March/April 2016

From rigor to reality: Lack of candidates escalates Illinois' teacher shortage

By James Rosborg

James Rosborg, Ph.D., is Director of Master’s in Education program at McKendree University and is the president of the Illinois Council of Professors of Educational Administration.

The Illinois Council of Professors of Educational Administration (ICPEA), in conjunction with the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB), has been studying the impact of the changes in the state rules and regulations on the number of candidates going into education in the state of Illinois, both in the teaching and administration areas. There are already shortages of candidates in some rural and urban areas. Boards of education throughout the state are voicing the need for more substitute teachers and minority candidates.   

Working with IASB field services director Patrick Rice, ICPEA surveyed and received data from a cross-section of 14 universities in the state of Illinois. The results of the survey are cause for concern.

Overall, the decrease in elementary teaching candidates at the 14 universities ranged from 17 percent to 83 percent. The decrease in secondary candidates was between 20 and 83 percent. Early childhood showed a decrease of 20 to 71 percent.

The past six years have brought dramatic changes to admission standards for student candidates to enter educational training at universities throughout Illinois. The word “rigor” has become a clich├ę to support changes in teacher and administrator academic preparation. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines rigor as “(1): harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment: SEVERITY (2): the quality of being unyielding or inflexible: (3): severity of life: AUSTERITY.”

We define this term to bring attention to the disparity regarding goals and results in academic testing that surrounds the word “rigor.” In 2010, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) raised the minimum standards needed to pass what was then called the Basic Skills Test. The test to become a teacher in Illinois was renamed the Test of Academic Proficiency (TAP). Much of this was done in the name of rigor.

Government, media, and business officials felt that this change was needed to improve the results of PK-12 students. One cannot argue against the goal of raising standards, but a disparity lies in how the term rigor is used, and how it is applied to the test. Here is why the goals and objectives of TAP are flawed:

The severity component of the definition of rigor can definitely be used for TAP. As recently as October 2015, the results published by the Illinois License Testing System (ILTS) shows a 21 percent passage rate on the TAP. Of 202 examinees, only 42 passed. These individuals met university admission requirements and fared well in high school. Yet evidence indicates that we have a current and long-term problem with TAP that is leading to a future of limited candidates for educational positions. (More specific TAP and ACT results can be found at )

Some estimates have reported that a passing score on TAP approximates a score of 26 on the ACT. TAP requires a candidate to be proficient in all academic areas: reading, language arts, mathematics, and writing.

Is this needed for an individual to be an effective teacher? No.

There is no need for teacher candidates to be proficient in all testing areas within the college content standard. For example, a math teacher can lack high academic skills in language arts and still be an outstanding teacher in the area of mathematics. This also could be said for science and social studies teachers. Likewise, an outstanding language arts teacher does not have to be an expert in mathematics. Illinois needs to change the requirement that a candidate has to pass all areas of the TAP test. Even changing to an average score for passage would be an improvement.

From an instructional standpoint, there is no need for an elementary teacher to know the concepts of advanced algebra, trigonometry, and analytic geometry to be effective in the classroom. We need elementary teachers who love kids and have basic elementary academic skills in the subject matter to be able to translate the love of knowledge, the love of children, along with accurate academic facts to their students. It has been the author’s experience that some of the best teachers at the elementary level struggled a little bit academically themselves. These teachers understand the struggles of the slow learners and work hard to make them better learners.

Administrators also experienced intellectually gifted teachers (some, but not all) had problems getting information to a student that does not easily understand a concept. History tells us that some of the top academic scholars in the past struggled in certain areas of the curriculum. Our expectations in the name of rigor are now limiting potential outstanding teachers the ability to pass on not only their knowledge but also their people skills and common sense to students.

We also have the data to know that the changes made at the state level in 2010 have drastically hurt the number of teacher candidates for all students at the university level. For African Americans and Hispanics, the pass rate on the TAP test is less than 25 percent. We hear all the time from government and media officials that we need more diversity in the classroom, but admission standards at the state level have done more to impede minorities in the classroom than any other factor.

In the survey of 932 elementary candidates at 14 universities, only 39 were African American. Along this same vein of 597 candidates at the secondary level, only 31 were African American. The most troublesome data was this: only 10 African American individuals are projected to graduate at the elementary level this coming May, and 10 African Americans at the secondary level as well. As one compares the state’s Title II reports of candidates in 2009, the drop in numbers of candidates is shocking. When the Title II data reports come out for 2015-2016, this comparison data needs to be shown to key stakeholders to show the problems we are going to have in the future filling education positions throughout the state of Illinois. This will go along with a drastic drop of education candidates of all races in Illinois universities.

The focus regarding the TAP should be prioritized to the subject matter and grade level of an individual teacher. Have different Basic Skills Tests for elementary teachers, middle school teachers, and high school teachers. At the middle school and high school level, the Basic Skills Test should be developed for each academic area instead of requiring high benchmarks in all academic areas.

To improve the quality of education, it is time to quit playing political games and look closely at the realities of our diverse society. In March 2014, ISBE voted to scrap the policy set in 2010 to limit the number of times (five attempts) prospective teachers could take the required TAP Test. It is the author’s opinion that this change was a political gesture to push back the critics — those of us who now have the research to show that there are proportionately smaller numbers of African American and Latino educators in Illinois schools with no immediate solution being presented to increase the number of candidates to fill future job openings.

This proposal, while not a specific part of the Vision 20/20 recommendations, certainly fits with the spirit of the Vision 20/20 initiative to attract and retain highly qualified educators. Education is a people business that needs governmental support to encourage quality candidates to enter the program.

As we refer back to the Merriam-Webster definition of rigor, are we truly looking at the improvement of student achievement? Or are officials using the definition of rigor to be the “harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgement along with being unyielding and inflexible”? A positive step was made by ISBE to offer the ACT as an alternative to TAP. This alternative solution requires an ACT plus writing composite score of at least 22 (with minimums in the English subject areas) or an SAT (critical reading and mathematics) composite score of 1030 (and a minimum score of 450 on the writing sub area). This was definitely a positive move forward from the rigid TAP test. It is still to be determined whether this will allow more minority candidates into the teaching and educational administrative areas.

Will these efforts increase the overall educational candidate pool?   Will high school students again get excited to enter the field of education? Let us move forward by placing “rigor” in the right places and setting rational goals for teacher/administrative preparation so that the education field continues to have sufficient quality candidates to fill open positions.

Reprinted with permission from Leadership Matters, the newsletter of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the author; also modified for the Journal by the author.

Sidebar: Teacher preparation programs influence board work
By Patrick Rice

Patrick Rice, Ph.D., is an IASB field services director, working with school boards in the Egyptian, Illini, Shawnee, and Wabash Valley Divisions.

Periodically, IASB’s field service directors work with various school boards to assist in strategic planning to refine and/or to develop a systematic plan to improve district performance.

A common goal for many of these boards involves teacher quality. School boards want to ensure they are able to attract and retain highly qualified staff in order to promote student achievement. School boards understand that poor teaching can have a negative long-term impact on student lives, as well as the various performance assessment tests for which the district is accountable. To increase the chance of finding highly qualified teachers that fit the district needs, boards hope their administrators can screen and choose from a surplus of potential teacher candidates when making hiring recommendations.

Because recent changes were made regarding teacher preparation programs, school administrators are informing their boards that they no longer have the luxury of a strong applicant pool – which used to be routine. Some districts fare worse than others. The growing teacher shortage is especially cumbersome for rural districts due to their location and to districts seeking to diversify staff. The research shows declining ratios of non-whites in teacher preparation programs.

As community trustees for the district, boards are concerned about how teacher shortages will influence the district’s educational program and other operations, including district finances. Increasingly, districts consider providing additional resources, including financial incentives, to attract candidates, and authorizing administrators to travel to various job fairs to locate potential teachers. Meanwhile, financially strapped districts resort to increasing teacher class size and hiring less-qualified teachers. When this happens, students will increasingly be taught by staff with heavy caseloads and/or less proficiency to provide the quality education outcomes that boards and administrators desire.

As an association that advocates for school boards, IASB continues to fulfill its vision by helping boards overcome obstacles in providing a quality education for their communities. To this end, the IASB develops partnerships with other educational groups, one being the Illinois Council of Professors of Educational Administration (ICPEA). There is strength in numbers, especially when building alliances with educational organizations with similar goals and aspirations. IASB’s partnership with ICPEA allows for an ongoing relationship with the professors who instruct future educators and administrators hired by local districts.

IASB’s reciprocal relationship with ICPEA centers on developing a quality educational workforce. When significant regulatory changes were made to principal and teacher preparation programs, ICPEA and IASB desired to know what impact these changes would have on future educational candidates. Working in conjunction with ICPEA, IASB began surveying principal preparation programs to determine if state regulatory changes led to an increase or decrease in the number of candidates. When ICPEA and IASB observed a sharp decline in principal candidates, teacher preparation programs were surveyed to determine if there is a negative correlation there as well. As Jim Rosborg points out in the accompanying article, there is.

The data gathered with ICPEA also informs Vision 20/20, a long-range blueprint for improving education in Illinois. A key platform in that campaign is “highly effective educators,” which states “by attracting, developing, and retaining our state’s best educators, we can have a profound impact on student learning.” The teacher and principal preparation surveys that were analyzed provide Vision 20/20 with a better understanding of the issues (for more information concerning Vision 20/20, visit

Changes to educational program requirements are one facet of the challenge to ensure that public school districts will always be able to attract and retain highly qualified educators.