Plagued by teacher shortages, some states turn to fast-track credentialing

By Elaine S. Povich, Michigan Advance

Faced with alarming teacher shortages, Virginia last month agreed to partner with a for-profit online teacher credentialing company, hoping to get more teachers into classrooms faster and without the higher tuition costs of traditional colleges and universities.

While some of the Virginia school board members had qualms about the process, they agreed to give it a try due to the nagging high teacher vacancy rate. The board unanimously approved a three-year pilot program and partnered with one of the bigger companies in the fast-track credentialing business, iteach.

Such companies pledge they will get a candidate teacher-ready in about a year. The iteach program includes online courses, after which candidates are placed in classrooms, with some supervision and the agreement of the school districts.

According to state statistics, Virginia had more than 3,500 full-time teacher vacancies for the 2022-2023 school year, which is about a 4.5% rate, though vacancies in some specialties are higher. The situation was worse than the year before, the statistics showed.

Daniel Gecker, a then-member of the state board of education who voted for the online certification plan, said he agreed only because the program is a three-year pilot and an “opportunity to gather data.”

“We are in the middle of a fairly significant teacher shortage,” Gecker said in an interview. “Having the online-trained teachers is better than having the untrained subs we’ve been having.”

He said that before the COVID-19 pandemic, it probably would have been possible to make up the teacher gap with better retention. “Post-pandemic, the gulf is just too wide; we can’t fill it with better retention and people coming out of school.”

Virginia is just the latest state to turn to for-profit teacher certification companies in an urgent effort to recruit and train more teachers. The states hope the new paths to certification will help ease the shortages, but critics argue those who take the programs are not as well trained as traditionally credentialed teachers and will do a disservice to young students.

States have other options to address the teacher shortage, including lowering standards to try to bring in more recruits.

Education Week reported last year that about a dozen states had relaxed credentialing standards for teachers or were considering doing so. California lawmakers decided in 2021 to allow aspiring teachers to eliminate two different exams as long as they had taken courses to address basic skills and the subject matter they intend to teach. Oklahoma enacted a law last year to remove the requirement for a general education exam.

Some states are pressing “temporary” teachers into service. Arizona last year allowed substitute teachers to take full-time positions to address the teacher shortage in that state. In addition, a law passed last year allows Arizona teacher candidates working toward a college degree to teach at the same time.

Iteach is working in 11 states, according to its website: Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. The Mississippi Teacher Licensure Commission, a panel created to evaluate such programs for that state, unanimously recommended iteach as a certification provider at the commission’s meeting July 7. That recommendation now goes to the state board of education.

Another large company, Teachers of Tomorrow, is working in nine states, though its credentials may be in jeopardy in Texas, where the company has been placed on probation after state regulators found the company misled potential teachers in its advertising, and hadn’t shown that its training was based in research.

Iteach has been accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which credentials traditional educator training colleges. Andrew Rozell, president of certification at iteach, said it is the only for-profit program of its kind so credentialed.

The for-profit companies are separate and different from online university programs, such as Western Governors University or the Southern New Hampshire University, which also have teacher education courses but are not focused on quick credentialing. The for-profit credentialing firms tout their ability to get people into classrooms within a year or 18 months, depending on when they begin.

Serious need

Nationwide, teacher shortages are just as bad as in Virginia, particularly in very rural or low-income inner-city school districts. A working paper from Brown University “conservatively” estimated that as of August 2022, there were 36,000 teacher vacancies across the United States.

And the paper noted that those vacancies are not distributed equally. “The vacancy rate per 10,000 students is more than 159 times as high in Mississippi as it is in Missouri,” the authors wrote. The paper found a shortage of 0.43 teachers per 10,000 students in Missouri and 68.59 teachers per 10,000 in Mississippi.

By taking the step to help fill the vacancies, the Virginia state education board was following Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Directive No. 3 to address the teacher shortage, in part by reducing “red tape associated with teacher licensure, while assuring high standards.”

Iteach fills that criteria, according to Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter, in an email to Stateline. “Governor Youngkin fully supports high-quality alternative pathways to becoming a teacher. The State Board of Education rigorously reviewed iteach data to ensure that iteach will provide school divisions with another effective and efficient option for recruiting and preparing new teachers,” Porter wrote.

The iteach method counts on reducing barriers to time and cost, according to Rozell, “without reducing rigor.” It is designed to take about a year to get candidates ready for initial teaching, if they pass state exams.

Then, the newly trained teachers are granted temporary licenses and teach under intermittent observation by iteach professionals who drop into classes, sometimes unannounced. All this occurs with the knowledge of school administrators, who can provide their own support.

Critics question fast-track credentialing

But critics contend that iteach and the other programs that turn out teachers quickly are not subject to the same requirements and depth of instruction as teachers who go the traditional path of four undergraduate years, sometimes at least a year getting a master’s degree, and many months of student teaching under nearly constant supervision by a trained teacher.

Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and advocacy group, said in a phone interview that for-profit online teaching programs are a “blunt instrument” to address teacher shortages. The programs, she said, don’t take into account whether the teachers are qualified for the subjects they will be teaching or whether they will be satisfied with their jobs and stay in the profession or leave after a year or two.

“If you have a fast-track program and your model is entirely online, it begs the question of how they are assuring aspiring teachers get a place to practice … content knowledge and clinical practice,” she said. School districts should tailor recruiting and educating new teachers to the vacancies and needs, she said, which are most often “specialized teachers” such as special education or multi-language learners.

Iteach advertises that its cost for a complete program is $4,399, plus a $99 enrollment fee. Teachers of Tomorrow’s program costs about $5,000.

By contrast, annual average tuition at a four-year institution in education can range from $9,193 at an in-state school to $26,543 at an out-of-state school, according to the website College Tuition Compare, an independent college evaluation site. Elite institutions are higher. Graduate tuition ranges from $10,806 annually to $19,796, the site found.

Iteach’s Rozell said many of the students in his company’s programs are already working in classrooms, as paraprofessionals, aides for special needs kids or in other non-teaching capacities, and already have some idea of classroom management and other skills needed to be a teacher.

But Peske said the “grow your own” movement, which takes paraprofessionals or other employees and turns them into teachers, while a good idea, still requires “thoughtful clinical experience to prepare them. The notion that you would rely on candidates themselves to already be in the classrooms or already working with students, that concerns me,” she said.

“Someone could have been a paraprofessional working as an aide to a student with disabilities, but may never have had the experience [learning] about neuro-differences in those students or who may never had had a mentor.”

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s largest teachers union, in a 2022 report called for more rigor in teacher training, not less, criticizing state efforts to lower the qualifications needed to be a teacher.

“[T]here are more alternative and nontraditional ways to become a teacher in the U.S. than ever before, and unfortunately many of them are low quality,” the report said.

The teachers union stressed methods that are reflected in traditional training, saying aspiring teachers should get “extensive” classroom experiences “alongside a skilled practitioner over a significant period,” and “a strong foundation in subject-area content.”

“We cannot put a bandage on the teacher and school staff shortage by cutting corners and lowering the bar for entry,” the report said.

The biggest knock on the swift accreditation companies came in Texas, where Texas Teachers of Tomorrow, also known as A+ Texas Teachers, has been put on probation. The Texas Education Agency found that the company failed to address numerous deficiencies, including the number of content hours required for teacher candidates, and whether they are evaluated regarding whether their existing skills are “appropriate for the certification sought.” The audit came after complaints from school districts and teacher candidates who utilized the firm, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Attempts to reach Texas Teachers of Tomorrow were unsuccessful.

A University of Texas at Austin College of Education 2021 study of teacher preparation nationally found that in every tested subject, “students do better if they have university-certified teachers,” and that for low-income students, “having a university-certified teacher can offset half or more of the disadvantages that comes from living in poverty.”

In addition, the study showed that university-certified teachers had a 73% retention rate over nine years, while only 59% of “alternatively certified” teachers remained teaching.

But Rozell said that study was skewed because of the problems with Teachers of Tomorrow. He said an internal survey of his company’s students showed that after the first year in the classroom, 93% said “they were excited to be back next year,” and that they planned to be a teacher for at least five years.

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott S. Greenberger for questions: [email protected]. Follow Stateline on Facebook and Twitter.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: [email protected]. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.