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Want to Produce Good STEM Teachers? This Program Is Getting Results

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Texas science and math teachers who are trained in the UTeach preparation program are substantially better at raising student test scores than other teachers in the state, a new study shows.

In fact, the difference between the performance of UTeach graduates who teach in high school and their non-UTeach peers is greater than the gap between new teachers and teachers with 10 years of experience. 

These results are a promising bright spot on the teacher-preparation landscape. Aspiring teachers enrolled in UTeach earn a degree in mathematics or science alongside a teaching credential in four years.

The program recruits science and math majors as early as their freshman year, and candidates can go into classrooms in their first semester of the program to get an early taste of whether they like teaching. As the candidates progress through the program, they also take classes on pedagogy and have additional student-teaching experiences—all while completing coursework for their STEM degree. 

It's a streamlined path to obtaining a teaching certificate—and the study's results found that "condensing these courses has not resulted in detrimental performance once teachers enter the classroom," the authors write.

UTeach started at the University of Texas at Austin in 1997. Since then, it has expanded to 45 universities in 21 different states. The study notes that the program is expected to produce more than 9,000 math and science teachers by 2020.

(See this 2007 Education Week story about the program on its 10-year anniversary.) 

The study, published by the American Institutes for Research, measures the impact of UTeach teachers—from UT-Austin and six other universities—on student test scores for middle school math, high school math (mostly algebra), and high school science (mostly biology) from 2010 to 2016. 

Students taught by UTeach graduates—especially those who graduated from UT-Austin—perform significantly better on test scores than other students across the state.The effect was strongest for UTeach graduates who teach high school math.

When looking at how UTeach graduates stacked up against teachers within their own schools, the data showed that UTeach-trained teachers were similarly or slightly more effective than their peers down the hall.

"What we think is going on [with that finding] is that teachers are sorting into schools where other teachers are similarly effective as them," said Ben Backes, a senior researcher at AIR and the lead report author. 

This could be for several reasons, he said: Certain schools could be hiring from a pool of effective universities, certain principals could be better at identifying effective teachers, or there could be some characteristic of a school that makes it desirable for strong teachers.

Why are UTeach teachers so effective? The study couldn't pinpoint a definite reason, but Backes had some theories. One possible explanation is that UTeach graduates may have gone to more selective universities than other teachers, but Backes said that doesn't explain everything: "It seems like there is something else going on," he said.

Another explanation could be that UTeach graduates are better equipped to teach math and science because they majored in a specific STEM field. The study points to past research that shows that greater math and science knowledge of teachers is associated with greater effectiveness at raising test scores at the high school level. 

Also, the fact that UTeach puts clinical experiences at the front end could have something to do with graduates' success rate, Backes said.

"People get to test out if they like teaching or not," he said.

Indeed, many students drop out of the program after getting a taste of teaching. Over a four year period, between 21 and 38 percent of students who enrolled in the beginning teaching course completed the UTeach program at UT-Austin. 

Backes said he hopes future research will "try to get a little behind the black box" and dive into UTeach program data to see why the graduates are more effective.

Another big question for future research, Backes said, is whether these effects will be replicated outside of Texas. 

"If we took these at face values, then we'd think that yes, especially in math, there might be something to this program," he said. But "in the broader field of education research, [given] what we know about programs and replications and scaling up, we wouldn't say there's a 100 percent chance it works everywhere else." 

Image via Getty

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