Based on the narratives of recent years, one would believe the pursuit of equity in the teaching profession is akin to the pursuit of an educational unicorn. We desperately hope to attract people of color to the classroom, particularly in subjects like math and science, but we just don’t believe it will happen.
Last month, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announced the 2017–18 class of Georgia Teaching Fellows at a State Capitol event. The program was specifically developed to recruit, prepare, and support excellent STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) teachers for the state’s high-need schools, both urban and rural. At a time when less than 16 percent of the overall teaching force is of color (and significantly smaller in the STEM disciplines), Governor Deal announced a Georgia Teaching Fellows class that included 38 percent who identified as candidates of color.
In that class of Georgia Teaching Fellows, 22 percent already hold advanced degrees. All bring real STEM experience, either from undergraduate majors or work experience, making them easily employable in a growing private-sector economy. A third are career changers. In a profession where as many as three-quarters are female, 37 percent were male. And all are committed to teaching in high-need schools in Georgia.
This is the third year, in a three-year effort, that Georgia has posted such numbers. And the Peach State isn’t unique. States like New Jersey, Michigan, and even Indiana have posted similar numbers that defy common beliefs when it comes to teacher equity through their own Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows programs.
Why does this approach work? In each of these states, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation partners with colleges and universities to create more effective teacher education programs. Each of these programs focuses on a yearlong K–12 classroom experience, rigorous academic work resulting in a master’s degree, and ongoing support. Every teacher candidate receives extensive clinical experience teaching in a high-need urban or rural secondary school for one full year prior to becoming teacher of record in a high-need school or math classroom. And each receives mentoring and coaching throughout the first three years as teacher or record.
Over the last decade, this work has helped many states strengthen their teacher pipelines to provide excellent teachers for high-need schools. And they have done it while increasing the number of teachers of color assuming STEM teaching positions in the classrooms that need them the most.
Yes, this work has strengthened the pipeline of effective teachers for high-need schools. Yes, this work has changed the very face of teaching in the states that have embraced it. And yes, this work has prepared teachers for long careers in teaching, preparing individuals looking to spend the rest of their professional careers—not just a couple of years—in the classroom.
This work has also provided some important lessons for other states looking to address their teacher workforce with an eye toward both equity and excellence.
- There are no shortcuts. In states like Georgia, teacher preparation programs and K–12 school districts commit to long-term transformation. In efforts led by the governor, the chief state school officer, the state higher education executive officer, legislators, and many other leaders, there is long-term commitment to long-term teacher education and staffing solutions.
- Teacher candidates need to be up for the challenge. Successful beginning teachers must bring both strong content knowledge and rich pedagogical understanding to the classroom.
- A rich clinical experience is essential. There is only so much that can be learned in a university classroom. By moving as much of the preparation process as possible into classrooms in high-need schools, prospective teachers are ready for the challenges that face them at the beginning of their teaching careers.
- Accountability for all stakeholders is essential. Just as we cannot blame teachers for all of the ills of our schools, we also can’t expect them to be the sole drivers of success. Such transformations require the commitment of universities, K–12 districts, teachers unions, elected officials and our local communities.
- We all must recognize that improvement is a long-term effort. The 159 STEM teachers prepared to date through the Georgia Teaching Fellows program serves to fill most of the STEM openings in most of the state’s high-need districts. But the efforts put in place by Georgia’s five partner universities now serve as a model for the future of teacher preparation across the state, in both traditional and alternative preparation programs.
States like Georgia, New Jersey, and Indiana have demonstrated what is possible when it comes to improving teacher preparation for the 21st century. By emphasizing high-quality programs and equally high-quality teacher candidates, states can dramatically improve their teacher pipelines. And they can do so by defying popular convention and moving more people of color into long-term teaching careers. That educational unicorn is far more real and far more attainable than we ever imagined.