Marci Harvey never dreamed of being a teacher. She was a scientist - a recent graduate of the Ph.D. program at the University of South Carolina - when she got married and moved to the Triad and found herself looking for a job.
“It was kind of a fluke,” she says. “I saw an ad in the paper, it said ‘chemistry teacher needed, must have a license or be able to get one.’ And I thought, since I’ve got a degree in chemistry, I should be able to get a license.”
She interviewed and got the job, in the middle of the quarter. That was 17 years ago. Today, Harvey teaches chemistry at West Forsyth High School.
Her story is not uncommon. Lateral and alternative entry teachers make up about one-third of North Carolina’s workforce.
It works like this: let’s say someone has a computer science degree and ten years experience in RTP. Assuming she or he has a previous qualifying score on a test like the SAT or ACT, all someone needs is a school district willing to hire them.
Once they’re hired, it’s a half-dozen or so education classes taken at night or online through a university-based program or a Regional Alternative Licensing Center. Total cost is usually a few thousand dollars, but some programs have scholarships available.
One of those is NC STEP. It’s run by North Carolina New Schools and it’s designed to get professionals with science backgrounds into the classroom.
“They come in more mature, more ready to give back to students,” says Stacey Costello, NC STEP’s Director. “They really have a need to impact education and to promote their field, which is a good combination for them. So they have a different perspective coming in, and they bring that to the classrooms in which they teach.”
NC STEP requires its teachers to commit to three years in a North Carolina classroom after getting certified. Other lateral entry programs don’t have that same requirement.
“There are over 50 ways to get a teacher license in our state right now,” says Eric Guckian, the Governor’s Senior Education adviser. “And I have concerns about the quality of all of them. Let’s take the best in class and let’s try to attract the folks who are the most committed, the most effective, the most high-performing, into the profession.”
To this point, lateral entry teachers as a group are not the most effective or high-performing. According to research out of UNC-Chapel Hill (pdf), lateral entry teachers rank below average in student performance. And only about 40 percent stay on the job more than five years.
Michael Maher is the Assistant Dean for Professional Education and Accreditation at NC State. He says many lateral entry teachers come into teaching with a certain attitude, perhaps because they were experts in their field. “...they are going in to teach mathematics, and they know math inside and out and they will readily admit, but 'I’m not quite sure how this teaching thing works',” says Maher.
And teaching works differently than it did when they may last have been in school.
Turnover among all teachers rose by about two percent last year, with nearly 15 percent of the workforce leaving, according to numbers released by the Department of Public Instruction earlier this month.
That will put even more pressure on lateral entry programs to ramp up teacher production.
These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.