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This teacher shortage solution has gone viral. But does it work?

Chuan Ming Ong for NPR

School custodian Jenna Gros is teaching a group of fourth-graders how to convert fractions to decimals.

"How would you write 6/100 in decimal form?" she asks, and then waits patiently for them to come up with the correct answer.

Gros, pronounced "grow," has been a custodian at Wyandotte Elementary School in St. Mary Parish, La., for more than 18 years, and now she's also a teacher in training.

"Everything is about kids and relationships. We don't just do garbage," she says, laughing.

For Gros, helping children learn is a dream come true — and it wouldn't be possible if not for a Grow Your Own program, an alternative pathway to becoming an educator. She's working toward a bachelor's degree in education, and as part of her studies, she has to get 15 hours a week of in-class training, which can include observing a teacher, tutoring students or helping design lessons. Best of all, the fees for her schooling are minimal: $75 a month.

Gros' school principal, Celeste Pipes, is eager for Gros to complete her training. She thinks Gros will be a wonderful teacher, and Pipes has also been struggling to fill teacher positions.

"I remember when I started teaching 20 years ago. I didn't know if I was guaranteed a job," Pipes says. "And in just that short amount of time, we are pulling people literally off the streets to fill spots in a classroom."

Across the U.S., many principals face a similar challenge. There are an estimated 55,000 vacant teaching positions in U.S. schools, according to the tracker teachershortages.com. One possible solution has gone viral: Grow Your Own programs. According to researchers, as of the spring of 2022, an estimated 900 U.S. school districts were using these programs to try to ease their teacher shortages.

Grow Your Own programs aim to recruit future teachers from the local community, and state and federal governments have made hundreds of millions of dollars available to pay for them. Michigan has invested more than $175 million in recent years, Tennessee has invested more than $20 million, and Grow Your Own teacher apprenticeship programs now have access to millions of dollars in federal job-training funds through new U.S. Labor Department guidance.

There's just one problem, researchers say: It's unclear whether these programs actually work.

Grow Your Own programs have been celebrated as a catchall solution

"This term, 'Grow Your Own program,' has really caught on fire in the last five years," says Danielle Edwards, an assistant professor of education at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

These programs have been around for decades, but Edwards says they've "exploded" in number in recent years.

Some help people earn bachelor's degrees or complete their teacher certification, while others simply aim to increase interest in the teaching profession. One program may target school employees, like Gros, who don't have college degrees or degrees in education, while another may focus on military veterans, college students or even K-12 students, with some starting as young as middle school.

Grow Your Own programs have been celebrated as a way to ease teacher shortages, increase retention, make degrees more accessible and diversify an overwhelmingly white workforce. But researchers say there isn't much data to show that these programs consistently do any of that.

"We're seeing [Grow Your Own programs] as a silver bullet ... but we just don't know if the programs themselves induced people to become teachers," says Edwards.

"There's very, very little empirical evidence about the effectiveness of these pathways," says Roddy Theobald, deputy director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.

That hasn't stopped education agencies from going all in. Here's U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona back in January, at an event outlining his priorities: "For the first time, we're putting millions into ensuring Grow Your Own programs [are] developed to bring the talent into the profession. ... We know those programs work, and we're putting money and support behind it."

Why it's hard to know whether these programs work

Part of the problem is Grow Your Own programs can vary widely. One program may involve just a short high school career day presentation, while another gives out scholarships to traditional teacher training schools and yet another offers apprenticeship programs that are completely free. Some are in person, while others are online or hybrid. Some are run by universities; others are run by independent nonprofits.

"States and districts use 'Grow Your Own' to mean wildly different things in wildly different settings," Theobald says. That makes it hard to measure their effectiveness.

Theobald says another challenge is that Grow Your Own programs rarely target the specific needs of schools. Some states, for example, have staffing shortages only in, say, special education or STEM fields, and local programs may not be graduating teachers in those areas, leading to a "misalignment."

States and districts use 'Grow Your Own' to mean wildly different things in wildly different settings.

"Sometimes they result in even more teachers to teach courses that the state doesn't actually need."

And finally, Edwards says we don't know whether Grow Your Own programs translate into more teacher diversity — a big priority given that public school students are mostly children of color, while teachers are mostly white.

Yet the U.S. Department of Education continues to invest in and promote these programs. When NPR asked the department to comment on the lack of evidence, the department cited research — from New America, the Learning Policy Institute and the department's own Institute of Education Sciences — that outlines examples of higher retention rates, improved teacher diversity and better student outcomes connected to Grow Your Own programs.

But Edwards says those studies don't provide direct evidence of the effectiveness of Grow Your Own programs. Some, for example, don't include information on dropout rates for teachers in training. Some programs in the studies recruit teachers more broadly (most recruit college graduates) and aren't focused just on members of the local community, the hallmark of Grow Your Own programs. And none of the studies cited provides a counterfactual, which means we don't know whether these individuals would have become teachers in the absence of a Grow Your Own program. The programs may be selecting individuals who would have become teachers anyway, Edwards says.

It also isn't clear whether these teachers are more effective. Edwards believes much more research is needed, given the high "interest and investment."

"We want to know whether teachers who participate in Grow Your Own programs have higher contributions to student test scores, whether they have higher contributions to the likelihood of kids graduating high school, whether [the students] graduate college and their income when they become adults."

Research always lags behind

David Donaldson says it's too soon to write off these programs. He founded the National Center for Grow Your Own nonprofit and worked on the issue while he was at the Tennessee Department of Education.

He agrees that there is no shared definition of Grow Your Own programs and that this makes it tricky to measure their effectiveness. "These are not apples-to-apples comparisons," he says.

But he says research always lags behind practice. "Any time you're trying something new, there isn't going to be research. There isn't going to be evaluation."

And Donaldson believes these programs can do a lot to increase teacher diversity, in terms of both race and class, by removing financial barriers and expanding the pool of potential educators who have long been overlooked. He cites his own mother as an example of the untapped potential within school communities: "My mom was my school cafeteria worker, but she also taught Sunday school and vacation Bible school for over two decades. She could not afford to go to college to become a teacher."

This was also true for Towanna Edwards, 47, who lives in rural eastern Arkansas. She has been trying for years to become a teacher, but she never managed to finish her training because life got in the way.

Any time you're trying something new, there isn't going to be research. There isn't going to be evaluation.

"I'm a single mother with three children, two grandchildren. And I have two jobs as well," she says. She works as a secretary for an education nonprofit and also at an after-school program.

Edwards was able to restart teacher training in 2021 when she found a Grow Your Own program that was low cost and offered online classes during the evenings and weekends. "That is the very first reason I joined, absolutely. [It was] affordable," she says. The other reason was that it worked well with her schedule.

These stories show how Grow Your Own programs can help get more people to consider becoming educators, Donaldson says. "It allows us to have a different conversation about who gets to become a teacher and how they are prepared. That's the power of Grow Your Own."

A school custodian feels the power of Grow Your Own

Efforts are underway to start gathering data that might answer the questions that Danielle Edwards and other researchers are raising. But in the meantime, schools have immediate needs.

And custodian Jenna Gros, at Wyandotte Elementary, is eager to help. As she walks the school hallways, sweeping, spraying and shelving, she stops constantly to wave at children who shout out, "Miss Jenna!"

Gros says she wouldn't have become a teacher if not for her Grow Your Own program. She makes $22,000 a year as a janitor. After she graduates, debt free, in 2024, her salary will more than double.

Best of all, she expects to get a teaching job at this same elementary school, which means she can keep her accrued benefits as a district employee.

Gros loves how a teacher can shape a child's future for the better. "That's what a teacher is — a nurturer trying to provide them with the resources that they are going to need for later on in life. I think I can be that person," she says, and then pauses. "I know I can."

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Edited by Nicole Cohen
Visual design and development by LA Johnson
Audio story produced by Lauren Migaki

Copyright 2024 The Hechinger Report. To see more, visit The Hechinger Report.