Teacher shortages are ailing schools nationwide. What can be done? – USA TODAY

Arkansas, like many states, has struggled to protect its classrooms from significant shortages of certain educators, in part because of declining completion rates at traditional teachers colleges and the profession’s low pay.
“There are just a lot of questions about … the return on investment of a teaching degree,” said Lizzy Hetherington of the Arkansas Teacher Corps, a three-year alternative certification program that helps educators in the state become licensed to teach while working.
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The corps recently shifted from recruiting newer college grads to helping teachers already working but who aren’t licensed. It now offers its intensive training and ongoing coaching virtually, too. The result: Fewer corps members are leaving within the first year of the program. 
“It just makes it much more accessible to the demographics of teachers that we’re now working with,” said Hetherington, who oversees teacher development for the corps. Some 85% of corps members are people of color, and it largely partners with rural, high-needs schools. “Most of these teachers are established in their communities. They have families. They can’t just go off for seven weeks to live in a dorm and leave their families behind.”
Districts and states across the U.S. are experimenting to address stubborn vacancies, establishing or expanding programs that remove some of the hoops people traditionally have to jump through to become a teacher. Programs in Arkansas and elsewhere, for example, are providing college graduates without teaching licenses an accelerated path to certification, allowing them to work and study simultaneously. Policymakers in a dozen or so states, meanwhile, are rolling out apprenticeships and similar models in which people without bachelor’s degrees get paid, on-the-job training to become teachers.  
Early evidence suggests these programs, when done right, could be key to filling positions with people who are dedicated to and will stay on the job – and will better reflect the demographics of their students.
But can some of these shortcuts make it almost too easy to become a teacher?
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Vacancies are most pronounced in low-income communities and schools serving large percentages of students of color. (Read more about the disparities.)
“That’s a pattern we see longstanding in the data – shortages are a huge equity issue in our schools,” said Tara Kini, chief of staff and director of state policy for the Learning Policy Institute, during a recent Georgetown-hosted webinar on the nation’s teacher shortages. “When schools don’t have enough qualified teachers, they might cancel courses, they might increase their class sizes, staff a class with a substitute teacher or teacher on an emergency-style permit.
“And it goes without saying that none of this is good for kids’ learning.”
Distance learning took its toll: The teacher shortages are just piling on.
Some polling data points to the profession’s declining reputation as a as key reason teachers colleges are losing students. 
But pocketbook issues are undeniably at play, too. A traditional teaching degree is expensive and time-consuming. Yet in 2021, teachers made less than 77 cents on the dollar compared with other college graduates.
For most jobs, all you typically need is a degree of some sort. But teachers, like doctors and lawyers, also need a license. And the traditional path to licensure entails lots of steps, time and money, including: a bachelor’s and often a master’s; teacher prep and student-teaching; and a standardized exam whose first-time passage rate on the elementary-level version is less than half
In response to persistent shortages made worse by the pandemic, some states are developing new – less onerous – pathways into the profession, including through apprenticeships and recruiting people who don’t yet have any four-year degree.
A teacher apprenticeship program in Tennessee – the first nationwide to get federal approval – provides on-the-job training for prospective educators, ultimately equipping them with both a bachelor’s degree and teaching license. Roughly a dozen other states are also building out teacher apprenticeship programs. (The federal government didn’t include teaching on its list of approved professions for skilled apprenticeship programs until 2021.) 
States including Texas, West Virginia, California and Montana also are experimenting with or expanding residency programs, which typically entail a year of paid student-teaching and mentorship. 
The beauty of these models, advocates say, is students often can participate for free – and get paid for doing so. 
Naomi Norman, superintendent of a Michigan school district providing regional services, several years ago spearheaded a program that helps special education teaching assistants become full-time teachers. 
Special education has long suffered some of the worst shortages in the country, and in Michigan the problem was magnified in part thanks to bureaucratic obstacles as well as the immense challenges and demands of the job. Traditionally, Michigan special education teachers first needed to certification in general education then a specialty certificate. 
More: Special education teacher shortage creates opportunity for students
Norman noticed a nosedive in the number of people applying to be special education teachers, from 20 or so candidates for an opening to three or four.
After surveying the region’s 1,200 paraprofessionals about interest in help getting certified special education teachers, with their tuition covered and while still getting paid, hundreds stepped forward. Norman and other local superintendents successfully lobbied the state to waive the double-certification requirement rule for a pilot program.
Four cohorts of about 25 students each have joined, including the final group joining this month. It’s had promising results, with initial cohorts having high retention rates and outperforming traditional teacher training programs, Norman said.
Some research shows educators who took nontraditional paths are more likely than those with traditional resumes to quit.
Experts say such churn is inevitable when policymakers relax requirements too much, treating prospective teachers as warm bodies without attending to retention
In Oklahoma, lawmakers last year passed legislation allowing anyone with a high-school diploma and “distinguished qualifications” in their field to teach permanently in classrooms. In Florida, similar legislation allows veterans without degrees to teach alongside a mentor. 
Last year, Arizona’s state education board voted to allow substitute teachers, typically only required to have a high-school diploma, to lead classrooms full-time for an entire academic year. 
More: 5 things to know about how military veterans in Florida can teach without certification
The Arkansas Teacher Corp has watched retention soar after shifting attention to existing staff and more virtual options. According to Hetherington, a big reason is doing so removed barriers for people whose experiences make them ideal for the role but also limited in their ability to sacrifice time and money.
Through video coaching options, teachers-in-training have consistent access to a mentor without driving for hours. The same goes for the seven-week intensive training, which pre-COVID was offered only in person. 
“The district’s not having to find a new employee and they have somebody who probably grew up there, is connected to the community,” Hetherington said. “It just it makes a huge difference.”
Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or awong@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

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