May 31 2017

Service Scholarships and Forgivable Loans: Investing in Excellent Teachers for America’s Students

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This is the fourth installment of our blog series, Solving Teacher Shortages.

The Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in October of 1957 triggered deep concerns that the U.S. was losing its competitive advantage. In response, a galvanized Congress passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958, marking a significant investment in public education. Recognizing the vital role that educators play in preparing the next generation of innovators and leaders, the Act included strategic funding for scholarships and fellowships for prospective Math, Science, and Foreign Language teachers.

Supporting a well-prepared teacher workforce is as crucial to our national interests today as it was in the 1950s. Recurrent teacher shortages, particularly in Math and Science, are undermining the availability and quality of these important courses. The problem is greatest in schools serving low-income students and students of color, where shortages are most pronounced. A fall 2016 survey shows that California districts are responding to shortages by hiring substitutes and teachers with substandard credentials or credentials in fields other than the courses they’ll be teaching. They’re also canceling courses and increasing class size when positions go unfilled. None of these strategies are consistent with our country’s goal of producing students who are college-bound and prepared to secure competitive jobs in today’s global economy.

 In 2017—as in 1958—service scholarships and forgivable loans can be important elements in a comprehensive strategy to recruit and retain excellent educators.

In 2017—as in 1958—service scholarships and forgivable loans can be important elements in a comprehensive strategy to recruit and retain excellent educators. These programs, being proposed by many state legislatures, offer financial support to cover the cost of teacher preparation programs in exchange for a commitment to teach in a high-need field or location for a specified period. In doing so, they contribute to a better prepared and more sustainable teaching workforce.

Consider the experience of Irene Castillon, an eighth-year History teacher and Assistant Director at the Luis Valdez Leadership Academy in San Jose, California. Her story illustrates how these programs can support quality teaching and learning in the 21st century.

At Luis Valdez—where more than 90 percent of students are low-income and Latino—Irene prepares high school students whose life experiences are much like her own. “Like my students, I was the first in my family to graduate from high school and attend college,” says Irene, who grew up in San Bernardino, California.

As a college student, Irene wanted to become a teacher, but she faced financial pressures that made attending a traditional teacher preparation program seem out of reach. “My father worked three minimum-wage jobs, and that still wasn’t enough to prevent our family from declaring bankruptcy and losing our home while I was in college,” explains Irene, adding that her family’s financial security was paramount. Paying for an expensive program—or even taking on student loan debt—wasn’t an acceptable option.

While some young people enter the teaching profession after college, forgoing full preparation coursework and fieldwork to earn an income, Irene was not comfortable heading into the classroom without full preparation. “I was one of those students that had [substitute teachers] coming in and out of the classroom and entered college feeling unprepared,” she explains. “I wanted to go into a teacher education program and master’s program because I wanted to be prepared to serve my students so that when they got to a college campus…they would feel like they belonged and that they were prepared.”

The combination of service scholarships and forgivable loans were the key to translating Irene’s vision into a reality. Irene received loans and service scholarships that covered 100 percent of her graduate teacher preparation studies at Stanford University. “Without the financial assistance, I don’t think that I would have enrolled in a teacher preparation program and pursued a master’s degree,” says Irene.

As a teacher and administrator, Irene’s influence on her students extends beyond the classroom. She is a mentor and role model for her students, supporting and encouraging them as they consider their postsecondary options. “Education has the power to transform not just the student, but families, communities, and society,” says Irene, who is committed to ensuring her students have options after high school, just as she did.

Irene’s story reflects research, which finds that service scholarships and forgivable loans that meaningfully offset the cost of a teacher’s professional preparation can attract teachers who are better prepared and more likely to remain in the classroom than their peers. More affordable than across-the-board salary increases, loan forgiveness and service scholarship programs offer a targeted, short-term approach to increasing teachers’ overall compensation at the time it matters most to individuals’ career decisions.

Research also suggests that these programs can attract more diverse teacher candidates, as well as educators such as Irene, who are more likely to teach—and stay—in schools serving low-income students and students of color. And, because these programs tend to recruit a more stable workforce, they can reduce recruitment and training costs associated with turnover, which can be up to $20,000 for each teacher who leaves.

In North Carolina, for example, the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program was successful for 30 years at recruiting high-achieving high school graduates into teaching. In exchange for a $26,000 scholarship, recipients agreed to teach for at least four years in the state. A study found that scholarship recipients were both more effective educators and more likely to remain in the classroom than their peer teachers. Although the program lost its funding in 2011, this year legislators have proposed a forgivable loan program of up to $8,250 a year for new in-state teachers who agree to teach in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, or Special Education.

From North Carolina to California, school districts are struggling to attract and retain high-quality teachers. Our history of providing targeted educational investments through service scholarships and forgivable loans demonstrates the value of these programs for ensuring that students have excellent teachers, such as Irene.

“I am able to provide for my family and I have the best job that I could ask for,” she says. “I know that my students and other aspiring teachers would benefit greatly from scholarships that would help to alleviate the teacher shortage and diversify the teaching pipeline.”