A glimpse at Bluffton High School’s course schedule shows just how seriously it is taking a mandate to prepare students for college. Students can choose from 18 college courses to take during the school day, and those courses enroll dozens of the 452 students at the school 25 miles south of Fort Wayne.
But new rules could knock those course offerings down to just one: precalculus.
The rule changes are meant to bolster the quality of teaching in “dual-credit” courses, which can count for both high school and college credit, by restricting who can teach them. But they could have serious unintended consequences in Bluffton and across Indiana.
“We were told, ‘Push for dual credit, push for dual credit, we need to be doing more,’” said Bluffton Principal Steve Baker. “We feel like the rug is being pulled from underneath us.”
Indiana law requires high schools to offer dual-credit courses as a way to ensure that graduates are prepared for college, and high schools partner with local colleges to design the courses and decide who can teach them. Last year, 2,908 teachers — with a range of credentials — taught nearly 3,500 dual credit courses in high schools across the state.
But in Indiana and 19 other states, a third-party group called the Higher Learning Commission governs many elements of the courses. That group recently announced that starting in 2017, dual-credit teachers will have to have master’s degrees in the subjects they teach or have extensive training in those subjects and a master’s degree in another area.
The decision to raise the bar for dual-credit teachers comes at a time when Indiana has veered away from pushing teachers to earn master’s degrees—and when some districts say they are having trouble finding enough teachers at all in certain subjects.
“If it happens and it stays that way, it would just be one of the biggest mistakes and most harm we’ve done to our students in quite some time,” Baker said about the rule change.
Baker is not alone in his distress, according to Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. He said school leaders across the state had told him the change would hurt their ability to offer the college-level courses.
“Every—literally every—principal I’ve talked to, and in some cases superintendent, has said we’ll have a very, very limited amount of teachers able to teach dual credit,” Bess said.
The Higher Learning Commission, one of six organizations that accredit American colleges and universities, said in a written statement that the rule change is meant to ensure that college courses are challenging no matter where they are taken.
“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,” the statement said. “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.”
Indeed, concerns about quality control in dual-credit courses have grown as states have expanded the courses rapidly, inspired by a growing body of research showing that they benefit all kinds of students, including those who might not seem ready for college-level work.
But Janet Boyle, executive director of the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis, said the commission’s focus on teachers’ credentials is not the best way to ensure consistent high quality.
“Does having a master’s make you automatically a better teacher? There’s not a lot of proof on that one,” she said. “But at the same time, more education is always good. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.”
A better approach, Boyle said, is one that many schools operating dual-credit programs in the state already take: collaborating vigilantly with university partners on teacher training, curriculum, final exams and even textbooks for their classes.
Boyle said university officials across the state are as concerned as high school principals about the potential impact of the Higher Learning Commission’s rule change. But she said it’s hard to come up with a local solution to a problem introduced by an outside organization.
The Higher Learning Commission responded to questions about why the rule change occurred in a statement. It delivered additional guidance to states Thursday, but Boyle said it wasn’t as clear-cut as she was hoping. Mainly, the updated guidelines reaffirmed the commission’s stance on faculty qualifications.
“There are still some holes in things,” Boyle said. “This is the beginning of Indiana’s discussion … so what do we do about this? Do we push it any more? Do we let it stand?”
If the rule stands, Boyle said another solution could be for legislators to reinstate incentives for teachers to pursue master’s degrees, which they removed in 2011 as part of a broader overhaul of how Indiana teachers are paid. Universities could also develop short-term courses to give teachers with master’s degrees the credentials they need to teach dual-credit courses in their subject, she said.
“I think it’s going to take a coalition of both the (Indiana) Commission on Higher Education and (Indiana) Department of Education and universities and high schools to hammer some of this out,” Boyle said. “There needs to be a leadership group on this to make sure there are policy changes, if we need to go to the General Assembly. I think you’re going to see people pulling together on this.”
Boyle is scheduled to speak to legislators about the issue Oct. 19, but Indiana’s Commission on Higher Education is expected to hold a meeting of its Dual Credit Advisory Council to discuss the issue further with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz on Tuesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
For now, Baker and other principals are starting to figure out what it would take to get their dual-credit teachers to meet the new standards. Many of them share a feeling of resentment toward the Higher Learning Commission, which they believe failed to consider students, teachers, and families when setting the new rule.
“This is a faceless organization that has handed down some very unfair rules, and now we’re left scrambling on how to deal with it,” Baker said. “I’m not really sure people understand how much this has dealt a blow to high schools who have worked really hard to get here.”
Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.