CLEARWATER — Pinellas County schools Superintendent Michael Grego may have found a way to develop exactly the kind of teacher he would like to hire.
Teachers will be held to a higher standard in his schools, he said, and that means local colleges and universities should increase their rigor, as well.
“This is something that’s been bothering me, but in a good way,” Grego told school board members Tuesday. “We need to partner with our local colleges and universities to create an outstanding teacher preparation program. It’s an issue I’ve been soapboxing for 15 years and still haven’t made a significant difference with.”
Grego will meet with education college leaders at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg College in the coming weeks to discuss revamping the way they teach their education students.
He plans to take the issue to state leaders, who have placed strict requirements on what colleges can teach their students.
His mission is spurred, in part, by the lack of qualified candidates the school district has seen. Watching teachers struggle to master the more rigorous Common Core material they will be expected to teach next school year, as well as “paying thousands of dollars” to train them, also prompted Grego to approach the universities, he said.
The school district could attract and retain a greater number of teachers if they were better prepared for the classroom, Grego said.
School board Chairwoman Carol Cook said: “It’s changed over the years, but when I studied education at USF I got into classrooms very early, and you do get a better perspective about what it’s all about. Not only did you start to learn tools and tricks and how courses are being implemented in the classroom, but some people went in and went, ‘Whoa, this is not what I thought I was signing up for.’ ”
Common Core will require teachers to have mastery of the topics they teach, such as math, science and history. But most universities require education students to take only one methods course in each subject, Grego said.
The school district spent thousands of dollars in 2013 on professional development courses for teachers on such topics, “and we need to slow down the spigot on such spending,” he said.
“Ask any recent graduate, ‘How many specific mathematics courses did you take to support the teaching of mathematics in elementary or middle school?’ and as we’ve seen — and as was reinforced with the 19,000 or more comments the state received on the Common Core — many teachers do not feel confident with their content knowledge,” Grego said.
“This isn’t a criticism of our current programs, but rather an evolution of what has to take place with the increased demands being placed on our teachers,” he said.
The school district has hosted job fairs for recent college graduates to attract the “best and brightest” young teachers.
And being the only school district in the area to raise starting salaries for first-year teachers from $37,000 to $40,000 has “really helped,” Grego said.
But with tuition escalating to about $1,300 per semester for Florida residents at St. Petersburg College and $2,910 at USF St. Petersburg, not to mention additional fees and supplies, many top education students shy away from teaching out of a need to pay their bills, school board member Rene Flowers said.
At the same time, more and more qualified teachers are reaching retirement age and will take their expertise with them, said Beth Corace, director of strategic planning and policy.
If the next generation of teachers wants to shadow successful professionals, now is the time, she said. About 200 Pinellas teachers retired in 2013 alone.
“We’re faced with this grand exodus of wonderful, talented teachers in our district that are at the other end of their careers, and we need to find a way to capture that knowledge and pass it on to others,” Corace said. “It’s a storm coming — there aren’t enough candidates coming in, and very talented people are leaving.”
Grego has begun discussions with Kim Hartman, dean of the college of education at St. Petersburg College, who said she would like to implement course changes by the fall semester.
Bill Heller, dean of USF’s college of education, said he will work with the duo any way he can, but the problem is multi-faceted.
The turnover rate for teachers in their first five years on the job is “phenomenal,” he said.
And even though people in most professions need several years to become proficient, teachers face strict, state-set evaluation processes that are largely tied to the performance of students who have gone through years of education with other teachers.
“We don’t profess to say that when you come out of an undergraduate degree program you’re fully prepared, at the top of the heap, and don’t need any more training or education,” Heller said. “We need to also give teachers that are practicing an opportunity to come back to school if there are areas they need to strengthen.”