How California recruits, prepares and retains new teachers deserves to get at least as much attention as other school reforms, such as the Common Core State Standards, the Local Control Funding Formula and the new assessments that students are preparing to take this spring.
Without world-class teachers who are fully prepared and motivated, the long-term success of these reforms is in doubt.
The need to tackle the issue is reinforced by the latest figures from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which show that the number of students in teacher preparation programs continues to decline at a disturbing rate – from a high of 77,700 just over a dozen years ago to fewer than 20,000 in 2012-13, the last year for which figures are available.
The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, along with several other distinguished panels, have been grappling with this issue. But other reforms focusing attention on the small percentage of ineffective teachers who arguably should no longer be in the classroom have captured far greater public attention. A prime example: Time Magazine’s “Rotten Apples” cover story this week on the Vergara v. California lawsuit that seeks to overturn laws governing teacher tenure, hiring and firing, and dismissals.
But even if everything the Vergara plaintiffs are seeking were implemented, it would be unlikely to increase the number of people going into teaching, improve their preparation, or keep them enthused about the profession and the reforms they are charged with implementing.
A new EdSource report, “Preparing World Class Teachers,” has identified several key reforms – many of which are already under consideration by policy makers – that could make a difference.
A campaign to attract new teachers
In the 1960s California launched a vigorous campaign to attract new teachers from outside its borders. A new “Be a Teacher” recruitment campaign could help get more teachers into the preparation pipeline – not from outside its borders, but from its own diverse population.
Any recruitment campaign could not just focus on the potential psychic rewards of being a teacher. It would need to include inducements for young people to enter the profession, including providing financial assistance to underwrite the costs of becoming teacher, and assurances that they would get the professional support they needed to succeed. One strategy: Restoring financial aid programs like the Assumption Program of Loans for Education (APLE), Governor’s Teaching Fellowships and Cal Grant T that have been eliminated over the last decade.
Integrating undergraduate study with postgraduate teacher preparation
California has traditionally separated a student’s undergraduate work from post-graduate professional teacher preparation programs. Wherever possible, more closely integrating a student’s undergraduate work with the pedagogical aspects of teacher preparation should be encouraged. This could include expanding “blended” teacher preparation programs now in place at some CSU and UC campuses that combine teacher preparation and academic coursework into a four- or five-year intensive undergraduate degree. These include UC’s CalTeach program, which focuses on preparing teachers to teach science and math.
Exposing undergraduates considering teaching to classroom experiences
Some undergraduates consider teaching as a career, but are not ready at that time to commit to doing so. Offering these interested but undecided students opportunities to spend time in a classroom or other educational setting during their undergraduate years could boost the numbers of young people entering the profession. That means expanding models like the California Teaching Fellows program at Fresno State University.
Upgrading the benefits of student teaching
Student teaching – the opportunity to teach in a classroom under the supervision of a master teacher – may be the most critical part of the teacher preparation process. Yet the quality and duration of the student-teaching experience varies widely across the state. The requirements for student teaching are minimal. Finding appropriate placements for teachers in training – and skilled master teachers to supervise them – is becoming increasingly difficult. Adopting new ways to improve the student teaching experience, including expanding the full-year “residency” UTEACH program at Cal State Long Beach and the rural residency program at Chico State University, should be considered. Providing master teachers release time to fully mentor teaching candidates is another key reform.
Providing new teachers the support they need to succeed
The support new teachers get in the first few years they are in the classroom will play a big role in not only whether they succeed, but whether they stay in the profession. Yet the state’s major beginning teacher support program, Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment, or BTSA, has suffered as a result of budget cutbacks and the lack of dedicated or “categorical” state funding to support it. Anyone considering going into teaching should be confident they will get the support they need to succeed rather than fearing that if they aren’t an immediate success, they will be pushed out of the profession.
More focus on early education and middle school years
More intensive preparation should be offered to would-be teachers who are considering teaching in the earliest grades – through the 3rd grade – or in the middle school years. Currently, California’s teaching credential system does not focus on those particularly important periods of a child’s development. But programs like San Jose State University’s “Middle Level Emphasis” provide models for possible expansion. Whether it is through an area of emphasis or a separate credential, further discussion of the appropriate strategies for preparing teachers to be most effective in the early years is needed.
The Vergara lawsuit is focusing attention on the small number of teachers who should not be in the classroom – according to the plaintiffs themselves, between 1 and 3 percent of the teaching force. An arguably more important challenge facing California is how to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of fully prepared teachers entering the profession.
And that should only be the beginning. Once in the classroom, teachers deserve support to improve their skills, instead of running the real risk that they will burn out or leave the profession altogether. Too many are already doing so – with too few coming in to take their place.
Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource, and co-author with Stephanie Rice of “Preparing World Class Teachers: Reforming Teacher Preparation and Credentialing in California.” The report was underwritten by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.