Inequitable Teacher Distribution Prompts Urban ‘Grow Your Own’ Programs

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, March 23, 2016

Teacher Shortages in High-Need Areas

Inequitable teacher distribution has been a problem in the U.S. since the advent of universal education. Because teachers are free to choose where they work, schools in geographical areas that appear less appealing tend to attract fewer potential educators. Areas with higher poverty rates, in particular, are likely to struggle to find great teachers. Compounding this problem, the number people who want to join the teaching profession is on the decline. Michigan, in particular, has seen a 38% drop in teacher education enrollment since 2008.

This overall lack of educators disproportionately impacts students of color and those living in low-income, urban neighborhoods.

Image courtesy of Petras Gagilas

Image courtesy of Petras Gagilas

There have been several large-scale attempts at addressing teacher shortages. Among them are Teach For America’s efforts in placing graduates from prestigious universities in high-need areas, and a more recent federal mandate that requires states come up with a plan to address the problem of teacher shortages in the areas with the highest need. Given that there still exist great inequities in who gets what kind of teacher, however, some localities have attempted to address the problem from the ground-up.

Grow your Own

The leadership of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Chicago Teachers Union don’t agree on much, but they both have recognized the merits of a teacher recruitment initiative called Grow Your Own. Founded nearly ten years ago by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Grow Your Own seeks to help educators and community members become certified teachers. While the idea may not seem revolutionary on its surface, it addresses two significant barriers to equitable access to teachers.

The first problem with the teacher shortage is that too few teachers are willing to teach in lower-income urban neighborhoods. While Teach For America, along with other alternative certification programs, provide a significant number of teachers specifically for these under-staffed areas, the vast majority of these teachers leave the profession within three years, leaving troubled schools subject to instability and high turnover. Traditionally trained teachers, too, tend to leave the urban areas after a few years. Teachers are more likely to teach an in an environment like the one in which they grew up. Therefore, the white teachers from the suburbs who teach in inner-city neighborhoods for a few years are likely to return to schools similar to their hometowns for the long-term.

The Grow Your Own program confronts this trend by actively recruiting teachers of color and those from the neighborhoods that have teacher shortages. These teachers commit to contributing to their communities by gaining credentials and remaining in the area.

This strategy tackles a second challenge for staffing for urban schools. Students of color have few teachers who come from similar backgrounds as they do. In Illinois, for example, state data show 83.6% of teachers are white, while 6.6% are black and 3.6% are Latino. By contrast, 39% of CPS students are African American, and 45% are Latino. The Grow Your Own program maintains that teachers should be representative of the students they serve. Indeed, there is some evidence that minority students benefit from having teachers who share their race.

By guiding committed community members through the teacher certification process, the Grow Your Own programs helps potential educators navigate a system to which they may not otherwise have access. Likewise, the program uses state grant money to provide loans and tuition subsidies to those completing college credit and certification. Students’ loans are then forgiven after they complete five years of teaching at a high-need school.

Challenges to Growing Your Own

Grow Your Own is an approach employed in several urban areas across the country. Many rural areas, too, struggle with staffing challenges and have tried similar strategies. Idaho and Vermont actually wrote legislation into their State Teacher Equity plans submitted to the federal government last year. However, like so many ideas in education policy, it is no silver bullet.

The Chicago Tribune published an article critiquing the fiscal efficiency of Grow Your Own programs. The state of Illinois invested $20 million dollars designed to train educators to teach in their home communities. The initiative sought to certify 1,000 teachers. Thus far, however, it has produced only 100 graduates. Much of this money was spent on administrative costs to create and maintain the program, not on the teachers themselves and teachers who were counseled out due to poor performance often never repaid the loans used for their incomplete classes.

In addition to financial concerns, the recruitment practices in these programs produce mixed results. In Chicago, many of the participants failed to fulfill college credit requirements or struggled to pass the proficiency examinations. In all, the Chicago program has recruited 665 candidates. In addition to those who already possessed college degrees, 140 are working toward getting their degrees and 70 of the graduates have been hired by CPS thus far.

While Grow Your Own programs have demonstrated the need for some refinement, they may be a key component of solving teacher shortages in low-income classrooms. A representative from the Chicago program reported that the organization is moving past initial problems, tightening program rules and improving the candidate pool. While initially aimed at those with high school diplomas, the program now is able to recruit candidates who already have bachelor’s degrees. This reduces the number of classes each candidate must take and increases their probability of success.

The initial startup of similar programs may be costly, but they offer an elegant way of interrupting an inequitable cycle in urban schooling. Many teachers who graduated from the program are first generation college graduates who say it changed their lives. The students they serve, too, will have teachers who are more likely to understand their context, and stick around throughout their years in school.

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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.