Two new initiatives to address the ongoing teacher shortage in Nevada aim to show it’s possible to add more educators to the pool by subtracting obstacles that may otherwise prevent them from pursuing careers in the classroom.
Nevada is the first state where education platform Study.com is launching its “Keys to the Classroom” initiative, which will provide $432,000 in 600 Praxis test preparation scholarships in an effort to create a quick infusion of aspiring teachers.
Passing the Praxis standardized tests is necessary in nearly all circumstances to obtain a teacher’s license in Nevada, but it is a hurdle for many aspiring teachers.
There are talented people who struggle with the tests, said Mark Carroll, director of assessment and college effectiveness at UNLV’s College of Education. “It is certainly a barrier in the teacher pipeline.”
The second initiative announced last week by the Nevada Department of Education will create a $20.7 million “Incentivizing Pathways to Teaching” grant program, funded by federal coronavirus relief money.
The program provides stipends to those in educator preparation programs as they take classes or go through student teaching at a Nevada System of Higher Education campus or “other approved educator preparation program,” according to a news release.
Dana Bryson, senior vice president of social impact for Study.com, said such efforts show that Nevada is leading the way in combatting the nationwide problem with its advocacy for improving the teacher pipeline and addressing the shortage. That was a big reason the company picked the state for its initiative.
“There’s momentum to make very practical recommendations and also policy-based recommendations,” she said.
Study.com plans to provide licenses to its test preparation software to partners — such as school districts, colleges and universities and education nonprofits — who will then distribute them to those preparing for testing. The prospects will have access to online materials for a year, Bryson said.
Nevada needs 3,000 additional teachers to achieve class sizes to ratios recommended by the State Board of Education, according to the state.
The Clark County School District — the state’s largest, with more than 300,000 students — had 842 licensed classroom vacancies as of last week.
Many educators have recently voiced concerns at School Board meetings about working conditions, including large workloads, overcrowded classes and a lack of substitute teachers.
It’s not yet clear whether the initiatives will be able to make a dent in the shortfall.
Carroll said he has seen exceptional students who have solid content knowledge and teaching practices, but who have difficulties with test taking due to factors such as anxiety or issues with the formatting.
There are special circumstances where someone can become a teacher of record in the Clark County School District, for instance, without passing the Praxis, Carroll said. “That’s more of a temporary solution for those emergencies,” he said.
But if someone wants to obtain a standard state teaching license and continue as a teacher, passing the Praxis is obligatory, he said.
The Praxis, though, isn’t as big of a barrier from a numbers standpoint as some people think it is, Carroll said, noting the majority of UNLV education students only need to take a Praxis test one time in order to pass.
Last school year, 422 UNLV students took 1,189 Praxis tests, with 849 passed on the first try and 73 needing two or more attempts, Carroll said.
Of those who took a test, 171 failed at least once, he said. And 53 of the students who failed — about 13 percent of the total — “were not eventually able to pass at least one of their required exams,” Carroll said.
He said he’s excited about the Study.com scholarship opportunity. “I think it will help folks pass the first time instead of taking multiple attempts.”
But, he said, it’s not a cure all.
Lauren Layton, interim director of student success at the UNLV College of Education Student Services Center, said she’s “incredibly excited” about the Study.com scholarship because equitable access to test preparation resources will help students achieve their goal of becoming educators.
The offering from Study.com will “work in tandem with many programs and initiatives at the state level to continue supporting our educator pipeline,” the Nevada Department of Education said in a statement last week to the Review-Journal.
It’s important “we provide every support possible to our pre-service educators” and it’s a key state priority to “grow Nevada’s educator workforce with effective and diverse educators,” according to the statement.
The department said it doesn’t collect data about the pass-fail rate for Praxis exams among those seeking a teaching license in Nevada.
The grant program, on the other hand, will provide aspiring educators with up to $2,000 in tuition assistance over their last three semesters, and up to $8,400 in stipends during the semester they’re student teaching.
Priority is given to those with a financial need and/or those who identify as a person of color, according to the release.
Aspiring educators who receive the money are required to get a standard Nevada teaching license and seek a job in a public school in the state.
The grant program, which launched this fall and will run for two years, is expected to support 2,000 aspiring teachers with student teaching stipends and 1,840 with tuition assistance, according to the release.
Currently 265 people are receiving stipends during student teaching and 764 are receiving tuition assistance.
Other efforts to address the state’s teacher shortage include the Nevada State Teacher Recruitment and Retention Advisory Task Force, and the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Teacher Pipeline Task Force.
And Senate Bill 352, which passed during this year’s legislative session, allows a paraprofessional — someone who provides instructional help at a school — to complete accelerated student teaching while keeping their current job.
Preparing for the Praxis
Applicants for a Nevada teaching license must pass three Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators tests — in reading, writing and mathematics — administered by the national Educational Testing Service (ETS). And there are other Praxis tests required for specific areas of licensure.
UNLV used to require undergraduate education students to pass the Praxis as part of full-major requirements, meaning it was needed in order for aspiring teachers to pursue more education classes and field experiences. But last year, the university did away with that requirement.
“We’ve just seen it releases a huge weight off of students’ shoulders,” Layton said.
Prior to that change, a student who failed a required Praxis test “couldn’t move into the latter half of their program,” Layton said, and couldn’t access some federal grants and scholarships.
It was a huge barrier for students and some were dropping out, taking a semester or two off to try to master Praxis content, or transitioning into a non-licensure early childhood education program, Layton said.
Now, students much more relaxed when they’re taking a Praxis exam and know they have a cushion of time to pass before they seek licensure, she said.
Carroll said he’s overall in support of the Praxis, but hopes there’s an effort to start looking into some alternatives.
“We need to think of other valid benchmarks we can use for licensure,” he said.