UNI’s new accelerated online degree aims to address teachers, diversity shortage

Benjamin Forsyth, University of Northern Iowa director of educator preparation (UNI photo)

Iowa, like many states, is facing a teacher shortage — with the state Department of Education recently listing 1,955 “classroom teacher” openings, a number that soars to 3,775 if you include jobs for instructional support, special education and support staff.

Given its long history of training educators, the University of Northern Iowa — called the Iowa State Teachers College from 1909 to 1961 — is working to help address the shortage, including through a new “fully online teacher preparation program” that allows working paraeducators with associate degrees to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education, with a special education minor.

The State Board of Education — which sets practitioner preparation standards and must approve programmatic changes — last week OK’d UNI’s new “accelerated, online, practice-based elementary education and special education program that honors and incorporates the professional experience and work-based exposure to classrooms of today’s paraeducator.”

Changes setting this new program apart from UNI’s traditional elementary and special education offerings are threefold, according to UNI Director of Educator Preparation Benjamin Forsyth.

  • Instead of a four-year bachelor’s degree course-load, paraeducators accepted into the program take eight-week, eight-credit terms over two years featuring courses that have been compressed with others of similar content and capitalize on the working students’ in-class experiences.
  • Additionally, all the new program’s courses are taught in synchronous three-hour blocks on a consistent weekday evening, along with one six-hour Saturday session a month, “so that students are able to continue working in schools.”
  • And this program’s coursework has been designed to align with existing learning outcomes to leverage the students’ daily classroom exposure.

Paraeducators can find out more at online.uni.edu/purple-pathway-paraeducators. Forsyth answered questions from The Gazette on the program.

Q: Is this new program entirely online?

A: “It’s all online, and that is a big deal for access,” Forsythe said, noting paraeducators accepted into the program are working full time, making traditional in-person programs impossible.

Q: How are you able to condense four years of education into two?

A: “It’s pretty rigorous,” he said. “We’re asking students to do 80 credits in two years, in a full-time kind of way, while they are full-time paras. That’s a heavy load.

“So we’re also making sure that they are not only recommended by their administrator, principal, or superintendent. They also are partnering with UNI to provide ongoing mentorship.”

Q: Is this new online offering only for paraeducators wanting the special education minor? Or could someone get just an elementary education bachelor’s this way?

A: “We do have an accelerated program that is just elementary ed — it’s our 2+2 program that’s been running for several years now. But it’s not near as accelerated as this one. So the direct answer is no, there’s no way to tease apart this one.”

But, Forsythe said, paras are especially used in special ed classrooms.

“One of the biggest shortages, if not the largest … is a shortage in special education. So we get to kill two birds with one stone.”

Q: So this program is aimed at addressing the teacher shortage?

A: “Yeah, very much so,” he said, adding, “And not only more teachers, but it’s also aimed at diversifying our teaching pool. This is common throughout the United States, but Iowa especially is just very, very white. And so the number of white middle-class female teachers that we have is huge. And the demographics of Iowa are changing to more black and brown. And our ability to recruit more Black and brown teachers has not been great.”

Q: How does this program address that?

A: “We know that there are more minority individuals who are paraeducators, so this becomes a really good way for us to recruit that population that we know already has some interest in education to be fully licensed.”

Q: Is Iowa’s teacher shortage significant?

A: “They definitely have a shortage,” Forsythe said. “We’re not as bad as some states. But one example that was given was that in the past you could expect, on any given day during the school year, there would be about 25 openings for elementary education across the state. Nowadays, like this last year, the average was around 125.”

Q: Do you know what is driving the shortage?

A: Forsythe said fewer students are graduating high school and more jobs are available for those who want to go straight into the workforce. The pandemic also played a role, he said.

“It’s been harder to be a teacher in a COVID kind of a world,” he said. “So you get more teachers that are leaving either early or, if they were hanging on until retirement, they’re not hanging on any more.”

Q: When does the program launch?

A: The program launches in fall 2022.

Q: Do you already have students signed up?

A: “We had to wait until we get state approval,” he said. “But we have we have gotten a lot of interest.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.