Teacher Preparation

As Charter Schools Rise, Fewer Graduate From Undergrad Teacher Prep. Why?

By Madeline Will — October 28, 2022 7 min read
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The presence of charter schools in a region seems to reduce the supply of teachers with bachelor’s degrees in education, according to a new study that could reignite a long-standing debate about education reform and the best ways to prepare teachers.

The paper, published by the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice (REACH), analyzed data from 290 school districts with at least one commuter college nearby. The researchers found that increasing a district’s charter school enrollment by 10 percent seemed to decrease the supply of teachers prepared in an undergraduate university-based education program, on average, by about 14 percent. This change is statistically significant.

The study wasn’t able to pinpoint the exact reason for these findings, leaving open a number of interpretations. The researchers said charter schools could be less likely to want to hire traditionally prepared teachers—and teachers who go through university-based education programs might also be deterred from working in charter schools.

“There’s an ideological battle going on between the establishment, in quotes, and the reformers, in quotes,” said Douglas Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University and a co-author of the report. “I think they see themselves being at odds, and [charter schools] see the university schools of education as being a part of that establishment. They’re trying to do things differently.”

Over the past two decades, charter enrollment nationally has increased while the annual share of bachelor’s degrees in education has decreased.

Between 2005-06 and 2018-19, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in education has declined by 22 percent, federal data show. During the same time period, the total number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in all fields rose by 29 percent. Alternative teacher-education programs also saw declines in the number of completers over the past decade, but not to the same extent as traditional programs.

Meanwhile, 7 percent of U.S. students now attend charter schools, and a quarter of their teachers were prepared through an alternate route instead of earning an education degree, the REACH report says. (REACH, which is housed at Tulane, works to provide research on school choice policy design and implementation.)

A link between charters and local teaching programs

Harris said he first noticed an apparent connection between the rise in charter schools and the decline in degrees conferred by local schools of education in New Orleans. (Since Hurricane Katrina, nearly all of the city’s public schools are now charter schools.)

Harris and his co-author, Mary Penn, who is a research partner at REACH, used federal data to compare the number of bachelor’s degrees in education before and after charter schools opened in districts that are geographically close to at least one undergraduate education program. To isolate the effect of charter entry from other factors, they also compared changes in the teacher supply over time between districts that opened charter schools and districts with no charter schools.

“We found that all of those things we were seeing in New Orleans and other cities seems to hold in other places,” Harris said.

The analysis focuses on school districts that have commuter colleges offering education majors, because teachers who graduate from those colleges are more likely to take jobs in the areas where they already live. Still, the researchers said they found similar effects when examining the effect of charter schools on non-commuter colleges.

The study’s results show a connection, not a definitive cause-and-effect relationship. But Harris said he conducted several different analyses to rule out other factors. For example, similar patterns didn’t show up for the number of college graduates in general. Those results reinforced his confidence that the study’s findings do reflect the effects of charter school entry.

Even so, in a statement, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools disavowed the report’s conclusions, arguing that the shrinking supply of teachers from traditional preparation programs is instead fueled by fewer people entering those programs. (The alliance sits on REACH’s advisory board as a data and project partner.)

“Although charter schools are a convenient scapegoat for the report author, they are simply not the cause of the nation’s teacher shortage,” the statement said. “Given the dire labor shortage, we as a nation need to be open to alternative certification and preparatory programs that attract talent from untraditional sources and provide teachers for the classrooms that desperately need them. Charter schools seem to understand that point.”

In response, Harris said that charters are not responsible for all of the decline in bachelor’s degrees in education—just some of it. Prospective teachers decide to enroll in undergraduate schools in education based in part on the work options available, and charter schools change those options, he said.

The study’s conclusions remain up for debate

The study found that the reductions in teacher supply are concentrated among graduates with bachelor’s degrees that focus on elementary education, math education, and special education.

Harris noted that charter schools are more likely to serve elementary students, and charter schools often prefer hiring subject-matter experts, like math majors instead of math education majors. Past research and federal data have also suggested that charter schools serve fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools.

The study also found larger effects in metropolitan areas, and evidence that charter schools may reduce the supply of Black teachers with a bachelor’s degree more than white teachers—two effects that might be correlated, since more Black teachers graduate from colleges in urban areas, Harris said.

Prospective teachers who want to work in charter schools may pursue an alternate route to the classroom, Harris said. Teach For America sends many of its teachers to work in charter schools, and some charter schools and networks run their own alternate-preparation programs. Several newer graduate schools, like the Relay Graduate School of Education, which now operates in multiple states, also emerged out of a need to meet charters’ human-capital needs. (That program also supplies teachers to traditional schools and districts.)

Universities might also play a role in deterring their candidates from pursuing a job in a charter school, Harris said, adding that some programs will not assign students to charter schools for student-teaching.

But both those in the teacher preparation field and the charter sector rejected that interpretation.

“I have never heard of anyone in a comprehensive program dissuading teacher candidates from charter school teaching,” Lynn Gangone, the president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, wrote in an email. “Rather, I believe that charters seek out less ‘traditional’ teachers, hence the turnover in charter school teachers.”

She added: “AACTE believes that every student deserves a highly qualified teacher who understands content, pedagogy, and has a clinical experience that prepares them for the 21st century classroom, a much more complex classroom environment with students with greater needs than ever before.”

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Meanwhile, the NAPCS said that “the report incorrectly implies that different credentials make a teacher less valuable or effective, though there is nothing in the research that supports the notion that credentials mean a teacher will be more effective.”

Alternative teacher-preparation programs have been found to be more effective at recruiting more teachers of color into the profession. Research is mixed on whether alternative or traditional preparation programs are more effective in improving teacher practice, though studies show that teachers prepared in alternative programs leave the profession at higher rates compared to those who go through a traditional school of education.

The researchers concluded that these findings represent an opportunity for charter schools and traditional teacher-preparation programs to work together more closely—especially as the charter sector continues to grow.

In New Orleans, charter schools and local universities eventually formed partnerships to build a teacher pipeline in a “less combative” way, Harris said.

After all, he said, “I think we need to be a little worried about anything that reduces the supply of teachers at this point.”

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