Texas Teachers of Tomorrow has become the largest teacher training program in the nation, offering a low-cost online program. While it’s lowered barriers and helped diversify the workforce, this approach to training hasn’t solved chronic teacher shortages.
Ever since the 2008 economic recession, the state of Oklahoma has struggled with worsening teacher shortages. As in many states, the problem in Oklahoma is two-fold: A growing number of teachers have been leaving their jobs, and colleges of education at the state’s universities haven’t been producing enough new ones, especially ones who can fill shortages for special education and in subjects like math, science and English language learning.
In response, the Oklahoma State Board of Education chose to drastically lower its standards for teachers. The board began issuing many more emergency certifications, valid for up to two years, that allow just about anyone with a bachelor’s degree to begin teaching. Schools in need began hiring people without any teaching experience or training, as long as they passed a background check.
In the 2011-2012 school year, the board issued just 32 emergency certifications. By the 2018-19 school year, the board gave out more than 3,000 of them.
By issuing thousands of emergency teaching certificates, the board may have worsened the state’s problems. Now even fewer people in the state have been choosing to train as teachers. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs across Oklahoma has declined by 80 percent in the previous decade. The state now has an increasing number of teachers with almost no training.
In September 2019, in a drab conference room in the state capitol in Tulsa, lawmakers on the state House Common Education Committee gathered to discuss how the problem got so out of hand.
A guest from Texas joined the lawmakers that day: Dave Saba, the chief development officer at a company called Teachers of Tomorrow. He told them that the company had helped solve the teacher shortage problem in Texas, and now it was expanding to solve the problem in other states.
“My job is to go out and meet with states, and see if we have a solution that might meet their needs,” he said.
Houston-based Teachers of Tomorrow is a private, for-profit company offering online teacher training. It’s one of a growing number of for-profit teacher training companies that started in Texas since 2002. That year, the Lone Star State became the first in the country to allow these companies — not affiliated with institutions of higher education — to operate.
The company was founded by Vernon Reaser, a politically connected businessman, and Kathy Schreiber-Clark, a former teacher, and has become the single largest teacher training program by enrollment in Texas. More than 48,000 people have signed up since 2005. That dwarfs the next largest in the state, another online, for-profit company called iTeach, which has also expanded into five other states and Washington, D.C.
For-profit, online teacher training is now a growing trend across the country, and Teachers of Tomorrow is the largest program in the country by enrollment. Through successful lobbying efforts, the company has expanded into Nevada, Florida, Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina and South Carolina. Teachers of Tomorrow has certified more than 70,000 teachers nationwide, most of them in Texas.
These growing private teacher training programs are less time intensive and far less expensive than colleges of education. Proponents of this approach say they are making teaching more accessible to career changers and people who want to try it without going back to college for another degree. The low entry costs (just $295 up front and an additional $4,300 during their first teaching year) coupled with the flexibility of online coursework make these online courses more practical for working adults.
Critics say that the for-profit training companies produce teachers who are less likely to stay in the profession for the long term, and that the programs don’t offer enough hands-on training. Teachers who come through training programs outside of universities are more likely to be hired to work at high-poverty, high-needs schools with already-high teacher turnover. Critics say that the programs effectively send the least trained people to teach in schools with the greatest needs and that they contribute to teacher churn in those schools, which negatively affects students.
An analysis by APM Reports found that Texas teachers trained through alternative certification programs — including for-profit online programs — were more likely to leave the profession after their first year. In that sense, companies like Teachers of Tomorrow are supplying schools with many more teachers from different backgrounds. But contrary to their claims, they haven’t solved teacher shortages.
For-profits for hire
In the early 2000s, Texas had the kind of teacher shortages that exist in most states. The shortages were especially acute in high poverty schools, and in areas like math, science, English as a second language and special education.
Lawmakers in Texas hoped that lowering the barriers to teacher certifications and allowing the private sector to train teachers would address the persistent shortages.
But some staffers at the State Board for Educator Certification were concerned. They worried that lowering requirements for teacher training might produce more teachers, but the approach wouldn’t necessarily solve the shortages. The root of that problem, they said, was that too many teachers were leaving because of poor working conditions and pay — not because the state couldn’t produce enough of them in the first place.
Ed Fuller, who’s now an education professor and researcher at Penn State University, was director of research at the certification board in the early 2000s when alternative certification programs began proliferating. He worried at the time that because the companies created their curriculum based on fulfilling the absolute minimum state teacher standards that they’d graduate people fast, but without requiring much training time in classrooms. Then, their graduates would find a job most easily at schools with the most vacancies — schools with chronic high turnover, which tended to be ones with the highest poverty levels and the highest proportions of students of color.
“I argued it was just going to exacerbate the achievement gap that already existed in Texas,” he said in a recent interview. He also worried about the trend worsening turnover. Teachers with the least training tend to leave the profession at the highest rates.
“If we’re preparing all these teachers, but a lot of them leave, we just have a continual cycle of new teachers in these schools over and over and over,” he said.
The price of admission
To enroll in Texas Teachers of Tomorrow, candidates need a bachelor’s degree and at least a 2.5 GPA from their undergraduate program. Students complete 150 hours of online coursework — recorded videos, PowerPoints, tests and essays — on their own time. They also need to complete 30 hours of “field-based experience,” which consists of watching a teacher in action either in person or online. Candidates in Texas are then eligible to apply for teaching jobs on a probationary certificate. It’s called their “intern year,” but they are fully in charge of the classroom.
In 2016, Ju Gray completed the first part of the Texas Teachers of Tomorrow program in just six weeks, while she worked a retail job. She didn’t want a lifetime career in teaching but a good paycheck and some stability for a few years. “If it was not this accessible and easy, I would not have done it,” she said.
Because Texas Teachers of Tomorrow has made the training so accessible, and made recruiting diverse candidates a priority, the company’s enrollment of Black and Hispanic teachers is much higher than many of Texas’ colleges of education. Saba says 46 percent of the program’s enrollment is non-white candidates. In that way, Teachers of Tomorrow is greatly helping to diversify Texas’ majority white teacher workforce.
When Gray finished the Texas Teachers of Tomorrow program and started looking for work, she learned quickly how desperate many schools were for teachers. Overall, Texas schools lose about 30,000 teachers every year. More than 10 percent of the teacher workforce either changes schools or leaves the profession annually.
She applied to two schools, five minutes from her house. She interviewed at one of the schools and was hired within a week.
During that intern year at a Houston middle school, Gray had to complete 120 more hours of online classes and projects, and take state certification and content area tests. A coach from Texas Teachers of Tomorrow came to observe her classes and give feedback at least five times throughout the year. She said that year was the hardest of her career. She felt overwhelmed by the paperwork, the record keeping, and all the meetings with administrators, parents and other teachers between and after classes.
She doesn’t blame Texas Teachers of Tomorrow for leaving her unprepared but rather the administration at the school. “I don't think anything will actually prepare you for the classroom,” she said, “except for maybe substitute teaching, or getting that hands-on experience, that face-to-face, in-person experience.”
Gray went on to teach at two high schools during the next three years, which she loved. But she decided to leave teaching at the end of this past school year, her fifth year, to work at the district level training other teachers and helping with instruction.
Teacher quantity vs. quality
Saba must often convince state legislatures that his program is just as good as university programs and that Teachers of Tomorrow is not compromising teacher quality. He has to show lawmakers that the program can graduate teachers as ready to enter a classroom as those who graduate from university programs.
“You know, the arguments have always been these aren’t quality teachers, they’re not going to stay in there. I just whittle away those arguments,” he said.
In the education research and policy world, there’s no consensus on how best to measure teacher quality, or what, exactly, makes a good teacher. Most researchers use standardized student test scores to measure teachers, then look at how the teacher was trained.
Saba often references a 2016 report from researchers working with the University of Texas who looked at a year of standardized test scores across Texas from elementary and middle schoolers. They concluded there was so much variation, and the differences between the quality of the teachers who had trained at the 120 educator preparation programs in Texas so minimal, that they couldn’t definitively say any of the for-profits were producing better or worse teachers than universities. Another report from researchers at the University of Texas that looked at several years of standardized test scores among ninth graders found that university-trained teachers had slightly higher value-added measurements.
What just about all education researchers can agree on is that teachers are one of the most important parts of a student’s overall academic success, and that high turnover rates among teachers in a school are detrimental.
Desiree Carver-Thomas is a researcher and policy analyst at the Learning Policy Institute, a national nonprofit that focuses on education research. Her work has shown that teachers who enter the field with the least preparation leave at two to three times the rate of those who enter with the most preparation.
“So when schools hire underprepared teachers, who are more likely to leave, it can become this revolving door most often in schools serving more students of color and students from low-income families,” she says. “That’s disruptive to schools, and it puts students at an academic disadvantage.”
Most teachers who receive training from Texas Teachers of Tomorrow stay in their jobs for at least five years. About 71 percent of Texas teachers trained with Teachers of Tomorrow were still in their jobs five years later. That’s a higher five-year retention rate than the national average of 56 percent.
But Teachers of Tomorrow’s five-year retention rate is worse than two-thirds of the other teacher training programs in the state, according to an APM Reports analysis. The programs in Texas housed at institutions of higher education averaged a 78 to 81 percent retention rate after five years.
That may not be the best measure of teacher training, however. Education researchers say that when a teacher quits five years into the job, it’s largely because of the working conditions at their schools, not because of the program that trained them. The Texas Education Agency provides year-by-year retention data for types of programs, but not for individual programs themselves, so APM Reports couldn’t analyze the one- or two-year retention rate for just Texas Teachers of Tomorrow.
An APM Reports’ analysis of first- and second-year retention data across program types found that about 12 percent of the college-trained teachers in Texas quit by the end of their second year. About 21 percent of the teachers who trained in all other programs quit by the end of their second year on the job. That’s almost double the rate of the university trained teachers.
APM reports’ analysis found that because Texas Teachers of Tomorrow had grown so big, almost all school districts in the state are hiring people from the program. During the 2017-18 school year, nearly a third of all “new” teachers — defined by the state as a teacher certified within the previous three years — had been trained by Texas Teachers of Tomorrow.
While Teachers of Tomorrow and other online programs have been growing, university programs have been doing the opposite. In the past decade, enrollment in Texas colleges of education have declined by a third. It’s part of a nationwide trend.
Charles Martinez, dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin, said that while the school can learn from the successes and growth of the for-profits, he doesn’t believe his school is competing with Texas Teachers of Tomorrow for candidates. The program is more rigorous — and far more expensive.
“I think that the bar will always be higher for what we do in institutions of higher ed,” he said.
Take, for example, the minimum “field-based experience” requirement in Texas: 30 hours in a classroom observing another teacher before you’re the teacher of record. That’s the requirement for Texas Teachers of Tomorrow graduates. It’s far less than the hours required by university programs.
“If we set the standard in our college of ed that our students would have 30 hours of pre-service experience, then we shouldn’t even be here,” Martinez said.
He credits online programs with helping ease teacher shortages. He said that without Texas Teachers of Tomorrow, class sizes in parts of the state could be higher and hiring even more difficult for some schools. But the online programs haven’t solved the shortage problem. And lowering the bar to entry into teaching comes at a cost, he said.
“We have devalued what educators do so profoundly that we're willing to let this other thing happen, which is to have the void filled by for-profit, alt-certification.”
Teachers of Tomorrow, tomorrow
For Teachers of Tomorrow, the plan is to expand and to train as many teachers as possible.
“There's plenty of open runway for us,” said Saba, the chief development officer. “We could be in 25 states tomorrow. I could be in 40 with a little bit more work, and then all 50 states at some point in time.”
Back in Oklahoma in 2019, Saba told lawmakers that Texas no longer has a teacher shortage, “because as enrollment in traditional programs has dropped off, alternative certification has come up to feed that need,” he told them.
But that’s not entirely the case. The state’s teacher shortages have not significantly changed in some subjects and geographic areas during the past two decades. By lowering the barriers to entry, the market has been flooded with new teachers, but the overall inability to keep them means that a lot of schools in Texas still struggle with teacher churn. The state hasn’t solved the problem of teachers who leave at high rates because of working conditions and pay.
Saba said he spent months trying to get Oklahoma politicians on board with Teachers of Tomorrow. He advocated that instead of allowing so many emergency teacher certifications, which require no training, lawmakers should raise the standards so Teachers of Tomorrow could operate in the state.
But they refused, and Saba shelved his effort to work in the state. If someone with a college degree can become certified as a teacher with no training, there’s little reason to invest even in Teachers of Tomorrow’s inexpensive program. Teachers of Tomorrow will continue to expand to states across the country, Saba said. But in Oklahoma, the standards were simply too low.
The state has since doubled down on that approach. In spring 2020, as Oklahoma struggled to find teachers and substitute teachers during the Covid-19 pandemic, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill allowing some of those emergency certified teachers to keep teaching indefinitely.