Putting TEACH Grants to Work for One of the Highest Need Areas in Education: Early Childhood
By Mark Reilly & Stephanie Castellanos
Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grants were created a decade ago to encourage new educators to teach where they are most needed, by helping to offset the costs of their degrees in exchange for a 4-year commitment to teach in high-need subjects in under-resourced schools. TEACH grants are a great idea in theory, but are fundamentally broken in practice. As the federal government sets its sights on revamping this critical program, Jumpstart and the Coalition for Diverse Educators are urging our legislators to expand eligibility and program requirements for TEACH grants to make sure they include one of the highest need areas in teaching today: early childhood education.
TEACH grants are federal grants for undergraduate and graduate students who are planning to go into teaching after graduation, and who are committed to teaching high-need subjects in under-resourced K-12 schools. These future educators are eligible for up to $4,000 in grants per year, for up to four years for undergraduate and two years for graduate studies. Unlike other grants and student loans, TEACH grants are flexible; they can be used to fund tuition, room and board, books, or other fees for college. Since the program was created in the 2008–2009 school year, over 250,000 students have received over $800 million in TEACH grants.
TEACH grant recipients, no matter how much grant funding they’ve received, are required to teach a high-need subject for at least four years in a high-need school after completing their degree. If recipients do not fulfill this commitment for whatever reason — whether they decide halfway through college that they don’t want to be a teacher; or if they teach a high-need subject in a qualifying school, but for only three years; or if they decide to teach art, reading, or music instead of a federally designated high-need subject — then their full TEACH grant will be retroactively converted into a loan (with accumulating interest) that they are required to repay to the federal government.
TEACH grants have been in the news recently because of errors in oversight that resulted in many teachers discovering that their TEACH grants were incorrectly converted to loans: According to a Department of Education study obtained by NPR, over 12,000 TEACH grant recipients have had their TEACH grants converted into loans, despite the fact that one-third of those recipients claim that they were likely or very likely to meet the requirements of their grant. These are exactly the teachers that our government created TEACH grants to recruit: qualified teachers who have dedicated themselves to teaching science, math, special education, or other high-need subjects in low-income schools. And these are teachers doing everything they can to comply with the grant’s restrictions — yet, due to paperwork mix-ups or minor logistical errors, the Department of Education via its federal loan servicer FedLoan has converted the entirety of their grants into loans that have already accrued interest.
While the program is broken, it was created to meet an important need, and has the potential to be a huge benefit to future educators and the communities and students they will serve. However, there is more work to be done beyond just holding the loan servicers accountable. Below are four commonsense reforms that should be made to the TEACH grant program to allow it to truly recruit diverse, well-trained educators to teach our most under-resourced learners.
1. Add early education to federal high-needs subject list.
Only teachers who teach “high-needs” subjects are eligible to keep their TEACH grants and not have them converted into a loan. The federal high-needs list is managed by the US Department of Education, though states can add local high-needs subjects to the state’s eligibility list. While not on the federal high-needs list, early childhood education could not be a more high-need subject for our nation’s children. The early childhood workforce is severely underpaid and as a result, roughly 30 percent of early educators who begin a school year in a preschool classroom are gone by June. The field is in desperate need of the stability of highly-educated teachers who are dedicated to remaining in the classroom for multiple years. The Department of Education should add early childhood education to the permanent list of federal high-needs subjects, encouraging more early educators to earn post-secondary degrees, thereby leading to more well-trained teachers in early education classrooms.
2. Add accredited center-based preschools in low-income communities or Head Start Centers to list of high-need schools.
Nationwide, early educators earn roughly 50 percent of what their similarly qualified peers earn in elementary school classrooms — just $28,500 on average for an early educator. And yet, we encourage states and preschools to require more and more teachers to receive higher and higher qualifications in order to teach our youngest learners. The data that teachers with higher education produce larger gains in the preschool years for young children is clear. However, to see these powerful gains, we must encourage highly educated teachers to teach in the youngest classrooms, and TEACH grants can be a powerful incentive. The Department of Education should add accredited center-based preschools in low-income communities and Head Start Centers to the permanent list of federal high-need schools.
3. Only convert grants to loans in proportion to years of service that the participant has not completed on their grant.
Teachers should be rewarded for their service in low-income schools, not retroactively punished and forced to pay back a presumptive grant. Any teacher who fulfills the program for any number of years until the full four-year requirement should only be required to pay back their grant in proportion to years that they did not fulfill the requirements. For example, if a teacher received $8,000 in TEACH grants and taught a high-need subject in a high-need school for two years, they should be required to repay $4,000 in loans, not the full $8,000.
4. Use TEACH grants to intentionally recruit diverse educators who better reflect students in the classroom.
Studies have shown that teacher diversity is important to learning, engagement, and self-confidence in the classroom for all students. TEACH grants should be used to recruit a diverse workforce by prioritizing funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Asian American and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and universities that enroll a diverse student body. Additionally, in order for students of color to participate in this federal program, they need to know how to access it. TEACH grant institutions should be required to use federal TEACH grant funds to hold regular workshops or financial aid counseling aimed at diverse and first-generation college students, through either an Educational Opportunity Program on campus or another institution aimed at serving students of color.
The TEACH grant program is broken and in the coming months, Congress will need to face the problems with TEACH grants and FedLoan’s failure to implement the program. They must begin by holding the loan servicer and Department of Education accountable for the damage and debt caused to thousands of eligible teachers in high-need schools. While they are examining TEACH grants and identifying potential changes to the program to ensure that these dollars are being best spent, Congress should also use this opportunity to improve the program for all future educators.
Mark Reilly is the Vice President Policy & Government Relations for Jumpstart, an early education non-profit working to ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed. Stephanie Castellanos is the Executive Director of the Coalition for Diverse Educators, a network of leaders from school districts, nonprofits, charter networks, higher-ed campus leaders, and community-based organizations dedicated to increasing, empowering, and developing a strong pipeline of future educators of color in urban education.