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Ed in the Apple: Where Have the Teachers Gone? How Are We Addressing the Looming Teacher Shortages?

WASHINGTON—The American Federation of Teachers convened a new national taskforce to tackle widespread educator and support staff shortages imperiling the future of public schools and public education.

The AFT Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force will examine causes and propose solutions for districts experiencing extreme shortages leading to immense pressure on educators and families that could disrupt recovery from the pandemic. Adding to the chaos, schools have been roiled for months by poisonous national political debates that have turned them into cultural battlefields.

Two years of a pandemic has accelerated a flight from the profession of teaching. Teaching was a respected profession in communities with some shortages in high poverty schools and in some certification areas; a decade ago we began to see fewer and fewer students in college teacher preparation programs.

Let’s take a longer view:

The first wave of reform, I’m sorry, I’m a history teacher, was the Pendleton Act (1883) that established the federal civil service.

Federal, state and local employees had been selected through a spoils system, political party affiliation, responding to the assassination of President Arthur by a disappointed office seeker, a civil service reform law was passed.

 The legislation was intended to guarantee the rights of all citizens to compete for federal jobs without preferential treatment given based on politics, race, religion or origin.

The reform movement moved from Washington to the states and the boroughs “consolidated” to create New York City. As part of the Great Consolidation the school systems were combined and a local civil service law created the Board of Examiners. Teacher and supervisor candidates took an examination and were placed on a rank order list and appointed to schools.

In 1960s the Board of Examiners came under assault, the examination system had a “disparate impact” on candidates of color and the federal courts sustained the appellants ending examinations for school supervisors. .

The attacks on the Board of Examiners continued, the process took years and thousands of teachers worked as substitutes awaiting the actions of Board. In 1990 the State legislature dissolved the Board of Examiners.

While the examination system ended the school system continued to struggle to recruit and license teachers and many thousands of teachers languished as substitutes. Schools in high poverty neighborhoods, “hard to staff” schools, had a continuing turnover of staff, teachers quitting and teachers moving to other higher socio-economic schools.

The Obama/Duncan Race to the Top, a competitive grant program, $4.3 billion, required teacher accountability systems linking pupil achievement to teacher ratings as well as adopting Common Core State Standards in federally required grades 3-8 state tests.

The unanticipated impact: teacher preparation programs began to see fewer enrollees.

A guide for school districts, published before the pandemic (2019) highlights and suggests avenues to address teacher shortages, Who Will Teach the Children: Recruiting, Retaining and Refreshing Highly Effective Educators, Franklin Schargel (Read review here)

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), again, before the pandemic took a deep dive highlighting Retention and Attraction of teachers.

Teachers are leaving in significant increasing numbers and teacher preparation programs have reduced enrollments. EPI conducted a six part series of articles Read here.

What we can do about it: Tackle the working conditions and other factors that are prompting teachers to quit and dissuading people from entering the profession, thus making it harder for school districts to retain and attract highly qualified teachers: low pay, a challenging school environment, and weak professional development support and recognition. In addition to tackling these factors for all schools, we must provide extra supports and funding to high-poverty schools, where teacher shortages are even more of a problem.

* One factor behind staffing difficulties in both low- and high-poverty schools is the high share of public school teachers leaving their posts: 13.8% were either leaving their school or leaving teaching altogether in a given year, according to the most recent data

* Another factor is the dwindling pool of applicants to fill vacancies: From the 2008–2009 to the 2015–2016 school year, the annual number of education degrees awarded fell by 15.4%,  And the annual number of people who completed a teacher preparation program fell by 27.4%

* Schools are also having a harder time retaining credentialed teachers, as is evident in the small but growing share of all teachers who are both newly hired and in their first year of teaching and in the substantial shares of teachers who quit who are certified and experienced. It is even more difficult for high-poverty schools to retain credentialed teachers.

Low pay is another key issue: Read section on relative pay here 

Teachers also face challenging working conditions Read here

The EPI Report concludes with a series of overarching principles,

Overarching principles for how to approach the teacher shortage problem

  • Understand that the teacher shortage is caused by multiple factors and thus can only be tackled with a comprehensive set of long-term solutions.
  • Understand that the complexity of the challenge calls for coordinated efforts of multiple stakeholders.
  • Increase public investments in education.
  • Treat teachers as professionals and teaching as a profession.

Specific proposals in the policy agenda to address the teacher shortage

  • Raise teacher pay to attract new teachers and keep teachers in their schools and the profession.
  • Elevate teacher voice, and nurture stronger learning communities to increase teachers’ influence and sense of belonging.
  • Lower the barriers to teaching that affect teachers’ ability to do their jobs and their morale.
  • Design professional supports that strengthen teachers’ sense of purpose, career development, and effectiveness.

The EPI report (2019) precedes the last two years of pandemic.

In May, 2021 Education Week released the results of interviews with hundreds of teachers across the country (Read here). Increasing numbers of teachers are considering leaving, the stress is unbearable, and they love their students and are impacted by the politically motivated attack on teachers.

New York City responded to the teacher shortage issue twenty years ago. The Teaching Fellows Program is an alternative certification pathway created to attract second career individuals. The CUNY colleges provide an accelerated certification program in shortage areas. (Read about the history and details of the program here). 20% of new teachers this year are graduates of the Teaching Fellows Program.

New York City also funds a Men Teach Program directed at attracting men of color into teaching. Candidates are recruited from among freshman and sophomores in the four year CUNY colleges. (Read here)

Unfortunately New York State does not fund comparable programs.

The AFT National Taskforce on Teacher and School Staff Shortages will look across the nation, as you would expect the “shortages” issue varies widely. The states are in the process of determining how to allocate the federal dollars and attracting and retaining teachers and other vital school personnel would be an excellent use of the federal dollars.

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Peter Goodman

Peter Goodman is a career NYC high school teacher, education consultant, and district representative for the United Federation of Teachers. ...