As America — and Wisconsin — try to navigate a deepening shortage of K–12 teachers, the UW–Madison School of Education is working to inspire more people to enter the profession. The Wisconsin Teacher Pledge gives students a chance to have their tuition waived if they promise to spend several years teaching at Wisconsin schools.
The National Education Association estimates that the United States has 300,000 fewer teachers than it needs, and in Wisconsin, 74 percent of school districts report being unable to fill positions.
These are among the reasons UW–Madison’s School of Education created the Wisconsin Teacher Pledge, an innovative program designed to help bolster the teacher workforce and give schoolchildren access to the high-quality educators they deserve.
In August 2020, the School of Education announced the Teacher Pledge as part of its Impact 2030 campaign: tuition forgiveness for all students who promise to teach in the state for at least four years, or three years in high-need subjects or school districts.The initiative pledges to pay the equivalent of in-state tuition and fees, testing, and licensing costs for all teacher education students. In return, graduates pledge to teach for three or four years at a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school in Wisconsin. Students who go on to teach in a high-need school or in a high-need subject area will fulfill their obligation in three years, while all others will do so in four.
Completely funded by donors, the $20 million initiative was originally scheduled to run through Spring 2025. In 2022, the pilot was extended to run through the 2025-26 academic year, one more year than originally designed. Over its duration, the program is expected to support more than 1,000 students in the School’s teacher education programs.
In addition to providing significant financial support, the initiative is also designed to incentivize teachers to stay on the job for at least three or four years. Currently, young teachers across the nation are leaving the profession at high rates after only a year or two.
“There are significant challenges across the field of education, but we’re looking to the future with a sense of optimism,” says Dean Hess. “Our Teacher Pledge program holds great potential for the state of Wisconsin. We have to explore solutions quickly.”
“Especially early on in one’s career, teaching is a very difficult job,” says Hess, who began her education career as a high school social studies teacher in Downers Grove, Illinois, in 1979. “We feel if teachers stick with it, they will gain confidence, start to see the value they bring, and enjoy the important work they are doing.”
While staffing challenges are hitting rural areas of Wisconsin especially hard, most districts across the state are utilizing teachers on emergency licensure to fill gaps in at least some high-need areas, such as special education and STEM fields.
“It’s so easy to lament huge problems like teacher shortages and the lack of special educators in rural areas,” says Melinda Leko, a professor with the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education who has worked on projects designed to support special educators in rural settings. “But the UW–Madison School of Education Wisconsin Teacher Pledge is actually a tangible step toward solutions.”
Over the next several years, researchers at UW–Madison will study this pilot of the Teacher Pledge and share key findings that could help aid efforts around Wisconsin and across the nation in building a stronger teacher workforce. This initiative is being evaluated and researched through the university’s Student Success Through Applied Research (SSTAR) Lab that is led by Nicholas Hillman, a professor with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.
Since its inception, more than 350 students have utilized the program, with numbers increasing every year. Currently, more than 85 percent of the students enrolled in the School of Education’s master’s degree program that leads to teaching certification at the middle school and high school level are utilizing the opportunity — a promising trend when coupled with continued growth in enrollment at the undergraduate level for those pursuing elementary education certification.
“I never saw myself coming to Wisconsin until I heard about the Pledge,” says Camryn Booms, who earned her undergraduate degree at Ferris State University in her home state of Michigan and today is pursuing a master’s with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in a program that will lead to dual certification in secondary science education and English as a second language (ESL). “It’s the reason I’m here. The financial support is a real difference-maker for me, and I know many of my classmates agree.”
The UW–Madison School of Education Wisconsin Teacher Pledge is just one part of the School of Education’s ambitious new Impact 2030 initiative that’s designed to build upon the School’s excellence and efforts to serve Wisconsin and beyond over the next decade, leading up to the School’s centennial celebration in 2030.
Learn more about the UW–Madison School of Education Wisconsin Teacher Pledge: https://tec.education.wisc.edu/teacher-pledge/