Blue lockers seen in a school hallway. (Getty)
A program that allows college students to finish STEM degrees and earn teacher certification at the same time aims to address an ongoing shortage of educators in the state.
UTeach Alabama, part of a program based out of the University of Texas, allows college students to earn a STEM degree and a teacher certification at the same time. Lawrence Cooper, STEM program manager at the Alabama STEM Council, an executive branch organization, said that the program will assist in lessening the STEM teacher shortage.
“Now they can do all that in the same four years, and it doesn’t cost them any more as part of their college education,” he said.
The program aims to address a major teaching shortage in Alabama and around the country. A Brown University study estimated there were 36,000 teaching vacancies nationwide in August 2022. According to the Alabama Commission on the Evaluation of Services July 2022 report, Alabama does not track the number of teaching vacancies, and the Alabama State Department of Education’s job board is not an accurate representation of vacancies.
The commission also says education certificates from the Alabama public colleges and universities have been declining in the last decade and a half. The number of certificates granted in elementary education, math, science, English and reading and social studies have all decreased since 2010.
Social studies certificates have increased since 2019. But in 2021, math and science produced the lowest number of certificates at 114 and 101, respectively, among those subjects. The subjects also had more nontraditional certificates than English and reading and social studies.
In Alabama, non-certified instructors can get emergency certificates if a district has a need. Alabama also offers some alternative pathways to certification.
Elementary education had the most nontraditional certificates (1,049), but also produced the most traditional certificates (1,279). Emergency certification grew 1052% from 2010 to 2021.
The University of Alabama, Montevallo, Troy and Jacksonville State University were the only colleges to produce more elementary teaching certificates in 2021 than in 2010.
UTeach is growing from one (University of Alabama Birmingham) to seven sites (Athens State University, University of West Alabama, Alabama A&M, Auburn University and Auburn University of Montgomery) with money appropriated by the Legislature.
Cooper said applicants were asked to submit projections for how many students will graduate with certifications in the next couple of years. He said that the state is estimated to gain 250-500 new STEM teachers.
“We know that there’s a national problem, there are not enough people going into the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, so the UTeach model helps to fill those gaps,” he said.
At a July Alabama State Board of Education work session, State Superintendent Eric Mackey told reporters that they plan to review these sites.
He said that the Legislature had appropriated the money for the six sites as a kind of pilot program.
Cooper said each site can receive up to $3 million over the course of five years.
“My suspicion is by this time next year, the Legislature will increase that, and we’ll probably add four or five more,” he said.
Cooper said that there is not anything specifically tied to UTeach in keeping the graduates in the state, but he pointed to Alabama’s TEAMS program. In the TEAMS program, STEM teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools get an extra stipend.
Cooper said that 70% of UTeach graduates work in a Title I school. Title I schools receive more federal funding and have high percentages of poverty.
A report released by the Alabama Commission on the Evaluation of Services earlier this month said that the program has spent $98.5 million has 2,608 teachers.
The report said that the program is hard to define as successful or not due to a lack of reporting and clear goals. The report pointed to Alabama not effectively tracking teacher shortages as one of its hurdles and also recommended that the process to become a TEAMs teacher be streamlined.
“Although the TEAMS program had a short window to be implemented and lacks defined measures of success, there is still time to take corrective action to ensure the intended outcomes are being accomplished,” wrote the report.
The report said that the increase in pay was the main driving force behind teachers applying for the program, but the pay raise, and consequent disparity, caused morale issues among other teachers.
Amy Marlowe, the executive director of the Alabama Education Association, a teacher’s organization said in phone interview Thursday that the historic pay raises passed by the legislature last year led to the lowest teacher retirement rates they have seen in 10 years. She also said retired teachers have returned to the profession.
“We didn’t expect people who had been retired some maybe 10, 15 years saying, ‘You know what, I’ve got a chance here to permanently raise my retirement for the rest of my life, so I’m going to go back in and take advantage of it,’” she said.
Marlowe said they are also advocating for raising the starting salary from $44,226 to $45,000 to encourage graduates to stay in Alabama.
“And I think that’s gonna have a lot to do with keeping them in state,” she said. “And then other than those factors, you know, it comes down to just the same socio economic factors that play into anyone moving into a state or out of state, if they’ve got the cost of living, what that looks like, the education opportunities, the business opportunities, all those things that go into an attractive community.”
Mackey said that a financial incentive could be implemented in the future and referenced previous incentives. He said in the 1990s, the Legislature was trying to get teachers to use computers and said if teachers took three technology classes, their master’s degree would be paid for.
“You can entice people into what you want them to do if you offer the right incentives,” he said. “I guess that’s the thing: And, so, I think that we could see us in offering some incentives with these UTeach teachers to stay in the state.”
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