Ahead of the Class

Click here to download the full report:
 Ahead of the Class

The shortage of qualified teachers in urban and rural schools is a serious problem that demands concerted action. School districts with teacher shortages can begin to address their need by forming partnerships with teacher education programs––the entities that formally prepare candidates for state certification. By pooling and coordinating the resources of both institutions, partnerships can potentially maximize results and produce more new and qualified teachers. To be productive, however, partnerships require considerable planning and continuous review. Below, we outline essential steps in building effective, lasting partnerships.

Creating Successful Institutional Partnerships

Creating a Partnership

Putting together the planning team. The initial impetus for a partnership may come from either a school district with a teacher shortage or a university in geographic proximity to such a district. If the parties involved agree to pursue a partnership, it is advisable to form a committee to help plan the effort. The role of this committee is to assess the district’s need for qualified teachers, set numerical goals, determine the pool or pools from which to draw new recruits for difficult-to-fill teaching positions, and design a program to meet the goals the partners set.

The composition of the planning committee is critical to its success. Among those who should be included are the following:

  • The person slated to oversee Pathways program activities at the university
  • Faculty members who are likely to teach courses for program participants
  • A representative from the dean of education’s office
  • Representatives from the partner school district’s personnel office who have access to information on local demand for teachers
  • Principals from the partnering district who hire teachers for their schools and whose support is essential to recruit for the new program from the ranks of paraprofessionals and uncertified teachers

Assessing the district’s need for qualified teachers. Planning begins with a systematic assessment of the local need for teachers, based on an analysis of current and projected teacher turnover rates, anticipated retirements, numbers of uncertified teachers, student enrollment trends, and existing policies on acceptable teacher-pupil ratios. But this is not enough. Because the demand for teachers varies across subjects, the planning team must also determine critical district needs for more teachers in specific subject areas. In recent years, for example, teachers of mathematics, science, bilingual education, and special education have been in high demand. Similarly, school districts sometimes seek teachers with particular characteristics. For example, concern over the growing cultural mismatch between the backgrounds of the K-12 student population and the teaching force has prompted many districts to seek more teachers from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds, whose knowledge of minority cultures can help build bridges between home and school for the growing numbers of minority children.

In brief, to tailor recruitment programs to the needs of the partner school districts, the planning committee must estimate fairly accurately the number of teaching positions the district will need to fill in the near future and the fields in which those vacancies are likely to occur. The committee must also determine the type of teachers the district seeks to hire. This information should guide subsequent aspects of the planning process.

Setting goals. After assessing local needs, the planning team must set goals that will guide the development of program activities. Overall, the types of partnerships featured in this handbook aim to increase the number of qualified, fully certified teachers for difficult-to-fill positions in the partner school districts. This general goal, however, must be tailored to the local circumstances of each district. That means, for example, specifying the number of teachers that the program aims to produce, listing subject areas in which those teachers are to be certified and noting any other teacher qualities the district considers high priority. Without specific goals, a partnership cannot assess its progress or the ultimate impact of its effort.

Choosing the pool from which to draw new recruits. The planning team must also choose the specific pool or pools from which to recruit teachers for anticipated vacancies. Broadly speaking, school districts can draw on their own employees––by providing career ladder opportunities for paraprofessionals and uncertified teachers––or they can recruit from outside their boundaries. While several different pools exist outside the district, this handbook addresses only one group, returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs), a group targeted by several Pathways programs.

The paraprofessional pool consists largely of instructional aides, but it also includes secretaries, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and social service coordinators. There are important reasons for targeting paraprofessionals. Many live in the communities in which the students themselves live, and they know a great deal about the circumstances of these youngsters. They tend to mirror the racial/ethnic makeup of the student population, which makes the pool a good source of minority teachers. Because many have strong ties to their communities, they are likely to continue teaching in the partner districts after securing state certification. Paraprofessionals in career ladder programs continue their salaried positions and enroll in courses each semester toward completing the requirements for teaching certification and, in most cases, for a bachelor’s degree as well. Most paraprofessionals who have participated in Pathways had at least 60 college credits when they entered the program.

Uncertified teachers are individuals who temporarily occupy difficult-to-fill teaching positions. The group includes long-term substitutes who may or may not hold bachelor’s degrees and emergency-certified teachers who generally hold bachelor’s degrees but lack permanent certification. While emergency-certified teachers usually receive better benefits and higher salaries than substitute teachers, their employment status is conditional on satisfying requirements for full certification within a grace period, typically three years. This pool is another good source of permanent teachers for districts with teacher shortages. Because substitute and emergency-certified teachers have teaching experience in the partner district, they know the student population well. Many are of racial/ethnic minority backgrounds and are knowledgeable about the cultures of students of color. Because most possess bachelor’s degrees, they can complete the coursework required for certification within a relatively brief period, even if they are taking courses part-time.

Returned Peace Corps volunteers form another strong pool of potential teachers for high-need urban and rural school districts.1 For one thing, their Peace Corps experience has taught them what it is like to be in the cultural and linguistic minority. This experience has also given them insight into the important role that language and culture play in social settings, including schools. Many RPCVs are fluent in other languages as well, and they tend to be highly committed to social justice. Programs targeting RPCVs help recruits secure emergency teaching credentials and placements in full-time teaching positions in the partner districts. Participants then take courses part-time to complete the curriculum that leads to permanent teaching certification.

When deciding which pool to target, your program planning team should consider the following:

Paraprofessionals: A survey of potential participants can help the planning team gather much of the information below, which is essential to determining the ability of this pool to match recruiting goals.

How many paraprofessionals does the district employ now? How many are interested in pursuing a program of study that will lead to teaching certification? What are their demographic characteristics (i.e., race/ethnicity and sex)? How many college credits will they need? How many college credits have they already completed? How many of the completed credits are likely to transfer to the program’s partner college/university? How long is it likely to take paraprofessionals to satisfy certification requirements? Is this timeline compatible with the district’s needs?

Uncertified teachers: Again, a survey of potential participants could help the planning team to gather significant information about this pool.

How many uncertified teachers does the district employ? How many are interested in pursuing the program of study that leads to teaching certification? What are their demographic characteristics (i.e., race/ethnicity and sex)? How many have already completed a bachelor’s degree? How many have taken courses that count toward certification? How many credits toward certification have they completed?

RPCVs: Does either member of the partnership––the teacher education program or the school district––have contact with the Peace Corps of America to facilitate recruitment from this pool? If not, which partner will be responsible for establishing and maintaining contact with the Peace Corps? How many emergency full-time teaching positions is the district willing to allocate to qualified RPCVs so they can perform paid work while completing the requirements for permanent certification? Does the timeline for hiring new emergency-certified teachers coincide with the Peace Corps return schedule?

Obviously, a pool large enough to produce a sufficient number of qualified candidates must be considerably larger than the number of teachers the district estimates will be needed in future years. Only a large pool will give the program sufficient freedom to be selective in choosing participants.

Designing the program. After your planning team has set goals and chosen the target pool, you are well positioned to design a program that will advance those goals and address participants’ needs while building on their strengths. The next aspect of planning involves decisions on the following matters:

  • Strategies for recruiting and selecting program participants
  • The program of study participants must complete
  • The network of academic, pedagogical, social, and financial support for participants

Because the success of the partnership rests largely on the quality of the program design, we discuss each of these three essential components in separate sections of this handbook.

Overseeing the Implementation of the Program and Making Modifications as Needed

The role of the planning committee officially ends upon completion of the planning phase described above. Once the implementation phase begins, however, your program should establish another group to provide oversight. In the Pathways initiative, this advisory committee’s membership mirrors that of the planning group. This is not surprising, because the same people who have been intimately involved in planning the Pathways program become central to its effective realization. In a number of Pathways programs we evaluated, the original planning committee often simply continues as the advisory committee that oversees the program as it develops.

Initially, the advisory committee formally meets two to four times a year. As the program matures, the committee meets less often. Regularly scheduled advisory committee meetings give school district representatives an opportunity to make certain that college/university staff are aware of the district’s changing needs, in order to adjust program objectives as swiftly as needed.

In Pathways, the role of the advisory committee is twofold––to monitor the progress made by the program toward established goals, and to make recommendations for dealing with issues that arise during implementation. The most significant input given by the Pathways advisory committees we evaluated focused on the following matters:

  • How to deal with participants who lacked the expected number of transferable credits
  • How to enable participants who were working full-time to complete the required student teaching practicum without salary interruptions
  • What to do about participants with marginal academic performance
  • How to facilitate the hiring of program graduates

We found that, when all key parties had seats on the advisory committee––the director or coordinator of program activities from the teacher education program, teacher education faculty, the district’s office of personnel, and school principals––problems that arose during implementation of a new Pathways program were generally addressed quickly and effectively. This was especially true when all of these groups had played active parts in planning the program.

The Appeal of Partnerships

Rapidly proliferating partnerships between school districts and teacher education programs are an encouraging response to the teacher shortage. One reason for this growth is that the combined resources several institutions can muster enable more effective, comprehensive solutions to problems. Carefully planned partnerships can also yield considerable benefits to all parties. Districts gain well-prepared, fully credentialed teachers for difficult-to-staff positions in their schools. Teacher education programs enhance their capacity to meet the needs of children in the partner districts by modifying the content of their traditional curricula as well as by connecting directly with the schools. Spending more time in schools helps teacher educators to stay abreast of target districts’ genuine needs. Participants in your program will benefit from the support they receive to obtain teaching certification. More important, the combined effect of all these gains from partnership can improve the everyday education of the children in K-12 schools.

Barriers to Overcome and Facilitating Factors

Partnerships are not problem-free, however. To flourish and succeed, they demand much time and attention. Time pressure on everyone often makes it difficult to schedule necessary meetings. Frequent turnover among school personnel, especially in urban districts, can lead to communication problems and changing faces on program committees.

Programs targeting RPCVs face additional challenges. The decentralization caused by recent school reform efforts complicates the hiring of RPCVs for teaching positions. Because new teachers are hired by principals in many decentralized systems, coordinating applicant interviews can be a nightmare. Furthermore, because the number of teaching opportunities depends on yearly budgets, recruitment needs are unpredictable, particularly in urban settings. This uncertainty makes it more difficult for programs to recruit RPCVs.

We found that the presence of six factors helps to resolve these problems and promote program success:

  1. A history of collaboration between the partner institutions;
  2. Open, frequent communication between representatives from the partner institutions;
  3. An accurate needs assessment that enables the planning team to articulate clear priorities and precise program goals;
  4. Strong respect commanded in the district by the director/coordinator of program activities;
  5. Program goals that are compatible with the mission of the participating teacher education program; and
  6. High-caliber program participants.

Each of these factors can help to overcome problems in building a new program; the presence of all of them together becomes a powerful predictor of success for a new program.

< < Previous | Next > >


1. We use this group as an example because they were targeted by the Pathways program. Other groups in this category might include retired military personnel, career-switchers, or other nondistrict employees with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a noneducation field.