CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia is in the midst of a multi-pronged effort to attract, train and retain more teachers.
The University of Virginia has helped tackle that effort by creating new undergraduate degrees in education.
While offering a new degree may seem simple, the effort, also taking place at public schools across the state, has required changes to how curricula are created, programs are scaled and students are recruited. Within several years, officials hope, teachers in the state will now be able to become credentialed faster, with more training and with less student debt.
“This is designed to help create more teachers,” said Stephanie van Hover, who is chair of the curriculum, design and special education program at UVa and who has helped lead the change. “And, also, college is really expensive. We want it to be more affordable to become a teacher.”
This is how UVa’s current teacher education program works: students must first earn an undergraduate degree from the College of Arts & Sciences in the field they want to teach — such as English, history or physics. In their third and fourth years, they can begin clinical training at local schools and can start graduate-level work at the Curry School, which continues into the fifth year. After five years, they graduate.
That extra year of work adds costs and requires a missed year of work. Students don’t necessarily get the amount of in-school training districts would prefer. The system also was tough to navigate for transfer students who had to jump from community college to UVa and to the Curry School.
“It’s about wanting to support them becoming teachers, and one solution to a teacher shortage is to remove restrictions, reduce barriers,” said Jillian McGraw, the director of UVa’s teacher education program, who also has worked on the change. “Those come with a risk of quality, but the way we’re thinking about it is to make sure teachers are really high quality and simultaneously reduce some of the barriers.”
In the new system, which will begin in the fall of 2020, students will apply to an undergraduate program at the Curry School in their first or second year of college after completing general studies classes at the College. Students planning to teach grades Pre-K through eight will graduate in four years with degrees in special education, elementary education and early childhood education.
“It gives us more control over our students’ experience as trainees and allows us to be more intentional in that regard,” said Pianta. “And for transfer students, the clarity of the new pathway should be useful.”
The five-year program was instituted by one of Pianta’s predecessors, Jim Cooper, in the 1980s as part of an effort to raise the stature of the teaching profession.
The shorter program shouldn’t indicate a reversal of that effort, Pianta, McGraw and van Hover each said, but rather a new way to help students learn efficiently and effectively.
“Teaching is a profession and teaching is an admirable, amazing profession that people make a choice and a sacrifice to do,” van Hover said. “People should not go into debt for it. Kids need to see themselves in the teaching profession, and we have got to think of creative ways to make that happen.”
When then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order authorizing the change in 2017, education programs were already preparing paperwork and curricula. State regulators worked with university deans and teachers to smooth the process, according to Wendy Kang at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and universities are now in the midst of final approval processes for new programs.
Now, with bureaucratic logistics organized, they are trying to lock down curriculum design and communicate the change to current and future teachers. They are thinking through ways to help future teachers connect better with their school and city communities. They are also trying to think through a new advising plan for students, particularly those coming from community colleges or those who are low-income, first-generation or minority students.
“When you’re bringing in students who are going into a master’s program, they already have several years of undergraduate coursework under their belt,” McGraw said. “When you’re bringing in a second year or third year for an undergraduate program, they have a different set of needs and are still working on general studies coursework.”
UVa has also worked closely with Piedmont Virginia Community College, which tailors its two-year education program to fit with various four-year colleges’ requirements. Piedmont recently overhauled its associate of science in education program and will offer a new track for students hoping to turn that associate’s into the new four-year undergraduate degree.
“We’ve started telling students about it,” said Leonda Keniston, the dean of humanities at Piedmont. “And they feel a lot better about it because, for a lot of students, thinking about a master’s and a five-year program is daunting and hard to envision. Just having to think about a bachelor’s seems much more manageable.”
Applications for the new program open in August; current first- and second-year students at UVa will be able to apply through the Common App for external transfers.