This interview features insights from the JTE article “Keeping Our Best? A Survival Analysis Examining a Measure of Preservice Teacher Quality and Teacher Attrition” by Robert Vagi, Margarita Pivovarova, and Wendy Miedel Barnard. The article is published in the March/April 2019 issue of the Journal of Teacher Education. You can read the full text by visiting this link.
Q1. What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?
With a background as a classroom teacher, I’ve seen firsthand the impact that great teachers can have on students. In my experience (and research supports this), those teachers are most desperately needed in challenging schools. As a result, I’ve always been interested in the strategic recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers. This interest fit naturally with my Ph.D. program that was housed in one of the largest teacher education colleges in the country. My co-authors, on the other hand, have been engaged in research on teacher quality and evaluation for several years, both for pre-service and in-service teachers.
Q2. Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?
Teacher shortages and high teacher attrition rates in Arizona, where the study took place, are persistent problems. The data for this study is now a few years old, but attracting and retaining high-quality teachers has been and continues to be a prominent feature of Arizona’s political and social landscape. For instance, during the most recent gubernatorial election, public education and, specifically, the teacher workforce, were at the forefront of both candidates’ platforms. At the same time, Arizona teachers joined their colleagues around the country and walked out to protest low pay and poor working conditions.
In order to address this issue, policymakers first need to understand how and why teachers leave the classroom. In this research, we tried to shed light on how student teachers’ transition from their pre-service years to the profession factors into recruitment and retention. We were also interested in understanding the kinds of teachers that were most likely to enter and stay in the profession.
Q3. What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?
Among the major difficulties for this study (as with most quantitative research on teacher education) is the lack of high-quality data. Rigorous scholarly research requires controlling for all possible influences to isolate the relationship of interest, in our case – to understand the relationship between pre-service teacher quality and the likelihood of entering and staying in the profession. The diversity of pre-service teachers’ experiences calls for careful accounting of all other differences between them apart from the teaching quality. While we did our best to control for that in our analysis, we were limited by what was reported by the university. In the future, studies like ours would benefit from a richer data set.
Q4. What current areas of research are you pursuing?
Two of my co-authors continue to work in the area of teacher quality, teacher education, and teacher mobility. I have recently switched gears and now pursuing an exciting career as a data scientist in the private sector. The three of us have actually written a follow-up study where we looked at typologies of pre-service teachers based on their improvement over time. In that study we used the same observational measures of teacher quality as in our JTE paper and found that student teachers do, in fact, have different trajectories in how they improve over time and that these trajectories are related, in part, to their past academic achievement. We believe that research in this area can help teacher preparation programs in identifying practices that effectively allow teachers to improve their practice over time.
Q5. What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?
More novice teachers are entering the teaching profession via alternative routes as opposed to traditional four-year colleges. While this opens the field of education to a potentially more diverse workforce, it is still a relatively new concept. While this isn’t a challenge, per se, it will require thoughtful consideration as teacher preparation is reimagined.
Q6. What advice would you give to new scholars in teacher education?
It is more of a general comment to all new scholars but we feel that it is especially applicable to those who work in teacher education and education policy. Be passionate about what you are doing and about people who are direct or indirect participants and beneficiaries of your research. Always remember that your research may have, and should have, practical implications. This means that your research would touch on and maybe even change someone’s life. When we talk about teacher education, we have the potential to impact not just our communities, but the communities of others. So, our advice is to exercise caution when making conclusions, provide implications only when you are confident that your research satisfies the highest standards of rigor and accuracy, and avoid ambiguity in your scholarly statements.