can Uteach?

A teacher prep program that really works? This one is successfully minting math and science educators

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Mariam Manuel was sitting in calculus class at the University of Houston over a decade ago when a professor mentioned a new program allowing math and science majors could also earn a teaching certification.

Manuel knew she wanted to teach, but she didn’t know how she’d get licensed. “It truly was one of those moments that completely changed the trajectory of my life because prior to that I was not able to find something that made that path so clear,” she said. “I enrolled in classes that weekend.”

Now, new peer-reviewed research on the program, known as UTeach, shows that its teachers performed substantially better in the classroom than other teachers in Texas, as measured by student test scores.

That’s just one limited gauge of a teacher’s performance. But it’s encouraging evidence about a rapidly growing program that now operates in 22 states, suggesting that there are ways to better recruit science and math teachers and prepare them to reach students.

The UTeach program started at the University of Texas at Austin in 1997. The idea was to entice math, science, and engineering students to enter teaching with a streamlined program that allowed them to earn both a degree in their subject and a teaching certificate in four years.

Now, the UTeach program partners with 45 universities; by 2022, its leaders predict it will have graduated nearly 8,000 teachers.

Notably, the program doesn’t have tough entry requirements — students at a given university can simply enroll. But they are quickly exposed to the challenges of teaching, perhaps as way to weed out those for whom it’s not a good fit.

“Students start to write lesson plans and teach small units to elementary school children the very first semester in the program,” its website notes.

Many students don’t continue. The study notes that, depending on the year, between 21 and 38 percent of students who enrolled in the initial teaching course completed the program at the original Austin site.

For those who do go on, the program also requires classes in pedagogy and additional student teaching with master teachers. (Keep in mind that the particulars of the program may vary from campus to campus.)

To gauge the effectiveness of the program, the researchers looked at graduates from the program’s original campus and six other participating schools in Texas, and then looked at their impact on student test scores in high school math (largely algebra), high school science (largely biology), and middle school math from 2010 to 2016.

(These “value-added” measures are highly controversial when used in individual teacher evaluations, but they are more widely accepted for low-stakes research purposes.)

The study finds that teachers trained through UTeach were substantially more effective at raising test scores than other Texas teachers with similar students. The difference between UTeach graduates and non-UTeach teachers was actually larger than the gap between new teachers and teachers with a decade of experience.

That’s striking because other research has shown that teachers improve for their first five years on the job, and possibly beyond that. It’s also surprising because other research on teacher preparation has shown that it’s difficult to tell with any certainty which programs produce more effective teachers.

Looking not statewide but within UTeach teachers’ own schools, UTeach graduates still looked good, but somewhat less so: they were similarly or slightly more effective than their colleagues.

The positive findings highlight an important point about teacher training: It may be possible to move more quickly through a traditional four-year curriculum. “Our results suggest that condensing these courses has not resulted in detrimental performance once teachers enter the classroom,” the study’s authors write.

The study can’t sort out what specifically about the program makes it effective, and it’s unclear if the program can maintain its effectiveness as it grows outside Texas.

But the paper shows that the number of math and science teachers graduating from a given university increased after UTeach was put in place, suggesting that the shorter program drew in people who would not otherwise have become teachers.

That’s consistent with other research and the experience of Manuel, who after several years of teaching in public schools now trains teachers through the UTeach program at the University of Houston.

“We go and we speak to students and we tell them about this option that’s available to them,” she said. “Once they [try student teaching], so many of them for the first time realize that they have the bug.”

Top teacher

Franklin educator is Tennessee’s 2018-19 Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: TDOE
Melissa Miller leads her students in a learning game at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin Special School District in Williamson County. Miller is Tennessee's 2018-19 Teacher of the Year.

A first-grade teacher in Franklin is Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year.

Melissa Miller

Melissa Miller, who works at Franklin Elementary School, received the 2018-19 honor for excellence in the classroom Thursday evening during a banquet in Nashville.

A teacher for 19 years, she is National Board Certified, serves as a team leader and mentor at her school, and trains her colleagues on curriculum and technology in Franklin’s city school district in Williamson County, just south of Nashville. She will represent Tennessee in national competition and serve on several working groups with the state education department.

Miller was one of nine finalists statewide for the award, which has been presented to a Tennessee public school teacher most every year since 1960 as a way to promote respect and appreciation for the profession. The finalists were chosen based on scoring from a panel of educators; three regional winners were narrowed down following interviews.

In addition to Miller, who also won in Middle Tennessee, the state recognized Lori Farley, a media specialist at North City Elementary School in Athens City Schools, in East Tennessee. Michael Robinson, a high school social studies teacher at Houston High School in Germantown Municipal School District, was this year’s top teacher in West Tennessee.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen praised the finalists for leading their students to impressive academic gains and growth. She noted that “teachers are the single most important factor in improving students’ achievement.”

Last year’s statewide winner was Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Nashville who has since moved to a middle school in the same Franklin district as Miller.

You can learn more about Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year program here.

PSA

Have you thought about teaching? Colorado teachers union sells the profession in new videos

PHOTO: Colorado Education Association

There are a lot of factors contributing to a shortage of teachers in Colorado and around the nation. One of them — with potentially long-term consequences — is that far fewer people are enrolling in or graduating from teacher preparation programs. A recent poll found that more than half of respondents, citing low pay and lack of respect, would not want their children to become teachers.

Earlier this year, one middle school teacher told Chalkbeat the state should invest in public service announcements to promote the profession.

“We could use some resources in Colorado to highlight how attractive teaching is, for the intangibles,” said Mary Hulac, who teaches English in the Greeley-Evans district. “I tell my students every day, this is the best job.

“You learn every day as a teacher. I’m a language arts teacher. When we talk about themes, and I hear a story through another student’s perspective, it’s always exciting and new.”

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has brought some resources to help get that message out with a series of videos aimed at “up-and-coming professionals deciding on a career.” A spokesman declined to say how much the union was putting into the ad buy.

The theme of the ads is: “Change a life. Change the world.”

“Nowhere but in the education profession can a person have such a profound impact on the lives of students,” association President Amie Baca-Oehlert said in a press release. “We want to show that teaching is a wonderful and noble profession.”

As the union notes, “Opportunities to teach in Colorado are abundant.”

One of the ads features 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year Christina Randle.

“Are you ready to be a positive role model for kids and have a direct impact on the future?” Randle asks.

Another features an education student who was inspired by her own teachers and a 20-year veteran talking about how much she loves her job.

How would you sell the teaching profession to someone considering their career options? Let us know at co.tips@chalkbeat.org.