College & Workforce Readiness

New Teacher Requirements Jeopardize Dual-Credit Classes

By Catherine Gewertz — October 13, 2015 5 min read
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A new rule that threatens to hobble or shutter dual-enrollment programs in 19 states has sparked widespread objections from educators who fear it could undermine students’ chances of going to college.

A ruling by the Higher Learning Commission, a Chicago-based group that accredits colleges and universities across a big swath of the West and the Midwest, requires high school teachers of dual-credit courses to have a master’s degree. If that advanced degree isn’t in the subject they’re teaching, teachers must have earned 18 graduate credits in that subject.

Whether provided online, in high schools, or on college campuses, dual-enrollment programs allow students to earn high school and college credit simultaneously by taking college-level courses.

The commission made its ruling on June 26, but few on-the-ground educators knew about it until it was published in final form on Oct. 1. It goes into effect in September 2017.

Now, district leaders are worried, since dual-enrollment programs are soaring in popularity, and some of their high school teachers may not qualify to teach those classes.

At an Oct. 6 meeting of the Indiana Dual Credit Advisory Council, Todd Bess, the executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said that the ruling could “decimate” dual-enrollment programs. Some principals have told him that up to 90 percent of their teachers wouldn’t qualify to teach dual-enrollment courses under the new rule, Bess said.

The co-chairwomen of the Indiana panel, Teresa Lubbers, the higher education commissioner, and Glenda Ritz, the K-12 schools chief, called the meeting because they’ve heard from many educators who are worried about the ruling’s impact in a state where dual-enrollment coursetaking has doubled since 2011. About 66,500 high school students took the courses in 2014 and earned 360,000 credit hours, according to state data.

Measuring Quality by Degree

The Indiana officials also released statistics, similar to other states’, showing that students who take dual-enrollment courses are more likely to earn honors diplomas, enroll in college, and stay in college than peers who don’t.

Dual-enrollment advocates in Minnesota were circulating similar data as they prepared for a legislative hearing on Oct. 8 that was sparked by concern about the Higher Learning Commission’s decision. One of the criticisms of the ruling is its use of a master’s degree as a proxy for good teaching.

“I strongly disagree with the HLC that quality teaching equals having an advanced degree in your field,” Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change in St. Paul, Minn., wrote in an email. Nathan helped write the 1985 law that made Minnesota the first in the country with a statewide policy allowing dual-credit courses.

In a June letter to the commission expressing Indiana’s objections to the new rules, Ken Sauer, the state’s chief academic officer for higher education, noted that teachers of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, which qualify for college credit if students pass the corresponding exams, aren’t required to have master’s degrees.

The Higher Learning Commission, one of six regional agencies that accredit postsecondary institutions nationwide, explained its move in a statement issued with the ruling. It said that its decision simply “states explicitly in policy what has been a long-standing expectation"—that teachers of college-level courses hold at least a master’s degree. The policy “clarifies” that those without a master’s degree in the discipline they’re teaching need to have at least 18 graduate credit hours in that discipline.

“The requirement ensures that students, including dual-credit students, have a faculty member who has college-level expertise in the subject matter of the class,” the statement says. “An expert faculty member is a critical element in ensuring that dual-enrollment students have a college experience that is as rigorous as the college experience they would have had by taking the same class on campus from a college faculty member. A college or university must assure that faculty members teaching dual-credit courses hold the same minimal qualifications as the faculty teaching on its own campus.”

Complying with the new ruling could prove challenging.

Mike Martin, the principal of Hawley High School, which enrolls 424 students in grades 7-12 in rural Minnesota, said that all his teachers have master’s degrees, typically in education or curriculum and instruction, but not in the disciplines they’re teaching.

“For our teachers to go out and find master’s degrees in the subjects they’re teaching is not an easy task, particularly in some subjects,” Martin said.

Luckily, all of Martin’s teachers have the required 18 graduate credits in their subject areas. But as a few approach retirement, he worries that it could be tough to find replacements who meet the commission’s threshold.

If he has to downsize his dual-enrollment offerings, he fears that some students will be less able to afford college. In a recent tally, he found that four of his students saved an average of $20,000 each and completed college in less than four years because of dual-credit courses.

In some districts, principals might have to rethink class assignments, while in others, there might be no teachers qualified to lead the classes.

‘Concurrent Enrollment’

Those situations represent difficult but necessary growing pains for the rapidly expanding world of dual-credit coursework, according to Adam I. Lowe, the executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. That organization defines dual enrollment as coursework that offers simultaneous high school and college credit. It refers to courses taught for college credit by high school teachers, on high school campuses, as “concurrent enrollment” programs.

“This is fundamentally the most critical challenge concurrent-enrollment programs are facing today,” he said in an email. “Some will significantly shrink in the transition, but all are faced with a need to build a pipeline of instructors with sufficient credentials into the future.”

All six regional accrediting agencies have long expected teachers of college courses to have advanced degrees, but that expectation has often not been made explicit, Lowe said. The agencies’ rules have been getting more specific in recent years, as concerns crop up about the quality of courses and instruction, especially as the popularity of online study grows, he said.

Increasingly since 2008, states are writing their own policies to ensure course quality and teacher qualifications for dual-enrollment programs, said Jennifer Zinth, who has been studying the issue for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based research group.

According to a recent ECS analysis, six states already specify that teachers in such programs must have a master’s degree. Many others are less specific, saying teachers must meet postsecondary requirements for faculty or adjunct instructors.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Dual-Credit Classes Put at Risk by Ruling

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