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While 27,000 sounds like a large number of new teachers at the beginning of every school year, it’s not enough. Teacher shortages across the state have districts scrambling.
Simultaneously, the average length of a classroom teaching career is getting shorter. The need to get teachers certified quickly without sacrificing the quality of their preparation is one of many perplexing issues Texas and other states are facing.
According to the nonprofit public education initiative Educate Texas, the state has 231 educator preparation programs (EPPs). Alternative certification and post-baccalaureate programs are now as common as traditional pathways through colleges and universities.
“Texas is definitely in a unique space,” Educate Texas Deputy Director of Policy Priscilla Aquino Garza said. “We’ve opened up the ability to become a teacher significantly.”
Increased access is great, Garza said, but EPPs must simultaneously make sure that the people who end up in front of students are highly qualified. While pathways into the profession have multiplied, State regulations do not currently ensure that new teachers are truly prepared.
The Texas Teacher Preparation Collaborative is an initiative of Educate Texas, which itself is a public-private initiative of Communities Foundation of Texas. It brought together 14 education leaders from around the state including teachers, principals, superintendents, deans of colleges of education, chief executive officers of alternative certification providers, and nonprofit organizations.
By rounding up people with a common goal – putting well-equipped teachers in Texas classrooms – the Collaborative encouraged dialogue and sharing between entities that tend to stick to their own silos.
“It reminds you how many people want to make things better,” Garza said. To do that, sometimes the answer was as simple as connecting to resources. “Good behavior between all the key players doesn’t cost money. You don’t need a million dollars to have a conversation.”
Other issues are more complicated and potentially costly. The Collaborative was chaired by Jim Nelson, former Texas Education Agency Chair, executive director of AVID, and superintendent of Richardson ISD. His long career in Texas education allowed him to bring historical perspective to the conversation. With knowledge of what has been tried in the past, what has failed and why, Nelson helped the group derive three key recommendations:
- Establish a competency-based tier system for licensure
- Establish a data base to compare and contrast program outcomes
- Conduct state-specific research through a Texas Educator Preparation Evaluation and Innovation Alliance.
The first recommendation would include a probationary certification to ease new teachers into the profession. Additional levels of certification would officially reflect field work hours and additional capacities.
“Teachers can be trained to be great teachers,” Nelson said. Natural talent is hard to spot on a résumé, but tiered licensure would help identify those who have made progress in their careers.
Tiered licensure would differentiate between teachers with and without field experience to help principals better support them. It would also allows teachers licensed in other states to more easily gain their license in Texas.
Research has shown that time spent in front of a class is a vital part of effective teacher training. It provides a more realistic view of what is ahead, and offers context and practice for theory obtained in the classroom.
At the same time, teaching has traditionally leaned heavily on a time-based tenure system that may be out of step with how people approach careers in the 21st century, Nelson said. While Millennials are notoriously impatient to see progress in their careers, much of their impatience is because “they want to do something that matters.”
Allowing young, talented teachers to work toward expertise based on their competencies and effectiveness in the classroom will appeal to those students who “could be anything.”
A virtuous cycle of rigor, achievement, and talent could pay off in prestige for the teaching profession.
Because teaching was one of the few professions historically open to women, it has unfortunately been seen as “less than” as new professions have opened up as aspirational frontiers for women, Garza explained. Cultural idioms like “those who can’t do, teach” have also contributed to teaching being seen as somewhat inferior compared to other professions, she added.
At the same time, quality teaching indisputably has the greatest impact on student success. Initiatives around increased STEM teaching, early literacy, and other innovations hinge on the talent of the person implementing them.
“A lot of that will fall flat if you don’t have the right person in the classroom,” Garza said.
Experts often look to high-performing countries like Finland, where teachers are among some of the most highly regarded professionals in the country. By contrast, Garza explained, the waning interest of American undergraduates has led to a proliferation of alternative certification routes. Oftentimes people discover teaching as a career opportunity later in life and can’t afford to go back to school for a bachelor’s in teaching. Thus, they need a quicker entry ramp.
That’s fine, Garza said, as long as those pathways fully prepare the teachers.
The second recommendation takes on accessibility of data generated by EPPs. Currently the State is required to collect data on program completion rates, principal evaluation, student outcomes, frequency and duration of field observation, quality of supervision, and new teacher satisfaction. The data is there, but is prohibitively difficult to access.
“The data on this stuff is a black hole,” Garza said.
The Collaborative recommends that the State create a searchable database that would allow employers, parents, and aspiring teachers to look into the effectiveness, longevity, and other outcomes of various teacher preparation programs. It also recommends looking into the value of the data collected and considering if other factors should be taken into account.
New data categories could be determined through the Collaborative’s third recommendation, the Texas Educator Preparation Evaluation and Innovation Alliance. This collaboration between the TEA and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board would determine which data sets are necessary to elucidate what works, what doesn’t, what should be scaled, etc.
Their research would guide the careful investment of philanthropic and state dollars into the most effective EPPs for Texas’ specific student population. It would also allow greater attention to programs that equip teachers to work specifically in low-income schools, which require additional pedagogical tools.
The hope is that such research would reveal the shortcomings and strengths of both traditional and alternative certification pathways. Whether it is the foundational elements of traditional programs or the practical emphases of alternative certification programs, educating today’s population will likely depend upon a combination of strengths. The State’s educational future depends on the ability of these programs to adapt to a changing population.