Teacher Preparation

Teachers From Online-Only Prep Programs Hinder Student Achievement, Report Finds

By Alyson Klein — October 10, 2023 4 min read
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Texas teachers entering the classroom from the state’s fully virtual teacher-preparation programs negatively impact their students’ achievement, according to a policy brief released recently by the Center for Research in Leadership at Texas Tech University.

In fact, the size of the effect of being taught by virtually prepared teachers on student learning is equivalent to the achievement gap between white and Latino students, and between students from poor families and their better-off peers, researchers found. That deficit can’t be explained away by student demographics: Teachers from these programs weren’t disproportionately assigned to low-performing students, the brief said.

It takes an average of three years in the classroom for virtually prepared teachers to demonstrate the same level of effectiveness as first-year teachers from college and university programs, the brief said. And teachers prepared by online-only programs are 2.5 times more likely to leave the classroom in the first several years of teaching than teachers trained in traditional face-to-face programs.

Policymakers around the country looking for a quick fix to their teacher shortage problems should “let Texas be a warning” of what can happen when virtual preparation has “gone off the rails,” said Jacob Kirksey, an assistant professor in the College of Education at Texas Tech, and one of the authors of the brief and a forthcoming working paper on the subject.

Online teacher preparation is one of the fastest-growing sectors of teacher preparation. That’s especially true in Texas, where one in four students is taught by a teacher prepared by an online-only program, the analysis found.

“I think the model in general is [expanding] because it’s lucrative” for providers, Kirksey said.

It seems like an easy on-ramp to the profession for prospective educators, Kirksey added. After paying several thousand dollars to the programs, “you download the PowerPoints. You click through them real fast, you pass your tests,” and then you’re a teacher, he said.

But these teachers’ lack of classroom experience quickly becomes problematic for their students, Kirksey said. “There are still things that we know make for good teachers, like being in schools, being around kids for a little bit before you become a full-time teacher,” Kirksey said.

The analysis considered the effectiveness of teachers in their first four years in the profession trained through fully online teacher preparation programs in the Lone Star State from 2013 to 2019. Researchers compared those teachers to others trained in traditional face-to-face programs, district-run and other alternative certification programs, and uncertified teachers. They examined student performance on state math and reading assessments, accounting for differences in student demographics.

Generally speaking, Texas is an outlier nationally on teacher preparation. Federal data show that, in 2019-20, at least half of would-be teachers in the state were enrolled in non-university based programs—the highest proportion in any state. Many of those alternative programs are fully online.

It’s hard to say if low-quality, online-only programs to get into the teaching profession will grow in popularity beyond the Lone Star State, experts say.

States are under pressure to find and train teachers right now, said Heather Peske, the president of the National Council for Teacher Quality, a nonprofit organization that studies teacher preparation and retention.

“Certainly, states are trying to increase their pipelines in order to ameliorate some of the very real existing teacher staffing challenges,” Peske said. But they shouldn’t look to online-only programs as a solution. “States play a role in making sure that students have well-prepared teachers. And the evidence suggests that they’re not getting them from fast track online teacher prep programs.”

That’s not to say there’s no place for some form of virtual preparation. Some online programs in the United States run synchronously rather than relying on slide or video modules. And some higher-quality online programs pair online coursework with in-person clinical practice in accordance with state requirements, Peske said.

Texas requires low number of teacher observation hours

Texas is one of 22 states that don’t require any teaching practice for alternative routes into the profession, according to an analysis from NCTQ.

In fact, Lone Star State teachers need to spend only 30 hours observing another teacher to get a temporary certification that allows them to work as a classroom teacher for at least a year. And half of that observation time—15 hours—can be virtual and asynchronous, meaning that future teachers can simply watch a video of instruction.

By contrast, Maryland requires teachers entering the classroom through an alternative route program to complete a 4- to 8-week internship, under the supervision of an expert classroom teacher, NCTQ found. And Minnesota calls for 12 continuous weeks of “full-time, face-to-face” field experience, for both alternative route and traditionally prepared candidates, the organization reported.

Texas should increase oversight of these virtual programs and require all programs to publicly report student performance outcomes of their graduates, the brief by the Center for Research in Leadership at Texas Tech University recommends.

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