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‘Grow Your Own’ Teacher Programs Are Misguided (Opinion)

When you’ve been around as long as I have, one gets all manner of intriguing questions. While I usually respond to such queries in private, some seem likely to be of broader interest. So, in “Ask Rick,” I occasionally take up reader queries. If you’d like to send one along, just send it to me, care of Greg Fournier, at [email protected].

Dear Rick,

I haven’t seen you write about this, but I’m curious about your take on “grow your own” programs to get high schoolers interested in the teaching profession. We’ve started trying to do this in my district, and it strikes me as a sensible idea. I’ve heard good things about the idea and I saw a really compelling conference presentation last year. But I’m curious if you’ve had experience with it and whether you have any suggestions or see any pitfalls.


Grow ’Em Up

Dear Grow ’Em,

This is such a great question, so thanks for raising it. I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about all this. My bottom line? Not much in the way of practical suggestions, sympathy for the impulse, but also a tendency to think that these efforts aren’t a good idea.

For starters, I’ll note that I’ve been familiar with “grow your own” ever since Harvard’s Kennedy School asked me to evaluate Broward County’s Urban Teacher Academy Program for its Innovation in Government competition 15 or 20 years ago (Broward won an award). I spent a few days on the ground interviewing the architects, educators, and students. I came away struck by the thoughtfulness of the program—including the way participating high schoolers were mentored, how their interest was channeled into tutoring for elementary students, and how they were provided with a path to a free college degree.

Thus, my only real suggestion is my standard-issue go-to: The execution matters. It was the particulars—regarding finances, logistics, mentoring, and supports—that made this work so well. So, here’s my one tip: If you decide to do this, how you do it matters.

That said, I fear I’m skeptical of the whole notion. Now, let me qualify this up front: I loved teaching, I think teaching is a worthy profession, and I get why school leaders would view grow-your-own programs as both practical and inspirational.

Earlier this spring, James Lane, the CEO of PDK International, captured the sentiment nicely, urging schools to host ceremonies honoring high schoolers who pledge to become teachers because “we think this is as big of a deal as announcing that you’re going to play women’s basketball at [the University of] Iowa, or men’s basketball at the University of North Carolina. It’s just as big of a deal when kids announce” they intend to “give a life of service to children.”

Indeed, each year, PDK’s Educators Rising program sponsors a national signing day during which local chapters have high school seniors sign a pledge that they’ll become teachers. Especially if you work in or around schools, the case for encouraging students to embrace meaningful, reliable work they can pursue in their community has a practical appeal. But the more I sit with the whole notion, the more concerns I have.

When a high school senior tells me what their profession will be, I take it with several grains of salt. In fact, I actively advise high school seniors (and college seniors, for that matter) to be open-minded about the kind of work they want to pursue. I tell them that they’ll meet new people, encounter new ideas, discover new passions, and develop new interests, and that this may shape the kind of work they want to do. That’s the message I’d like schools to be sending. The premise of grow your own strikes me as being at odds with that.

One of the nice things about signing up to play college sports is that this is a decision about what to do next year. It’s not a pledge about what one’s future self will do in four years, much less a commitment by an impressionable teen to “a life of service.”

After all, I think very few people really know what they want to do when they’re 17 or 18. Indeed, part of the rationale for students going to college is that it’s an opportunity to see the world in new ways, discover new passions, and explore new avenues. Asking college-goers who’ve spent the lion’s share of their young lives in a schoolhouse to commit to a profession before receiving their high school diploma seems . . . well, it seems very much at odds with the notion of education as a formative, evolutionary endeavor.

The case for grow your own is that, since most teachers work within 20 miles of where they went to high school, district leaders should tap into their own students to ensure a sustainable supply of teachers. As PDK’s Lane puts it, “School districts spend a lot of money on HR and recruiting. But their best recruiting tool is actually with the kids in their community and convincing them that education is a great life, and you can make a difference.”

Again, I get the argument. It’s logical enough. And yet, it strikes me as profoundly problematic. This seems like the apotheosis of putting the needs of “the system” over those of the kid. I don’t think it’s healthy or appropriate for school districts to be in the business of “convincing” students to pursue a given career. And I’m especially leery of schools trying to use their special relationship with students to “convince them that education is a great life” because it makes staffing a school district more manageable.

Now, let me be clear: I’m fine with helping students appreciate the importance and rewards of teaching. But I think that should be no different from what schools are doing to help students do the same when it comes to other crafts, trades, and professions. The point should be to help students find career paths that appeal to them, not to steer students into avenues that serve the needs of school district officials. Whether grow-your-own programs ultimately have much of an impact on staffing (the jury is still out), I fear they fall short on that count.

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