Illinois Looking To Knock Down Barriers For Incoming Teachers

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Bill Healy/WBEZ
empty classroom
Bill Healy/WBEZ

Illinois Looking To Knock Down Barriers For Incoming Teachers

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Illinois education officials want to make it easier to become a teacher in the state.

On Wednesday, the Illinois State Board of Education proposed eliminating a basic skills test for some prospective teachers and allowing teacher aides and substitutes to become fully licensed teachers without going through a two-year university program, a move that higher education officials warned will water down standards.

The efforts are meant to address a statewide teacher shortage. Some 1,400 teacher positions remained vacant last school year, half of them in special education or bilingual education.

The proposals came out of a yearlong ISBE study of how to attract more teachers to the profession and will have to be written into a bill and approved by state lawmakers.

ISBE’s recommendation would allow paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, and others to earn their teacher licenses at “job-embedded” programs that would include mentorships. There has been a demand for the state to define new pathways into teaching, particularly for adults who may already be working in schools but can’t afford to take two years off to enroll in a traditional university program. For some of those workers, the basic skills test also has been a barrier.

Several university officials who oversee teacher preparation programs in the state spoke against what they called “the deprofessionalizing of the field.”

“These recommendations will only serve as a gateway for an underprepared Illinois educator workforce,” said Nancy Latham, executive director of the Council on Teacher Education at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

Latham warned the state’s most vulnerable students would be stuck with the least prepared teachers, and that teachers might be trapped in the school districts where they earned their credential. She said the effort to find teachers in the short term could backfire in the long term because “underprepared individuals who are left to learn on the job leave at much higher rates.”

Lathrop said she was speaking on behalf of the state’s public and private deans of colleges of education and the Illinois Association of Teacher Educators.

Latham and others said the teacher shortage could be better addressed by increasing minimum teacher pay, offering loan forgiveness programs, and improving conditions in schools such as large class sizes.

The state board also recommended eliminating a basic skills test for prospective teachers.

Currently, just 10 percent of prospective teachers take the state’s basic skills test. Others use their college entrance exams to prove they’ve mastered basic skills. But career changers do take the test, and many don’t pass. The problem is more severe for prospective black and Latino teachers.

Education officials are concerned the exam keeps out people who would make good teachers at a time when the state’s student population is increasingly diverse. Under the proposed change, anyone with a bachelor’s degree could use that as proof they’ve mastered basic skills.

The state board will continue to study whether there is any connection between scores on standardized exams and the effectiveness of teachers.

That’s important, said Stephanie Banchero, education program director at the Joyce Foundation, which helped fund the state’s yearlong study of the teacher shortage.

“I think it’s good that the state is going to take some time to look at, ‘What do we know correlates between good teaching — and what are the characteristics of somebody that will be a good teacher later?’” Banchero said.

Banchero points to evidence from Washington state that showed high scores on that state’s basic skills test correlated to higher student performance in science and math.

Illinois lawmakers will have to pass legislation to make the proposed changes.

Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at