professors were so persuaded by the district’s recruitment approach that they left their universities to teach K-12, said Holcombe, who helped start the lateral-entry program and is now the district’s executive director of grants acquisition.

The challenge is that many of the students being recruited know they could earn more outside of K-12 education, she said.

“What we’re competing against are students who are being given full rides to complete their doctorate in STEM areas. And what we’re offering them as an alternative is the opportunity to come work with K-12 students, teach in the classroom, work 60-70 hours a week for less pay than what they would be getting in a stipend from their university for going to school full time,” Holcombe said. “It’s a very hard sell. We really rely on people who have heart and passion and a calling for teaching STEM to students.”

The personal support that district recruiters give to students is a selling point, said Daylonda Lee, a biology teacher at Smith High School who went through the lateral-entry program in the 2013-14 school year.

She was originally a nursing major at North Carolina A&T State University, but when she became pregnant with her son, she started looking for other options. Teaching interested her, and a recruiter from Guilford County schools made sure she had the credit hours to graduate, let her try student-teaching, and helped her prepare for the interview process.

“I didn’t even know what lateral entry was,” she said. “Once I made that decision, they were supportive, they were helping me figure it out. It wasn’t like a stressor.”

Lee, who was named the district’s lateral-entry teacher of the year, is now pursuing her master’s degree to get a principal license. She credits the lateral-entry program with setting her up for a lifelong career in education.

“It was ... truly building that connection of how to be a great teacher, how to be effective,” she said.

Ensuring Quality

According to information collected by Stephanie Aragon, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, Guilford County is one of just a handful of districts nationwide that certify their own teachers without a university partnership. The San Francisco Unified school system has a similar one-year credentialing program focusing on training teachers in shortage-area subjects, including special education and bilingual education.

In the 2017 legislative session, Arizona and Kentucky, which have both struggled with teacher shortages, passed bills paving the way for district-sponsored certification. And in Minnesota, a bill that would have overhauled the teacher-licensing system and allowed school districts and charter schools to participate as alternative-preparation-program providers was vetoed by the state’s Democratic governor, Mark Dayton.

“As policymakers, it is our obligation and responsibility to ensure that long-term, professionally credentialed teachers have received the highest-quality preparation,” Dayton wrote in a letter explaining his veto of the bill, which was opposed by teachers’ unions.

And in October, the charter schools committee of the State University of New York’s board of trustees, one of two charter authorizers in the state, approved a new rule that will allow some charter schools to train and certify their own teachers. That move received strong opposition from some of New York’s top education officials, as well as the state’s major teachers’ union, which filed a lawsuit to block it.

The chief concerns of critics of these types of programs are that they could lower the bar for entry into the teaching profession, and that because training is focused on local curricula and practices, it may be too narrow.

Such programs need state oversight, with a focus on results, said Elizabeth Ross, the managing director of state policy for the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for teacher-preparation reforms.

She said districts need to make sure they’re considering how much these programs cost, how effective the graduates are in the classroom, and the impact on student achievement and growth.

“There are pieces of [Guilford’s program] that are very promising and attractive,” Ross said. “One of the risks is that we see programs like this start to proliferate without a good sense of the impact they are having on schools and students and the community.”

The district’s Holcombe said program graduates tend to be successful in the classroom, because of the tailored support they get. The district conducted a study a few years ago and found that teachers who went through Guilford’s lateral-entry licensure program had higher value-added scores in Algebra 1 (known as Math 1 in North Carolina) and middle school math than counterparts prepared in a traditional teacher-prep program or a different alternative licensure program. Lateral-entry teachers tied with their counterparts in value-added scores for biology.

“When we teach the preparation curriculum that they’re receiving from us, we know exactly what literacy priorities we have in the district, our approaches to teaching lots of different subjects. We can teach our own pacing guides, our own approaches to lesson planning,” Holcombe said. “Whereas the university has to teach more generally because they have students who could end up anywhere, we know where our teachers are teaching.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2018 edition of Education Week as N.C. District Trains Its Own STEM Teachers


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