Teacher shortages have been a hot topic over the last few years. Research shows they vary from place to place, and Ohio currently lacks the data to confirm how widespread and significant they are, but there’s no denying that for some districts and schools, finding enough quality teachers is an annual hardship.
To help these schools, state and local leaders will have to work together to solve a plethora of problems that fall under two main umbrellas: recruitment and retention. Most Americans are likely familiar with retention issues, which include understandable complaints from educators about low pay, stagnant retirement benefits, and frustrating working conditions.
But recruitment issues are just as much of a factor. Consider a 2018 brief published by ACT, in which researchers used survey data to examine the responses of students who were “very” or “fairly” sure about their college major. They found that, from 2007 to 2017, high schoolers’ interest in teaching decreased significantly. This declining interest seems to have carried into the real world; the Center for American Progress indicates that enrollment in teacher-preparation programs nationally fell by more than one-third from 2010 to 2018. Ohio posted a decline of nearly 50 percent.
These are worrisome numbers on their own, but they’re even more troubling when we take into account that the teaching profession is traditionally unfriendly to career changers. Without a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education, and the time and money required to obtain them, it’s difficult for even the most committed prospective teachers to get licensed in Ohio. As a result, schools face a double whammy: Not only are there fewer teachers coming out of colleges of education, there aren’t many coming via alternative routes either.
Grow Your Own (GYO) programs can help. These programs are appropriately named because they focus teacher recruitment efforts on people living in the local community: paraprofessionals or substitute teachers who already work in schools, college graduates who are looking to change careers, and high school students who are interested in education as a future career. They are typically partnerships between local school districts, higher education, and community-based organizations or nonprofits that work together to train prospective teachers and get them certified. And while they can take the form of teacher residencies—programs that embed teacher candidates into a school for clinical training while also providing coursework and financial compensation—they don’t have to.
GYO programs offer a host of potential benefits. The most obvious is that they can help replenish the teacher pipeline by recruiting and training more educators, especially in hard-to-staff subjects or grade levels. Their focus on local communities is also a benefit, as research indicates that many teachers prefer working in or around the communities in which they grew up. Most importantly, though, GYO programs can help diversify the teacher workforce, which can improve a wide range of student outcomes. A recent study of six GYO programs that were designed and administered by TNTP indicates that they added seventy-four more teachers of color than might have otherwise been hired by the six participating districts.
The good news is that Ohio has already dipped its toes in the GYO program pool. Sinclair Community College and Mad River Local Schools have developed a teacher academy that allows high school students interested in becoming teachers to get a sneak peek into the profession and earn college credit through College Credit Plus. Lorain County Community College offers something similar, and several program alumni are already teachers. A state-established taskforce charged with examining how Ohio could diversify its educator workforce has recommend expanding GYO programs. And Ohio’s Human Capital Resource Center has an entire page devoted to doing so, including toolkits for how to design programs and how to address barriers.
To truly reap the potential benefits of GYO programs, though, state leaders need to do more. Here are two ideas.
1. Include a revised version of House Bill 667 in the state budget
House Bill 667, which was proposed last spring but not passed, sought to establish the Grow Your Own Teacher College Scholarship Program. This program proposed four-year scholarships worth up to $7,500 per year to eligible high school students and district employees who committed to teaching in a qualifying school—one that was operated by the same district from which they graduated or where they were employed, and where at least 50 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch. Scholarship recipients would be required to teach in these schools within six years of completing a teacher preparation program, and for a duration of at least four years. The bill appropriated $25 million for FY 2022 and 2023, and specified that teacher candidates had to attend a traditional teacher training program, either at a state or private, nonprofit college or university.
The underlying idea behind HB 667 is a good one. It’s not cheap to become a teacher, and easing the financial burden for high schoolers and career changers could bolster the teacher pipeline. Requiring scholarship recipients to teach in districts that they graduated from or worked for is also firmly in line with the unique mission of GYO programs. But by limiting the scholarship to candidates who attend traditional teacher training programs, the bill eliminated the possibility that high-quality alternative programs—like TNTP, which administered the GYO programs that were found to have increased diversity in several districts’ hiring—could contribute.
To be fair, there aren’t many alternative teacher preparation programs currently operating in Ohio. Teach For America (TFA) is the only sizable one, and that’s likely because state law includes a provision that grants TFA participants traditional teacher licenses (known as resident educator licenses), even though they’ve been trained via an alternative program. If state law allowed other alternative programs—rigorous, high-quality ones with solid track records of improving student outcomes—to enjoy the same privilege, then GYO programs might be a lot more prevalent than they are now.
With these issues in mind, state lawmakers should do a few things. First, incorporate the bill language from HB 667 into the state budget. Second, amend that language to specify that teacher candidates who attend state-approved alternative teacher preparation programs are also eligible for the scholarship. And third, establish a process for alternative training programs—like those who run effective GYO programs in other states—to gain approval through the Ohio Department of Higher Education to grant their participants resident educator licenses. Revising the law in this way would encourage highly-effective training programs in other states to expand to Ohio, and would open the door for schools of all stripes to create their own GYO programs.
2. Leverage current law to create a statewide initiative
Current law permits the department of education to award grants to schools to assist in various innovation efforts, including “the implementation of ‘grow your own’ recruitment strategies.” It also allows for “the development and implementation of a partnership with teacher preparation programs” that would aid in attracting teachers who are “qualified to teach in shortage areas.” Both these provisions make it possible for state leaders to heavily invest in an initiative that supports GYO programs. Unfortunately, the state has largely left that work to local districts. They’ve done a decent enough job, but if Ohio wants to capitalize on the potential of these programs, state leaders need to do more.
Other states offer plenty of examples. Illinois, for instance, has funded a statewide GYO initiative, Grow Your Own Illinois (GYO-IL), since the late 2000s. The most recent legislative report available on its website indicates that, in 2021, the program served 257 prospective teacher candidates across Illinois, and that two-thirds of those candidates identified as teachers of color. In Tennessee, state leaders used federal Covid relief funding to establish a statewide GYO competitive grant program. In total, it’s awarded $6.5 million to grow your own grants promising to “create pathways to become a teacher for free.” Tennessee has also given the go ahead to several preparation programs to offer teacher apprenticeships as part of its GYO initiative. Ohio could follow in the footsteps of either of these states, or it could create its own program from the ground up. Either way, schools and students would benefit.
GYO programs aren’t a silver bullet for all of Ohio’s teacher shortage woes. But effectively cultivating GYO programs could produce an influx of new teachers that schools didn’t have before. Even better, it could help diversify the profession and improve student outcomes. That seems like a win-win worthy of investment.