Editor’s note: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush advocates for teacher education reform to better improve the talent pipeline and encourage new educators in this opinion piece circulated by ExcelinEd, the organization for which he is founder and chairman. The commentary published originally in the Miami Herald.
Across the country, schools are struggling to hire enough teachers, and long-term trends suggest the problem could get worse. A number of factors contribute to this shortage, and even prior to the pandemic, the number of young people enrolling in traditional teacher preparation programs has been in decline since 2010.
We owe it to our nation’s 61 million students to reimagine how we support our hardworking, professional educators.
Here in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature included $800 million for teacher pay raises, and while teacher pay is one important component to attracting and retaining talent, elected officials and education leaders nationwide need to do more. Another critical barrier is the teacher preparedness and licensing process.
Today’s model is largely outdated, and it’s costly. Those interested in being teachers are required to spend years in college classes, then take their certification exams, before entering the classroom with maybe a semester’s worth of on-the-job training.
This system is not setting up these educators or the students they’re expected to serve for success. It forces new teachers to start their careers with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and little hands-on experience. The system prioritizes seat time with a professor in a college classroom over hands-on training alongside an experienced educator in an actual classroom.
Burdensome teacher preparation also keeps the diversity of our teacher workforce from keeping pace with the growing diversity of the country’s population. Research has shown that teacher preparation programs are less likely to attract aspiring Black and Hispanic teachers, who are more likely to follow non-traditional paths into the profession.
In Florida, 36% of public-school students, but just 17% of teachers, are Hispanic. And more than 21% of students, but just 14% of teachers, are Black — and other states see similar disparities. Thankfully, some states are building a better way.
Last Tuesday, I had the privilege of talking with Penny Schwinn, the state education commissioner of Tennessee, which earlier this year became the first state in the nation with a federally approved teacher apprenticeship program. Tennessee’s innovative approach allows future teachers to work with students in a classroom, receive coaching from experienced mentor teachers and be paid along the way.
The program is designed to allow the future teachers to obtain a bachelor’s degree in three years, debt-free, while being paid, and enter the teaching profession with at least three years’ classroom experience under their belt. All of which is paid for by leveraging federal funding for apprenticeships.
Schwinn designed the program by taking into account the barriers that often keep new and talented educators from entering the field: Graduating college with debt and entering the field feeling unprepared. The program is even attracting career-switchers like Nahil Andujar, who left her job at a healthcare company after discovering she loved working with kids. As she told an education-focused media outlet: “I wasn’t planning to become a teacher, but I noticed how a teacher could transform a student’s life.”
School districts that participate in the apprenticeship program partner with a local college or university — with the goal to recruit future educators from within the community they’ll serve. Each resident teacher, while paired with a mentor, receives at least 6,000 on-the-job learning hours in the program.
Upon graduation, the resident teacher becomes fully state certified teacher and receives full-time employment, with the requirement that the new teacher provide at least three years of teaching services. Other states, like Texas, are designing similar “grow-your-own” teacher preparation programs. It’s easy to see why.
This new approach to attracting talented professionals to the teaching profession is vital to the success of students. Florida reports critical teacher shortages in core subjects like English, math and science, as well as critical specialty areas, like English as a second language and special education.
Teacher apprenticeships can be one part of an effort to address these gaps, and part of a broader and bolder strategy to reimagine America’s teaching profession — to build a sustainable, long-term solution to recruiting the highest qualified professionals into the teaching field. States should create as many diverse pathways into the teaching field as possible, investing in alternative certification programs that attract more diverse pool of talent than traditional preparation programs.
But they should also explore proven policies that redefine who can teach and what teaching looks like. Professionals in other fields, doctors, lawyers and accountants have a choice: They can work for large public institutions, like hospitals. Or they can go into private practice, serving clients or patients on their own terms.
Indiana is working on a first-in-the-nation policy that would allow teachers to do the same, while retaining their pay and benefits through the state. The new law, which is in its initial phase, would allow teachers to contract with parents to design learning environments around an individual student’s needs.
Another new law in Indiana is similar to a policy offered here in Florida and would allow districts to hire adjunct teachers — professionals from outside education who want to share their skills with students. A retired engineer could teach an algebra class. A professional builder could spend an hour a day helping high school students earn industry credentials in their trade.
As school systems grapple with teacher shortages, communities across this country are full of talented people who would love to make a career helping students learn. Just as the future of education rests on reimagining education around individual students, the future also relies on reforming the teaching profession to better improve the talent pipeline and empower new educators with diverse pathways to the classroom.