It’s not only back to school time for students eager to find out who their new teachers are, it’s also back to school time for students in higher education programs that are training to be teachers, so they can one day soon can stand in front of a new room of younger students eager to meet them.
However, the Rhode Island Department of Education has recognized that there are some improvements they would like to see made to the process by which aspiring teachers become educators in the state.
To do so, they are looking to expand the current Pathways program, through which school districts are encouraged to provide career technical training programs for in-demand fields and students are given opportunities to enter these fields through internships, professional development programs and job placement streams that flow directly into the workforce.
The expansion of Pathways will include three focus areas in order to create a more efficient, quality force of upcoming educators in the state – improving teacher preparation methods; expanding opportunities for in-demand fields within education; and improving professional development so teachers can continue to learn and grow as they advance in the field.
In order to better prepare teachers, RIDE Commissioner Ken Wagner said in a recent interview that teacher preparation programs need to incorporate more hands-on learning.
“What’s good for kids is good for adults,” he said. “Adults learn through doing, not just book knowledge, just as kids do.”
Expanding opportunities means expanding ways in which teachers can work towards teachers certifications and providing incentives for prospective educators to go into educational certification programs that enable them to teach subjects that are in high demand but have a low volume of teachers to fill positions, such as teachers for STEM subjects, English language learners (ELL) and special education.
Wagner said that one of the biggest issues with how institutions currently train teachers is that there are no requirements to make sure the programs being offered match the current demands of the teaching industry. In other words, colleges don’t need to be openly honest about what your chances are of getting a job in a certain area of teaching.
“The challenge for our higher ed colleagues is, when you take peoples’ tuition moneys for jobs we know don’t exist, that’s a moral problem,” Wagner said. “We have to bring regulatory structures but then also we have to be more truthful when we take their dollars about what their odds are of using those tuition dollars to transition into an actual job.”
Wagner said that RIDE already prepares statewide reports broken down by grade level and area of instruction and the correlating number of positions in the field and percentages of people who are able to successfully earn employment in those fields.
He also said that, while having people interested in elementary education is obviously important, there is a more than healthy supply for teachers in that area. The state needs more science teachers, math teachers and teachers who are trained in educating people of differing cultures and languages, Wagner said.
The third facet of the Pathways expansion, professional development, requires administrators and state education officials to rethink how they’ve conducted professional development for a long time, which Wagner said is crucial.
The current system Wagner equates to a “drive-by, one-size-fits-all, ongoing learning mechanism where you have a requirement, you take all your teachers and herd them into a cafeteria or auditorium, you do PD [professional development] to them for seven hours and then they go on their merry way,” and the results of such a method are not positive.
“About 70 percent of our teachers tell us that was a waste of their time,” Wagner said.
To improve the system, Wagner said taking a page from the student Pathways program was the answer. In order to create better opportunities for kids, such as internships and pathways to real careers and jobs, Wagner said it involves a comprehensive course network and an “ecosystem” of service providers to assist districts in choosing what programs would work best in their area and for their student body. This network can include everything from private consultants to nonprofit educational advocacy groups.
Wagner thinks something similar could work for improving professional development in teachers.
“Organizations that want better outcomes have to invest in their people…And we are investing $38 million a year in professional learning for teachers; however, 70 percent of the people getting that investment are saying it wasn’t a good use of time…We just have to do it smarter,” Wagner said. “The answer is to do it like we’re doing it for the kids. Bring the teachers to the table, ask them what they want and then invest in opportunities – or have them invest in their own opportunities that will be aligned to the actual needs that they have.”
Wagner, who just began the first year of his second three-year term as Commissioner of RIDE, said that none of these policy changes or proposed changes happen overnight or without a high degree of scrutiny and data driving the decision to pursue them. The student Pathways program is still a work in progress nearly three years in the making. The proposed teacher Pathways portion goes out for official public comment in the fall.
Should the public have legitimate concerns, it will be reflected to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, who can then make amendments or vote down the idea entirely. The data helping drive them comes from the annual SurveyWorks survey sent out to each of the 299 schools in 58 districts across the state.
“We’ve tried to anchor everything we’re doing with, what do teachers want, what do students want, what do families want and what to communities want?” Wagner said, indicating he wasn’t concerned with the progress of such changes even in an election year. “If you build it based on what they want, of course the work will continue.”