Most colleges of education stick to traditional teacher training despite pandemic-spurred innovation

When “edupreneur” Amy Marotz, second from right, decided to launch Awakening Spirit Homeschool Collaborative on a 15-acre single-family home site outside of Stillwater, Minn., she looked beyond traditional teacher training colleges for guidance, turning instead to an organization in Pennsylvania that helps teachers build the schools of their dreams.

Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series that explores how today’s teachers are being prepared – or not – for the classroom now that education choice has become normalized. You can read the first two articles here and here.

When Amy Marotz wanted to start a private homeschool collaborative for children with sensory issues, she didn’t rely on a traditional college of education for training, even though she had a master’s degree from one.

Instead, the former English teacher turned to Microschool Builders, a startup based in Pennsylvania. The firm, founded in 2019 by veteran educator and administrator Mara Linaberger, offers an array of services to prepare those seeking to become school founders. Most of the clients are teachers who want to trade their jobs in traditional classrooms for more fulfilling work in education.

Marotz, who leads Awakening Spirt School in the Minnesota Twin Cities area, is not alone in her desire for better opportunities. A 2022 survey commissioned by the National Education Association revealed that 55% of educators who responded said they were more likely to leave or retire sooner than planned. Reasons cited were burnout, general stress from the pandemic, student absences, and unfilled job openings leading to heavier workloads.

A recent special report from Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, and EdChoice, highlighted 10 Florida educators who left the traditional classroom to start alternative education models. Top reasons included frustration with public schools, a desire to create options that better served their own children, a desire to create options that better serve teachers.

As more state legislatures approve education choice scholarships that can fuel growth in this segment, traditional four-year universities have yet to develop training options for teachers who see the benefit of bypassing traditional schools in favor of establishing alterative models.

Though some have embraced innovation, it has been mainly within the framework of traditional school systems. Most notable among these are Arizona State University’s Next Education Workforce initiative, which seeks to recruit and retain traditional school teachers by redesigning the workplace.

In Tennessee, Austin Peay State University created a three-year program in partnership with school districts and community colleges to attract and retain non-traditional students to the profession. The program, which was adopted statewide, became the first federal apprenticeship model of its kind and a model for the nation.

Still, when it comes to equipping these “eduprenuers,” resources are limited to companies that cater to established teachers who are burned out on traditional schools and seeking the opportunities to reconnect them with the love for teaching that drew them to education in the first place.

“Any attention to education innovation or alternative learning models that exist outside of traditional schooling are typically marginalized in these programs, if they are addressed at all,” said Kerry McDonald, a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education and author of the 2019  book “Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom.”

“This has long been true, but is perhaps more apparent today as microschools, homeschooling, learning pods, and similar models become increasingly popular,” she said.

Why have traditional colleges of education ignored this group in favor of the public school system? No one knows for sure, but experts offered some ideas.

First, the old way is simpler and scalable. It’s easy to plug in, and most education professors were trained in the traditional school model.

“They’re not entrepreneurs for the most part. It’s just not part of their DNA,” said Eric Wearne, an associate professor in the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and the director of the university’s National Hybrid Schools Project. The initiative seeks to document and analyze the variety of independent actors who are creating new forms of K-12 schooling outside of the conventional education system.

Wearne called most programs “thinly veiled arms of the HR department of the school district,” which they depend on to provide internships for their majors. States also have certification rules for teachers and working with public school districts allow for easier compliance.

“They’ve got to place a ton of students every semester,” Wearne said. “They have incentives to work with the school system.”

Also, the variety and complexity of all the different non-traditional methods make training a challenge. If colleges wanted to offer such training, it would be best to let majors choose to specialize in a certain model and follow a track rather than create new programs that address all non-traditional forms together as all are unique.

For example, requiring training in classical education, which emphasizes memorization, would be a poor fit for someone who considers such memorization pointless, he explained. A school also could add certifications in certain specialties or offer courses in business entrepreneurship for those who want them.

He said the private companies may be best equipped to train those who feel called to leave the beaten path because “most of those (graduates) are going to working for public school systems or private schools that look functionally similar.”

Another challenge to traditional universities is that as states continue to approve education choice policies that allow innovation to increase and flourish, the role of the teacher is also quickly changing. The idea of who counts as a teacher has also been expanded, with some companies that specialize in self-directed learning using guides instead of certified educators.

In a recent report on the transformative effects of the pandemic on learning, the Center on Reinventing Public Education recommends that the traditional schools themselves should be the ones to change the way they have done education for decades to capitalize on the innovation that sprang up during the pandemic and incorporate a more bottom-up approach.

It recommends new models in which teams of teachers take on different responsibilities based on their strengths and interests rather than have one teacher in charge of 20 to 30 students all day. Such innovations might keep teachers in the profession and provide better learning opportunities for all students regardless of where they get their education, said Travis Pillow, innovation fellow and senior writer at the center.

“We have to start treating teachers as knowledge workers the same way we do doctors and lawyers,” he said.

Wearne said that should extend to teachers’ colleges. If they don’t find ways to adapt as demand for non-traditional options increase among students and teachers, enrollments could decline as startups fill the void.

“If you have a natural decline in enrollment and huge market demand, then choosing not to meet that need does bode well for long-term prospects,” he said.