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What Does It Mean to ‘Grow Your Own’ Teachers? It Depends

A growing number of states and districts have committed to filling shortage areas and bolstering the teacher pipeline by investing in local sources of talent. But what exactly do those so-called “grow-your-own” programs look like?

Danielle Edwards, an assistant professor at Old Dominion University, and Matthew Kraft, an associate professor at Brown University, attempted to answer that question—but as it turns out, there is no single answer. The program features, participants, and even purposes vary significantly, and the lack of clarity makes it difficult to have informed policy discussions about the model.

“We couldn’t even talk to each other about what we meant when we said grow your own,” Edwards said. “I was thinking about paraprofessional [programs], and he was thinking about high school.”

In their new working paper, Edwards and Kraft define “grow your own” as an umbrella term for programs that target individuals who work in, live in, or attend schools near a specific district. They found that at least 900 districts and 200 institutions of higher education were operating or participating in such programs as of spring 2022—a number that has likely increased significantly since then.

“Grow-your-own programs have the potential to increase teacher supply, diversity, effectiveness, and retention,” Edwards said. “If I recruit locally, then I might be able to solve all of these problems in one program—how great does that sound?”

Past research shows that most teachers prefer to work close to their hometowns, which has helped shape the popularity of the model, Edwards said. The programs receive federal and private funding and get support from politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Still, she said, the broadness of the term can cause confusion in policy discussions and can make it difficult to determine which program types and program features are effective: “It’s not one cohesive strategy,” she said.

The varying types of grow your own programs

To capture the depth of the landscape, Edwards and Kraft analyzed 94 grow-your-own programs—20 of which were statewide grant competitions and 74 were standalone programs. Though likely not a representative or comprehensive sample, it gives a sense of the variation among programs, Edwards said.

The analysis found that most of the grow-your-own programs—61 percent—target high school students as potential future teachers.

Forty percent of grow-your-own programs encourage paraprofessionals to become teachers, and 20 percent target community members, which could include parents of children enrolled in the district. Another 20 percent of programs allow college students to participate. (Some programs are designed for multiple groups.)

Among the high school grow-your-own initiatives, the main feature is usually a teaching course or extracurricular program, with the purpose of increasing interest in teaching. Less than one-third of high school grow-your-own programs include financial support, like scholarships, to help recipients earn teacher certification in college.

Meanwhile, most grow-your-own programs aimed at adults do include participation in a teacher-certification program as a core teacher, and nearly three-quarters offer participants scholarships to complete their certification or education degree.

But the amount of financial support varies and doesn’t always remove all barriers, the analysis finds. Scholarships range from $1,000 to the full cost of tuition, and just 28 percent of adult grow your own programs include a living stipend, which can cover wages lost during time spent earning compensation.

Registered teacher apprenticeships are a new type of grow-your-own program that is approved by the U.S. Department of Labor to use new sources of funding to offer paid on-the-job training as well as additional forms of assistance for tuition, textbooks, child care, and/or transportation. Thirty states have registered a teacher apprenticeship program with the labor department.

Programs’ goals vary, too

While the main goal of grow-your-own programs is to increase the teacher supply, only 1 in 4 adult grow-your-own initiatives require participants who complete the program to teach for a certain amount of time afterwards.

That’s in part because such a requirement necessitates financial support for the candidates, which many programs don’t offer—but it’s also because some districts don’t want to be on the hook to hire participants, Edwards said. They might not have open positions or might want the freedom to be more selective, she added.

Only 30 percent of the grow-your-own initiatives in the sample require participants to get certified in a specific high-needs subject area, the study found.

Other goals vary. Although past research has shown that people of color are more likely to enter the teaching profession through alternative routes, like grow-your-own programs, only 21 percent of those initiatives explicitly target people of color.

“If we truly want people of color, we need to be making that explicit in our goals,” Edwards said, citing past research. But “in this political climate with many state [officials] talking about whether or not we can talk about diversity in education settings, that’s not always happening.”

Even so, the paper notes that a high percentage of paraprofessionals are people of color, and many grow your own programs target those employees.

The researchers concluded that even though grow your own programs can serve multiple purposes, officials should design the programs to focus on meeting their most pressing staffing needs.

“When you treat something as a silver bullet, and you’re assigning three or four goals to it, some of these goals are going to get lost in the shuffle, and it’s going to dilute the time and impact you put on these goals,” Edwards said.

Currently, there is very little evidence on grow-your-own initiatives’ effectiveness, Edwards said. She added that researchers who evaluate one program shouldn’t generalize the results, given the wide variation in features and designs.

“We need more research to know what program characteristics are most effective on which goals,” she said.

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