As charter schools proliferate across America, there has been a corresponding decline in the number of new teachers earning bachelor’s degrees in education from traditional preparation programs, according to a new study from the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice (REACH).
Researchers Doug Harris, the national director of REACH, and Mary Penn, a research partner at the center, found that for every 10% increase in charter school enrollment, the supply of teachers who earn bachelor’s degrees in traditional educator preparation programs decreases by 13.5% to 15.2% on average.
Between 2007 and 2016, the number of new teachers decreased by about 20%. And roughly one in five classroom teachers now comes from alternative preparation programs; the remainder graduate from traditional programs.
The reductions in teachers from traditional programs are concentrated among elementary education, math education, and special education, the researchers found.
“These patterns make sense based on what we know about charter schools. They are more likely to serve elementary schools. They prefer hiring subject-matter majors (e.g., math majors instead of math education majors), and they are less likely than traditional public schools to assign the same student to special education services,” Harris and Penn wrote.
The researchers contend that charters have reduced the number of “new traditionally prepared” teachers because charter schools are less likely to hire teachers from more rigorous educator prep programs. Instead they employ those from the numerous alternative certification programs that have emerged largely in response to criticism that the traditional programs take too long to complete.
“At the same time alternative certification has grown, charter schools have expanded, and 7% of students attend charter schools nationally,” Harris and Penn said in their report. “This raises the question: might the rise in charter schools be related to the rise in alternative preparation and certification?”
Charters are public schools but designed to be free of the some of the red tape associated with traditional schools. This includes facing fewer restrictions when it comes to teacher certification and qualification.
The researchers found that charter schools reduced the supply of teachers with a bachelor’s degree in education at a greater clip in metro areas than in non-metro areas.
“This could be because there is a larger pipeline of alternatively prepared teachers in those areas, though we are not aware of research on this point,” they wrote. “If there are few alternative sources of teachers outside metro areas, then charter schools may have little choice but to hire from local colleges and universities.”
The report adds to the case for hitting the pause button on charter schools and instead focusing on delivering students the schools they are owed by implementing the Leandro Plan, said Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project. [Note: NC Policy Watch is an independent journalism project of the Justice Center.]
The Leandro case to which Nordstrom referred began nearly three decades ago when school districts in five low-wealth counties sued the state of North Carolina, claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties.
In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.
The case is again under review by the state Supreme Court, which is weighing whether the state must spend $785 million to fully fund the first two years of a (Leandro) comprehensive remedial plan designed to improve academic outcomes for children as ordered by Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson, who is overseeing the case.
“We already know that North Carolina charters are exacerbating budget pressures and school segregation,” Nordstrom said. “This new research indicates that charters may also be worsening our teacher shortage.”
As many as nine of the 56 educator prep programs approved by North Carolina are alternative programs.
Charter school advocate pushes back
Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the NC Association of Public Charter Schools, said the study is an attempt to scapegoat charter schools for the many challenges confronting public education.
“Public charter schools are not responsible for fewer teachers earning degrees from traditional educator prep programs,” Dillingham said. “There is a national shortage of teachers. In fact, there are labor shortages in many areas outside of education too.”
States must embrace alternative pathways to becoming a teacher to shore up shortages across the nation, Dillingham said.
“We need to be open to alternative certifications and preparatory programs that attract talent from untraditional sources and provide teachers for the classrooms that desperately need them,” Dillingham said.
The REACH report, she said, seems to imply that different credentials make a teacher less effective.
“In truth, a particular set of credentials doesn’t mean a teacher will be more effective,” Dillingham said. “It is the combination of talent and emphasis on relationship-building that makes the most effective teachers. The best teachers understand this.”
Assessing the overall teacher shortage
North Carolina school districts reported a shortage of thousands of teachers at the start of the 2022-23 school year. Many teachers who leave the profession say they felt disrespected and unappreciated because of low pay, parent uprisings over pandemic-related school closures, mask mandates, and attacks on curricula by elected officials and others.
The effect charters have on the teacher pipeline is also important to note, however, the REACH researchers said.
“The vast majority of U.S. teachers still come from university-based schools of education, and these teachers stay in the profession longer than those who are not traditionally prepared, which makes these declines noteworthy,” they said. “A larger point is that charter schools change the entire schooling market in ways we are only beginning to recognize.”
Harris is the chair of the Department of Economics at Tulane University. Penn earned a doctorate in economics from Tulane in May and works as an economic consultant.
Their research was conducted using data from 290 school districts that had at least one public or private four-year-commuter institution nearby. Harris and Penn used annual institutional-level data on the supply of certified teachers from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) by the U.S. Department of Education from 1990- 91 through the 2018-19 school years.
“If charter schools affect the new teacher supply, this effect will be most apparent among commuter students as they are more likely to seek out jobs in the local community where they already live,” the researchers concluded. “We find similar results when examining the effect of charter schools on non-commuter colleges.”
Harris and Penn offer this advice to charter school advocates and those who support traditional public schools.
“These discoveries highlight an opportunity for charter schools and traditional teacher preparation programs to collaborate more closely – particularly if the popularity of charter schools continues to rise. Working in coordination with each other might help offset the charter-driven decline in the pipeline of traditionally prepared teachers and interrupt the cycle of high turnover that has posed problems for charter schools.”
Dillingham agrees more collaboration between charters and traditional public schools is needed.
“We should all be willing to do whatever it takes to give every North Carolina student access to a high-quality education, including exploring every available avenue to recruit and retain teachers,” Dillingham said.
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