Ep. 391: Surfing the Pipeline

October 5, 2023

In this edition of EdChoice Chats, Mike McShane talks with John Kristof about his new paper Surfing the Pipeline: Understanding Pathways into Teaching in Alternative Models of Schooling.

They discuss the many new opportunities that are being made available all across the country with entrepreneurial educators starting up new and different school models such as microschools, hybrid homeschools, and more.

John Kristof: Hello and welcome to another EdChoice Chats podcast. My name is John Kristof. I’m the senior research analyst at EdChoice, and today I am joined by Mike McShane, our director of National Research at EdChoice. He’s here to talk about yet another new paper that has come out and available on the EdChoice website on our research library. That’s what we call it. It’s called Surfing the Pipeline: Understanding Pathways into Teaching in Alternative Models of Schooling.

Mike, thank you for joining. I’m going to start this by just letting you talk about what the motivation and the premise, the impetus for the paper, set the scene for the listeners with how they should be approaching this new paper of yours.

Mike McShane: Thank you very much, John. It’s great to be with you as always. The main motivation behind this paper is we’re obviously seeing this great growth in school choice policy that’s been made over the course of the last two years, but even more specifically over the past nine months. This is awesome. There’s so many new opportunities that are being made available all across the country. At the same time, there are these fascinating, interesting entrepreneurial educators that are starting up new and different school models.

This might be micro schools, these purposefully small schools that exist. It could be hybrid homeschools, which I’ve done some writing about before, where students attend part-time and work from home for part of the time. It’s people that are doing interesting stuff online, trying to rethink online schooling in new and different ways and all kind of permutations of those things. There’s all this interesting stuff that’s happening.

For me, there’s been a lot of writing recently about some of this big picture stuff, some of the big picture things that are happening in education, how that might be shifting the way we think about public education or what schools look like. I think all of that is interesting and important, and I contribute to that in ways large and small.

But if I were to sum up the way that I think about education or education policy or school choice or schooling or educational improvement or whatever way you want to look at it, is that I tend to think that things succeed or fail not because of the philosophical or political big picture stuff, but rather from the practical and picky. These small details, the actual nitty-gritty of what is happening day in and day out determines whether stuff succeeds or fails, not these big picture things, big picture trends that are happening.

What is the most practical thing that schools do or great schools need? Teachers. Great schools need great teachers, and there’s a whole mess of research that’ll tell you that. But you also have eyes and ears, and that will tell you that too. Anybody who’s spent a moment in a school realizes how important great teachers are. This paper is basically based on this simple premise, which is if we want more of these new cool educational environments and we want them to be good, they’re going to need good teachers.

And that raises a whole set of questions, which is like, well, what do teachers need to succeed in these environments? Where can they be prepared to succeed in these environments? And then ultimately, what this paper tries to answer is both on the survey side asking teachers, hey, are you prepared to teach in these environments? Did anything in your preparation prepare you to teach in these environments? And if not, what can be done?

The paper is part surveying teachers to understand their comfort in teaching with new environments, and then also looking at teacher preparation programs and broader education preparation programs to say, are you doing anything to prepare teachers to teach in these types of schools?

John Kristof: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, I think it’s an important concept and you talk about how important the small details are in making something as big picture as education work, which is very true. Obviously one of the biggest details, the biggest small detail, very much can be the person who is facilitating the instruction, who’s putting all of the resources together.

I think it makes sense and probably all of our listeners would agree that if you think about education is something that needs innovation or is going to benefit from innovation, trying different things, or at the very least if there are some kids out there who would benefit from some people thinking outside of the box, if we have resources that help people, help the teachers think outside of the box, especially those who are interested in it, that could be huge for a more innovative education system.

You talked about how this is part descriptive and then part survey work. Do you want to dive into the methods here for a second and just describe what did you do? How did the research part of this workout?

Mike McShane: For sure. You’re right. It happened in two parts, and the first was actually in the polling that we regularly do that listeners of this podcast would know about, every month we poll a nationally representative sample of Americans in conjunction with Morning Consult, and we episodically do polls of different populations. The population I think that we’ve polled the most outside of parents is teachers. I was actually able to add a couple of questions into our most recent survey of teachers, a poll of teachers.

Morning Consult, which, again, I think we did a podcast about this, so some people may have already seen some of these data. We added a couple questions, asking a nationally representative sample of teachers about their own preparation and their own levels of comfort with alternative learning models. That’s the first half of the research. The second half of it was done with another research partner of ours, Hanover Research, and they actually did all the legwork on this. God bless them.

Thank you very much. I really appreciate it. They went through the teacher preparation programs of the four states in America with the largest amount of school choice, the ones that we actually identify every… I think it was Drew Catt actually. Shout out Drew Catt. I think a piece he did on our blog last year. We went through the numbers. It’s Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, and Vermont.

What they did was actually go through the course catalogs and the listings in federal databases of the courses that they offer and identified any programs, majors, courses, any of that sort of stuff that was done to specifically prepare people to teach in these alternative models. That was micro schools, home schools, online schooling, private schooling. We looked basically in those specific areas and said, “Are you offering any specific courses in those areas, or can you major in teaching in those areas, or any of that stuff?” Those are the two sides of the research project.

John Kristof: Perfect. Let’s actually start with the survey side of it. The survey questions asked teachers about their preparation process for becoming a teacher. Could you go into a little more detail about what you were looking for as far as specifics about teacher’s preparation and what you found?

Mike McShane: For sure. We asked two questions. The first one is, in your college education, graduate education, or other professional development, how much has the instruction and preparation covered the following content? We then gave a list of different types of schools, public district schools, private schools, charter schools, virtual or online education, religious schools, hybrid schools, homeschooling, and microschooling. And then teachers were able to rate them, it’s covered a lot, some, not much, or not at all.

To that question, probably surprising no one, the most popular answer to say that been prepared a lot or some was for public district schools. 86% of the teachers that we polled said that their instruction and preparation covered public district schools either a lot or some. 60% of them said a lot, 26% said some. It drops off after that. For private schools, which was the second most popular, it was 52% said that these were covered either a lot or some. For charter schools, it’s down to 44%.

For virtual, it goes down to 43%. It basically trickles down. The bottom two are homeschooling with 33% and micro schooling with 26%. First, I just like how much did your preparation cover these topics? This isn’t even asking you, like them, dislike them, whatever. Just have you been exposed to these and the degree to which you were. Obviously what we’re hearing is teachers are very much exposed to traditional public schools.

A majority are exposed to private schools, and then after that it drops off, which connects us to the second question, which is, thinking back on your preparation for going into teaching, how much would you agree with the following statements? And then they had the opportunity to say, I feel prepared to teach in a, and then we would insert the different school types. I feel prepared to teach in a public district school. I feel prepared to teach in a private school. I feel prepared to teach in a charter school, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And to be honest, the numbers were similar. Though to be fair, there wasn’t nearly as big of a drop-off from public schools. Obviously public schools were the most popular. 87% of respondents either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that they felt prepared to teach in a public district school. Private schools similarly came in second place, but were actually much closer. 74% said that they felt they either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that they were prepared to teach in a private school.

It starts to trickle down. About two-thirds, 67%, said so for charter schools, 61% for hybrid schools, 59% for virtual and online, and it actually drops down at the bottom. Similar to what we saw before, only 34% said that they felt prepared to teach in a microschool.

John Kristof: When I saw these numbers come in, it definitely matched the anecdotes that I’ve heard from people who have either gone through a typical four-year degree in preparation for the teaching career or people who have done a transition to teaching program where there’s a lot of assumptions made at least in their programs about what school is and what school looks like. There’s a certain amount of assumptions about, for example, how much curriculum development is going to be your responsibility.

That when you actually go out to these different schools, even different district schools a lot of the times, depending on what your school district looks like, it can vary quite a bit. It’s fascinating how consistent that story about assumptions go into it versus what the reality already is as far as diversity of what the K12 education system is.

Mike McShane: Totally. I’m glad you brought that up because that does raise a point that I want to make here, and that the purpose of this paper is not to bash teacher preparation programs. I get for most parts of the country. It’s perfectly rational. If you’re in a state that doesn’t have charter schools, or has a very small number of charter schools, or you’re looking at your teachers and 95% of them are going to teach in public schools, I totally get orienting your program towards where the lion’s share of your teachers are going to go.

I totally get that. That’s why partially in the second half, which I imagine we’ll talk about soon-ish, we focused on these very choice rich states. Because to me, it’s more so looking at places where these things are growing. Like I said, the purpose of this paper is not to bash teacher preparation programs, but rather to highlight the opportunity that’s there and to say, hey, I get why within the last five or 10 years you haven’t done this, but the facts on the ground are changing and I think you actually have an opportunity to change the offerings that you’re doing.

Because I get. When I saw those figures, I was like, that’s a perfectly rational response from historical enrollment patterns of students and historical employment placement of teachers. I totally get that’s why you would do that. I want to be extra crystal clear. I’m not out here trying to bash teacher preparation programs, but rather saying the facts in the ground are changing and an opportunity is developing.

John Kristof: That’s very fair. I guess with that then, as you said, it makes sense to then if we’re going to look at what teacher preparation programs currently exist, it does make sense to look in the more choice rich areas. You include Wisconsin, which in addition to having a high percentage of students going to charter schools, going to private schools using the voucher programs that are there, compared to other states, Wisconsin was also the first to have a voucher way back in ’89, ’90.

Vermont might surprise some people on this list, but they’ve actually been using public dollars to send kids to private schools since the 19th century through their Town Tuitioning Program. Vermont actually very much a historical part of school choice movement here. And then Florida and Arizona, if you’re listening to this podcast, you know the relationship between school choice in those states for some years now. Looking at those states and teacher preparation programs there, what kind of alternative education exposure or preparation did you find there?

Mike McShane: We looked basically at, and this is an important caveat that should be in there, is a university-based teacher preparation. There are alternative certification programs. There are others that are outside the scope of this. We looked strictly at university-based, so in Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona, Vermont, the universe of things. We looked at I think in Florida, they examined 163 different universities. In Wisconsin, it was 67. In Arizona, it was 62. And in Vermont, it was 17.

Again, they looked for examples of courses, programs, et cetera, related to microschooling, online schooling, charter schooling, and private schooling. Basically what they were looking for across those four. The easiest one to summarize is Vermont. Our friends at Hanover found zero programs or courses or majors in any of those areas. Nothing in microschools. Nothing related to online schooling. Nothing related to charter schooling. Nothing related to private schooling.

Probably if we were thinking a close second, not nothing but close to it would be up north in Wisconsin, they found one program related to online schooling and one program related to private schooling. Now it jumps up from there. I would say probably the next one if we’re thinking about it is in Florida, not surprisingly, probably given the long tradition that Florida has with online education, with the Florida Virtual School and others that’s been around forever, they actually found five programs and 28 courses related to online schooling.

They actually found a full degree, as well as a program in private schooling. And then in the end, the last one that probably had the most diversity of offerings, even though again the overall numbers are quite low, if we think about each of those universities and all of the majors that it potentially has, would be Arizona. They found in Arizona a degree related to microschooling, three programs and two courses related to online schooling. They found two degrees, five programs, and seven courses.

And then related to private schooling, two degrees, two programs, and five courses. You can look at it one of two ways, which is to say that the overall numbers are low, particularly given how enrollment patterns are changing. But the flip side is that things are actually happening, that there are universities that are investing in this, that are creating these types of programs. It depends if you’re a glass half full or glass half empty type of person, but that’s what they found.

John Kristof: For sure. We don’t have to dwell on this too long, but were there any particular programs as you were diving into details or courses that you thought were particularly Interesting? For example, for me, one that was especially interesting was the fact that there’s a university in Arizona that already has specifically microschool training, and to me that seems very adaptive and something that I wasn’t sure I was going to see any of that, but that exists. Were there any that jumped out to you that were particularly interesting or surprising?

Mike McShane: The story in Arizona I think is a really interesting one, and it’s an institution worth highlighting. That’s Arizona State University offers these because Arizona State offers ASU Prep or sponsors ASU Prep, which is a big charter school network of like 7,000 kids, I think, across its various campuses. It’s really interesting. On ASU Prep’s website, they have this interesting semicircle where they break down their different school offerings that are under the ASU Prep umbrella.

They have all the way from five day a week what you think of as a traditional charter school, all the way around to a fully digital online five day a week model. They have everything in between. They have four days at home and one day at school, three days, two days, two days, three days, one day, four day, et cetera. One group of that are microschools. I think they call them learning pods, but they’re basically microschools.

What they have is kind of like a lab school type model where they’re affiliated with the university and therefore you can place your teachers in those types of schools and you can create coursework around them. I tried to highlight it in the conclusion. I think the whole ASU Prep model is a really interesting way of doing this both on the schooling side and others. I think that’s one that’s definitely lots of other places could totally learn from.

John Kristof: I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Again, if I had my researcher hat on, I think, okay, we need to dive into this further. But looking at this from a bird’s eye view, it’s not a coincidence that Arizona also has the largest and one of the most successful charter ecosystems in the whole country, I think. If you’re going to invest in a lot of programs there that help, there’s a network and a development network there that other states don’t have.

It both increases the quality perhaps of teachers who are entering the charter ecosystem, but then also if there’s ever somebody who’s going through your program that wants to start their own charter school, they know that the charter sector exists and how it works a little more, again, in comparison to maybe some other states, they can become an innovator of their own and develop their own school, their own curriculum, things like that. A bird’s eye view, there can’t be a coincidence there, I feel like.

Overall then, you said that you can either look at this as a glass half full, glass half empty, but I’ll put you on the hot seat. What is your impression then of how to look at these numbers? I know you said that you were going into this project with a sense of, okay, if we’re going to be innovative, if we’re going to pursue these pathways of alternative education models, we need a better teacher pipeline. We need a robust teacher pipeline for alternative education. You looking at these results, how do they strike you in relation to that goal?

Mike McShane: I mean, the first thing that strikes me, I’ll do the negative and then the positive, because I think both are true at the same time. The negative thing is just I think on behalf of people trying to start these schools and recruiting teachers how much time, money, resources they will have to spend to get teachers to where they need them to be. Again, this is the assumption that they’re coming out of traditional pipelines. There’s all stories. If you talk to people who operate these schools, they’re oftentimes bringing in teachers from non-traditional backgrounds, and I get that.

Part of the logic of this paper is that that might be unsustainable. And then if these sectors are going to grow to be big, you probably want a little more stable pipeline than ad hoc, just finding the closest person to hand. All of that having been said, the negative stories I just think about like, man, all of these teachers are being prepared to teach in one type of school. These new types of schools are emerging. What do those schools have to do? Well, they’re going to have to provide professional development.

They’re going to have to retrain themselves. When are you doing that? Are you doing that in the summertime? Are you doing it afterwards? That’s money, that’s time that could otherwise be spent making your school more awesome, and that other types of schools don’t have to do, the traditional public schools don’t have to do, that a lot of times you hear from the private schools or more generic or standard charter schools might not have to do. What you get out of a teacher preparation program is ready to go in that environment. I’m just like, man, what waste and how much.

We’re getting vouchers and ESAs and others to families, but some portion of that is like a dead weight loss of… I don’t know if I’m exactly using that term correctly. I’m using it more in the literary sense perhaps, but it’s a loss of these schools shouldn’t have to be doing this. Other schools aren’t. It’s a problem there. That’s the negative case is just a lot of waste here, people’s time, people’s resources, people’s energy to do that. And it’s the individual teachers. I spent four years learning to do one thing and I want to do something different, and so I have to start over.

Anyway, now, I keep thinking though, I just see this big flashing opportunity out there. If I am an enterprising dean of an ed school, particularly in a state where school choice is growing, so we think of all of these states that just passed universal ESA programs or where these networks of microschools are growing or hybrid home schools are growing, and let’s say you’re not the flagship university of the state where we’re talking about demographic trends and others, where maybe fewer people are going to enroll in college.

You could be looking at some rough financial situations, either you’re already facing them or you may be facing them in the near future. You need to find ways to differentiate yourself. You need to offer things that other people aren’t. This seems to me like a great idea. Hey, we are going to not just do the same thing that everybody else is doing, but maybe slightly worse than them or slightly better, but basically do the same thing as other people. We’re going to do something different.

We are going to create pathways to prepare teachers do this. Again, it doesn’t even necessarily have to be a whole major, but we’re just going to say, hey, you can minor in online education, or you can minor in microschooling, or whatever, any of those sorts of things. Take a few courses. I would be willing to wager that most school leaders would be totally cool with that. If you’ve taken two or three courses in this, I think we’re good. I don’t think it even has to be a whole thing, but just recruiting some of those people to participate in that.

I just see this huge opportunity and I think that we see with ASU Prep, those opportunities only linger for so long before someone thinks about it. Maybe they just haven’t thought about it yet. Part of what I hope to do with this paper is when people say, “Oh, wow, that actually sounds like a good idea. We should do that.”

John Kristof: Yeah, I think you’re definitely right about the opportunities here. If you are running a school of education in a choice rich area, I mean, I don’t know what kind of pressures you have about who teaches what, but I can guarantee you that there are some alternative education leaders in your state who would love to share their experiences and knowledge so that the kids that you’re teaching, the future teachers can stand on their shoulders, so to speak. It’s a very positive sum environment there.

Just some thoughts that direction. Listening to this podcast, we definitely have school choice advocates. We might have some people who are running their own alternative schools, private schools, microschools, charter schools, et cetera. We might have some state legislators listening. I get clues to that sometimes. Are there any actionable steps that you would want the listener to this podcast to think about, either themselves encouraging, depending on where they are in life, or just how they should be thinking about this problem?

Mike McShane: Yeah. I mean, I think advocates can really think about, especially in states that have public universities that get public dollars, they have to go before the legislature. The legislatures have oversight over them or state boards that oversee them or higher education authorities or others. I think there’s a really good opportunity for advocacy to talk to whether it’s a regulating agency or policymakers or others and say, hey, are you asking about this? Are you saying when someone comes before your committee and is testifying, hey, we want more money, or we want money to be funded this year?

Like someone asking a question like, hey, what are you doing in teacher prep? We passed these choice laws in the last couple of years. Are you all doing anything to help meet those needs? Why not? I think on that policy side, there’s definitely leverage that policymakers have, and I think advocates pointing that out to those legislators would be very good. Look, I think school leaders, educators reaching out to teacher preparation programs in their area saying, hey, we’ve got this network of schools.

You all every year are trying to place teachers. We would be a place where you would place teachers. Can we talk? Can we maybe brainstorm courses that we could offer together that maybe it would be team taught with a faculty from the school, as well as someone who operates a microschool, or something like that? Let’s put a course or two together on how to figure that out. I think there’s lots of opportunities of people choosing to work together on this. Again, maybe the microschool says, look, you want to place student teachers.

We’ll take a student teacher and work them through. I think there’s lots of opportunities for partnerships and a bit of leverage, particularly when it comes to things like public universities.

John Kristof: That’s super helpful. I’ll just repeat. Everyone, if you want to see the full paper for yourself and read about some details, some more examples of alternative education training that does exist now, you can check out Mike’s paper and the EdChoice Research Library right now, Surfing the Pipeline: Understanding Pathways into Teaching in Alternative Models of Schooling. Mike McShane, thank you so much for coming on the podcast to share your thoughts and your findings from this research.

If you are new-ish to this podcast and haven’t been so familiar with us or with Mike’s research before, definitely look him up. He is one of, if not the research leader and people who are thinking about these kinds of questions as far as alternative, innovative education and his experience and knowledge and excitement about this new era of education is really great. He’s got a lot of great resources.

In the meantime, thank you very much for tuning into this episode, and thank you to Jacob and Eve, our lovely podcast producers, for making this all sound good and working with all technical issues of producing this podcast. Thank you to the listeners for joining us, and we’ll see you again next time on EdChoice Chats.