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The Dual-Credit Dilemma: Teacher Qualifications

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Dual-credit programs have been hailed as a way to challenge high school students and boost their chances of finishing college. But a key stumbling block—finding qualified teachers—threatens to shutter programs in 19 states.

A ruling by the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges and universities across a big swath of the West and the Midwest, requires teachers who teach in dual-credit programs to hold master's degrees. That has leaders in small districts worried, since many of their teachers hold only bachelor's degrees.

In some places, it could be a matter of rejiggering class assignments. Many teachers in high schools hold master's degrees, but they might not be the ones who are teaching dual-credit classes. Cory Steiner, the superintendent of Northern Cass School District in Hunter, N.D., told InForum:

"It's going to create some problems for us. "We have teachers with master's degrees, but not necessarily in those classes. How will we get something that will benefit our kids, and do it with the staff we have?"

Larger districts are less likely to face a problem with the new ruling than are smaller districts, where there are fewer teachers with master's degrees. Steiner told InForum, for instance, that his district has a teacher with a master's in math, but adding dual-credit classes in social studies, speech or composition "could be a problem."

School officials have time to figure things out; The ruling gives them until September 2017 to comply. There are alternate ways to meet the new requirement, too. If teachers don't have a master's degree in the subjects they're teaching, they can clear the bar by showing they have 18 graduate credit hours in that subject.

Some rural and small-town districts have cobbled together other ways of dealing with the master's-degree shortages.

Recently, I spoke with Dan Mielke, who tried to protect dual-credit options for students in rural Oregon by establishing a cooperative called Eastern Promise in 2012. It found an alternative pathway for teachers without the disciplinary master's degrees that are often required in dual-credit programs.

The cooperative allowed teachers to teach dual-credit classes without a master's degree in the subject they're teaching, as long as they held a master's in another subject, and participated in professional learning communities led by college faculty.

That approach allowed teachers in 44 rural Oregon schools to earn "credit by proficiency" and continue to teach dual-credit courses to 2,000 high school students, Mielke told me. It also offered them a "superb professional development opportunity," he said. And it offered college credit to students who might otherwise have to travel 40 miles or more to take a university class, he said.

But state funding melted away this year, and now the partnership's future is uncertain as it looks for other sources of support, Mielke said.

The tension between ensuring access to college-level work for high school students and ensuring a supply of adequately trained teachers to offer that work plays out most dramatically in rural areas. Stay tuned as the field continues to grapple with this problem.

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