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Strapped for teachers, Detroit district looks to controversial teacher training programs

On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.
Erin Einhorn

Faced with a daunting shortage of certified teachers, leaders of Detroit’s main district say they may have no choice but to hire educators with minimal classroom training, including some who have been certified by a for-profit online teachers college.

It’s still early in the summer hiring season, and the district hasn’t begun to announce new hires. But on Tuesday, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti will present a wide-ranging hiring plan to the Detroit school board, sending a message that the district must consider all its options.

The plan instructs staff to look high and low for new hires, including from alternate certification programs like Teachers of Tomorrow, an online program that was approved to certify teachers by the state Legislature last year.

“We prefer to hire teachers who have participated in traditional certification programs,” Vitti said in a prepared statement to Chalkbeat, adding: “However, in the short term, we need certified teachers to fill vacancies and to reduce class size so we will consider hiring teachers from alternative programs. They are certified.”

An intractable teacher shortage in Detroit has had dramatic consequences for the city’s students, from classrooms crammed with 40 children to students who go for months without a certified math or English Teacher.

On its website, Teachers of Tomorrow promises prospective teachers that they can help address these issues. Under the tagline “Every student deserves a great teacher!” the company promises “competitive salaries” and the chance to work with a “diverse student population.”

But Teachers of Tomorrow has no formal agreement with the district — only the knowledge that other sources of new teachers may not be enough to fill hundreds of vacancies.

The district’s hiring plan includes a page-long list of “teacher pipelines,” from other school districts to highly regarded programs like Michigan State’s College of Education, most of which can’t be relied upon for more than a few new teachers.

Graduates of Teach for America, a program that provides college graduates with alternative teaching certificates after six weeks of training, are also on the list, but the district doesn’t plan to sign up new teachers from the organization after some board members opposed the idea.

By including alternative certification programs on the list, the plan acknowledges what Vitti called “the challenges of supply and demand,” directing officials to look beyond traditional preparation programs to alternative certification methods — programs designed to get people with a bachelor’s degree to the front of a classroom as quickly as possible.

Chanel Hampton, a former executive director of staffing for Detroit Public Schools who now works as a consultant leading teacher recruitment efforts, says improving teacher retention, not rapid certification programs, is the best way to recruit new teachers. If you can keep your current employees happy, she said, you’ll have an easier time finding new ones.

But for now, the need to fill classrooms is too great to focus on anything but the next hire.

In Detroit, she said, “we are deep in survival mode. It breaks my heart every time I hear someone say, ‘oh we just need more bodies.’ That’s not okay.”

Entering the summer with more than 200 teacher vacancies is nothing new for the district. Early in his first year on the job, Vitti promised to fill the gap, but the effort fell far short. This year, he is insisting once again that there will be a certified teacher in every classroom by summer’s end.

While his decision to raise salaries for veteran teachers is expected to fill some of its more than 200 vacant teaching positions by luring teachers from other districts, that won’t be enough to fill every classroom.

Take Michigan State’s Urban Teaching Fellows Program, which places traditional teaching students at summer schools in Detroit and other Michigan cities. The staffing plan calls for forging partnerships with the program and others like it. Nonetheless, the Urban Teaching Fellows supplies only a few students to the district every year, underlining the challenge of finding students who are fully prepared to work in the district.

Teaching in Detroit “requires special preparation, and it requires preparation in Detroit,” said Sonya Gunnings-Moton, director of the program. “It means that we expose students to the resources and opportunities and richness of the city.”

Among the handful of programs that have signed up to provide quick-certified teachers is Teachers of Tomorrow. Run by a controversial Texas company that was approved to operate in Michigan in 2017, the program produces graduates who receive an interim certificate. After three years on the job, some additional training, and a good review from their principal, they become fully certified.

Dave Saba, chief development officer for Teachers of Tomorrow, said the company took note of reports that the number of prospective teachers entering training in Michigan had cratered, dropping by 62 percent since 2004.

“Any time you see a sharp decline like that it means there’s a need to bring student teachers in from other routes to make sure every student gets a qualified teacher,” Saba said.

On paper, Teach for Tomorrow graduates represent an improvement over the uncertified substitute teachers who serve as stopgaps in the district’s teacher-less classrooms. But the company has faced sharp criticism in Michigan, particularly from teachers unions who argue that the company stands to profit by saddling students with teachers who lack the tools to handle a classroom.

The company got its start in Texas as A+ Teachers in 2005, and it has established a dominant presence there. Fully one in six teachers who completed their training in Texas in 2016 received a certificate from A+ Teachers, opting to pay a $400 starting fee to take the online course, then another $5,300 in installments if they find a teaching job. More than 45,000 teachers have received their certificates from the company to date, and in recent years it has opened up shop in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, and South Carolina.

Teachers of Tomorrow aims for middle-aged people who want to leave their career for teaching. The only application requirements are set by the state: applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree with at least a 3.0 GPA, pass a federal background check, be certified in CPR, and pass a test in the content area they plan to teach.

The company says it imposes extra filters. Saba says it accepted only 160 of the more than 1,000 prospective teachers who applied when the company got started in Michigan last year. Depending on how quickly they completed their online assignments, some of the first class of graduates could be employed in the fall. Saba says a list of Teach for Tomorrow graduates will be sent to the Detroit district.

Hampton, the teacher recruiter, said a training program that doesn’t require students to set foot in a classroom before their first day as a teacher raises a red flag. Teachers of Tomorrow students are required to observe 30 hours of classes, either online or in person.

“An online program with no practicum — we need to ask ourselves about that,” she said.

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