Clear eyes on teacher preparation in West Texas

We wrote last week about how institutions of higher education can leverage external pressure to drive internal change. This post is about the flip side. External pressure may also undermine such efforts and make it challenging for leaders of teacher-preparation programs to lead ambitious improvements.

The College of Education at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (UTPB), located in the heart of the West Texas and led by Dean Frank Hernandez, is facing this dilemma, courtesy of the oil industry.

Gas companies exert an enormous amount of pressure on the culture and economy of the region, some of it positive – when oil prices are high, employment opportunities abound – and some of it more complicated. The influx of oil workers during boom times drives up housing costs (making it less affordable for teachers who are not making oil-field wages) and rapidly inflates student enrollment in local K-12 districts (creating more demand for teachers).

The challenge facing UTPB is how to prepare effective teachers despite pressure to generate bodies to fill classrooms.

Consider one local district where UTPB sends its graduates. Ector County Independent School District, a district of about 27,000 students that serves the city of Odessa and surrounding areas, currently has more than 200 open teaching positions it is trying to fill. Given this shortage, Ector County ISD is using long-term substitute teachers (or a revolving cast of short-term subs) as essentially permanent teachers – despite not having any formal teaching training.

This pressure leads to less visible – but no less important – consequences for UTPB’s clinical training of its teacher candidates.

One UTPB faculty member told me about a student-teacher intern from the program who was working with a five-teacher grade-level team where all five teachers were long-term substitutes. The intern was the only one of the group who was qualified for even a provisional certificate.

Student teaching should be an opportunity for teacher-candidates to practice teaching in real-life classrooms under the guidance of experienced mentor teachers. The breakdown of any part of this system – if classroom conditions are poor, if the examples of pedagogy and content knowledge are weak, if mentoring and feedback are misinformed – results in candidates who, at best, fail to benefit from a critical component of their preparation or, at worst, develop bad practices based on incorrect understandings of how students learn.

Despite these challenges, UTPB is working to identify ways to counteract the macroeconomic forces. One example of this is UTPB’s partnership with the National Center for Teacher Residencies.

NCTR recently won a three-year, $11.7 million federal grant to expand its residency programs by establishing nine new residences around the country that will support up to 450 effective residents and 450 high quality mentors. UTPB was selected as one of the first three partners for the grant, and is now working with NCTR to establish the West Texas Teacher Training (WT3) Residency Program, which will support 75 residents and 75 mentor teachers over its first three years.

NCTR and UTPB will work together to recruit effective teacher-mentors through tailored professional development that will help them understand and implement the principles of adult learning. The trained mentor-teachers will be paired with pre-service teachers for a full-year of classroom experience. The residency program will also develop a curriculum that integrates candidates’ experiences in the classroom with their coursework. And the new residency program will provide guidance and coaching to its graduates through for at least their first two years as teachers of record.

NCTR plans to conduct a rigorous evaluation of the residency program to assess the impact on student achievement. Additionally, ECISD is willing to share data about district teachers who graduated from the WT3 program and the impact they are having on student learning outcomes. This outcomes data should help UTPB understand the strengths and weaknesses of its graduates – and provide empirical evidence Dean Hernandez and faculty can use to improve program effectiveness. UTPB will also take the big learnings from the WT3 program – what’s making a difference at improving student achievement – and embed those practices into its traditional teacher-education program.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of an ongoing series about the educator-preparation programs led by Deans for Impact members. The posts reflect insights from Deans for Impact Learning Tours, multi-day visits by staff and member deans to programs led by our members. These visits are opportunities for transparent discussion about the triumphs and the challenges involved in implementing the guiding principles of Deans for Impact.

Charis Anderson

Senior Director of Communications

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