Preparing Effective Teachers For Every Community

Our guest authors today are Frank Hernandez, Corinne Mantle-Bromley and Benjamin Riley. Dr. Hernandez is the dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, and previously served as a classroom teacher and school and district administrator for 12 years. Dr. Mantle-Bromley is dean of the University of Idaho’s College of Education and taught in rural Idaho prior to her work preparing teachers for diverse K-12 populations. Mr. Riley is the founder of Deans for Impact, a new organization composed of deans of colleges of education working together to transform educator preparation in the US. 

Students of color in the U.S., and those who live in rural communities, face unique challenges in receiving a high-quality education. All too often, new teachers have been inadequately prepared for these students’ specific needs. Perhaps just as often, their teachers do not look like them, and do not understand the communities in which these students live. Lacking an adequate preparation and the cultural sensitivities that come only from time and experience within a community, many of our nation’s teachers are thrust into an almost unimaginably challenging situation. We simply do not have enough well-prepared teachers of color, or teachers from rural communities, who can successfully navigate the complexities of these education ecosystems.

Some have described the lack of teachers of color and teachers who will serve in rural communities as a crisis of social justice. We agree. And, as the leaders of two colleges of education who prepare teachers who serve in these communities, we think the solution requires elevating the expectations for every program that prepares teachers and educators in this country.

For example, the University of Texas-Permian Basin College of Education, led by one of the co-authors of this essay, has partnered with one large school district in Texas that classifies as at-risk an alarming 57 percent of its students. With an enrollment of about 30,000 students, this means that more than 17,000 students are particularly in need of experienced and effective teachers. Because this demand is unmet, however, only about 50 percent of those students graduating each year have achieved college-ready levels in math and science. And in this same district, 70 percent of the student population but fewer than 30 percent of teachers are people of color. The college of education at UTPB is working with this partner district to outline the kind of support needed for in-service teachers as one way of improving the learning outcomes of students. This work is now influencing our pre-service program. But we cannot do this work in isolation.

In Idaho, the challenges are just as daunting but may require different solutions. The college of education at the University of Idaho, led by another co-author of this essay, is housed in Moscow, Idaho, 160 miles south of the Canadian border and a six-hour drive north of the state’s population center that surrounds the capital city of Boise. The University of Idaho prepares just over 100 teachers annually, many of whom end up serving in rural areas throughout the state.

Idaho’s rural teachers must feel the urgent need to prepare students for successful post-secondary education. The data reveal that Idaho has nationally competitive graduation rates and SAT/ACT scores, yet the state is 46th nationally in college going rates and 46th nationally in retention of first-year college freshmen. State projections show that two of three new jobs will require post-secondary education. But there are challenges for teacher recruitment and retention that are specific to rural areas, including: distance; infrastructure; high levels of poverty; and a rural culture that historically supported jobs in local industries that no longer exist. The result is that high-demand teaching positions in our rural areas often go unfilled, or filled by ineffective teachers. Idaho’s rural teachers need to learn from what others across the state (and indeed, across the country) are doing to ensure student success.

We believe that we can transform the opportunities for at-risk students by preparing effective teachers of color and effective teachers who will serve rural communities. To do that, however, will require changing the incentives within the field of educator preparation itself.

At the moment, for example, the U.S. Department of Education has proposed federal regulations that, after a certain amount of time, would render low-performing teacher-preparation programs as ineligible to receive TEACH grants. (TEACH Grants provide federal aid to teacher-candidates who attend teacher-preparation programs and then teach in high-needs areas or subjects.) While the Department’s regulations are imperfect, as active deans in this field we know firsthand that there are underperforming programs. And we believe the Department’s proposed regulations represent a reasonable attempt to identify these programs and hold them accountable for improving.

In contrast, some of our colleagues are pushing back against withholding the TEACH grant from low-performing institutions because of the perceived consequences it may have on the demographics of the teacher workforce and the number of teachers who will serve in challenging rural communities. They argue that because some teachers of color or teachers bound to work in rural schools enroll in underperforming preparation programs, cutting off TEACH Grants will reduce the overall number of these teachers. In essence, they believe the Department should continue to direct federal funds toward low-performing programs (as defined by the regulations) despite the evidence that the teachers they prepare aren’t ready to work in these challenged communities.

Here is a hard truth: It is not enough to simply prepare teachers of color, or teachers who will serve rural communities, and call it a day. We need these preparation programs to provide teachers with the basic knowledge and skills that they need to be effective. We cannot continue with a professional model that essentially asks teachers to “sink or swim” on the job. We know what happens – far too many sink. We cannot continue to funnel public dollars toward teacher-preparation programs if there is evidence the teachers they prepare aren’t ready – no matter their ethnicity or their willingness to teach in remote mountain towns. To do otherwise presents an issue of social justice for the students these teachers serve.

Is there an alternative solution? Well, here’s another hard truth: We don’t yet know. Recently, we joined a new group composed of deans of colleges of education from around the country, Deans for Impact, to see if we might look for answers together. Just as rural schools can be hundreds of miles apart, so too can deans feel hundreds of miles away from our fellow leaders in the academy. By collaborating with others in our network, we hope to learn about innovative new approaches to teacher preparation that are unlikely to naturally migrate to the Permian Basin of West Texas, or into the rural corners of Idaho. Likewise, we hope to explain to our fellow deans the unique challenges our communities face and the successes we’re having as we undertake the hard work of preparing effective teachers for all communities.

Change will not come overnight. We must eschew quick fixes that provide facile comfort but obscure the hard truths we must face. Working with our peers in educator preparation from across the country, we’re ready to face these challenges and work to address them – together. 

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