July/August 2019

Fixing the Educator Shortage at the District Level

By Sarah J. Kaka, Robert Mitchell, and Grant Clayton

If you speak to any school district leader or principal about their daily challenges, many refer to the ongoing shortages of teachers, principals, and special service providers in their buildings. This ongoing shortage of qualified and interested educators creates considerable challenges for classroom leaders and school administrators in the U.S. and beyond. These concerns are global, as the United Nations estimates that 69 million new teachers will be needed by 2030. Shortages are particularly acute in areas considered hard-to-fill such as remote rural regions or in specific academic disciplines such as math, science, world language, and special education, according to a listing of national teachers shortage by the U.S. Department of Education.

A national shortfall of 112,000 teachers and educators is currently projected, with even more troubling news on the horizon, as enrollment in teacher preparation programs has seen a steep decline for nearly a decade. Understandably, young people and college students about to enter the workforce are less attracted to education roles that require long hours, increased mandates regarding accountability, negative public perception, and meager compensation that may not even meet cost-of-living expenses in some locations. With projected increases in the number of individuals eligible to retire, the decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, the continued increase in PK-12 student enrollment, and the ongoing problems with retaining new educators in a society with high career turnover, it is very difficult to be optimistic when we look at the future of public education in America.

To combat these seemingly insurmountable challenges, entrepreneurial states and school districts have developed creative and effective strategies to ensure that their students have a qualified educator in their classroom. Many of these solutions center on finding new and innovative ways to identify future educators to entice into a recruitment pipeline, or examining how best to prepare educators for a very challenging, and intrinsically rewarding, career in education. It is a challenge that needs to be addressed at both the state/provincial and national levels — but until a comprehensive solution is developed and resources allocated, it is essential that schools continue to proactively examine ways to build and sustain their educator talent pipelines. It all begins with the need to recruit tomorrow’s teachers and educators, and it frequently begins in a school’s backyard.

As of 2013, most teachers (88 percent) were being prepared in traditional avenues through institutions of higher education, as opposed to teacher residency or alternative pathways, according to the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. These students had an average GPA of 3.24; could use technology to plan, instruct, and assess; and spent 13 to 16 weeks in a student teaching/internship experience. They were also overwhelmingly white (82 percent) and female (75 percent). It is therefore not surprising they choose to work in schools with students who look like them. Contrast the suburban and urban schools — 57 percent of urban students are Black or Hispanic, compared to 37 percent of suburban students; 40 percent of urban students receive free/reduced priced lunches compared to only 20 percent of students in suburban schools, according to research by K.O. Siwatu.

In 2012, students of color made up greater than 45 percent of the school-age population in America, but teachers of color were only 17.5 percent of the teacher workforce according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The resulting factor is a teaching workforce that is substantially less diverse than the students they are teaching, and most teacher preparation programs are not systematically recruiting and preparing large numbers of students to teach in urban areas with high percentages of non-white students.

“Grow-your-own” experiments and residency programs are on the rise and are attempting to fill this teacher pipeline issue. Once students are in the pipeline — from early field experiences and internships through student teaching — education programs and districts must better train the teachers for those contexts where many will ultimately find jobs. Finally, the reality of retention and keeping teachers in the classroom is a hurdle that districts need to overcome; implementing teacher-leader models and additional means of support for teachers at all stages of their career are vital to maintaining consistency of teachers from year to year.

Recruiting teachers into the pipeline 
Few communities outside of urban centers have individuals with degrees in specialized fields looking for a job. The belief that several chemistry teachers will suddenly apply to fill a vacant position in a remote or hard-to-fill district is both antiquated and contrary to existing research that clearly illustrates the ongoing shortages in key academic disciplines. In response, more and more local districts are exploring grow-your-own approaches that tap into their future workforce — the secondary students within their own schools. 

One of the first steps when considering growing the number of candidates that want to become teachers is to expose secondary students to the possibility of a career in education. Educators Rising is a non-profit organization for secondary students that has partnered with the NEA, AFT, and Phi Delta Kappa, to help them explore what it means to be a teacher and learn if the profession is a “good fit.” They do this by creating “meaningful learning opportunities throughout the school day” through a “curriculum [that] emphasizes fundamental teaching practices that are critical for high school students to develop as they take their first steps on the path to becoming accomplished professionals.” Programs such as this, and Teacher Cadet, whose goal “is to encourage academically talented, high-achieving, high school students with exemplary interpersonal and leadership skills to consider teaching as a career,” according to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement, are immensely helpful in early identification of potential teacher candidates. In some cases such programs may lead to students earning both college and high school credit for their work simultaneously.

By identifying potential future educators and supporting local students, either through specific education career exploration initiatives or through scholarships for degree completion, schools and districts are identifying individuals as early as middle school to fill anticipated future needs. Districts are able to recruit and fill these future openings within their own student body —as students involved in these clubs and opportunities should be approached about the potential to attend a specific college or university (one that has partnered with the district to support this endeavor). They would then complete their licensing requirements through their college/university with the provision that they complete their student teaching back in their home district. Then, once they have their Bachelor’s degree and license in-hand, be guaranteed either a teaching position or a preferred interview within the district. This recruitment can be augmented with loan forgiveness for teaching in a hard-to-staff district or content area. In these students, the district is recruiting a person who understands the local culture, has a demonstrated ability to succeed in the local educational environment and likely has familial ties in the area that may result in a higher likelihood of long-term retention.

A district partnership with a college/university teacher preparation program is an often-overlooked component of this undergraduate grow-your-own plan. Collaboration between the district, the candidate, and the institution of higher education is essential to ensure timely, and cost-effective, program completion. The institution’s role is to prepare educators who can be effective in the classroom as soon as possible, a task that is very difficult without local district involvement and feedback. Strategic collaboration is truly a win-win-win for the district, the institution, and the students — the district will have a specific pool from which to draw their teachers, and a knowledgeable higher education faculty from which to learn and grow professionally; the institution will see an increase in enrollment and a group of incoming students with prior knowledge of the profession; and the student may receive a tuition break/scholarship/loan forgiveness, and a job upon completion of the program. 

Another potential option that districts have is to partner with a college/university to put in place a residency program. This differs slightly from the undergraduate grow-your-own idea, as those in a residency program already have a bachelor’s degree but are seeking completion of requirements for licensure. In this residency model, teachers take advanced-level coursework while simultaneously completing a year-long supervised internship where they work as paid apprentices to expert teachers, according to a report by the Learning Policy Institute entitled, “Solving the teacher shortage: How to attract and retain excellent educators.” This is patterned after the undergraduate grow-your-own model in that the resident would be prepared in a district that would also hire them upon completion of the program. The district benefits from training the teacher in their specific policies, procedures, and philosophies, and would be hiring someone with enough knowledge and practice in the district to be considered a second-year teacher. And while it does require an investment on the district’s part to fund the salary of the apprentice/intern, this may be offset by higher levels of retention and savings in external recruiting of candidates.

Preparing them in the pipeline
Once students are admitted into a teacher preparation program, programs need to continue to be more innovative in the ways in which they prepare teachers, especially when preparing them to teach outside of their comfort zone. Schools are increasingly becoming more diverse with regards to K-12 student race/ethnicity, but also in terms of socioeconomic status and social-emotional and behavioral needs. Teacher prep programs need to incorporate elements of how to be a culturally responsive teacher, best practices for working with diverse learners and focus coursework on multicultural education and differentiation. This strand of diversity needs to be woven intentionally through methods courses and field experiences — especially since we see our educators not being a reflection of the students in their classrooms.

Field experiences should start early and allow candidates to be in schools often, enabling them to teach in a variety of districts: urban, suburban, and rural, as well as charter and private schools. This requires intentional placement in field experiences throughout their time in their program, not just student teaching. To maximize these placement opportunities schools must leverage guided self-reflection and coaching opportunities — requiring candidates to identify their strengths and areas for improvement in different settings. In addition, programs should prepare candidates to work in non-traditional teaching environments, such as juvenile detention centers and online/blended learning schools. By systematically exposing candidates to a multitude of teaching styles and settings, and allowing them to determine the type of educator they wish to be, graduates can clearly determine what school setting is the best fit for them.

Retaining teachers in the pipeline
Once we get teachers in the classroom, districts must work on finding ways to support them so that they will stay in the profession. According to the Learning Policy Institute, the top four reasons that teachers leave the profession are inadequate preparation, lack of support for new teachers, challenging working conditions, and dissatisfaction with compensation. Three of these top four reasons can be addressed at the district or school level.

One starting point is to re-examine our thinking about the Baby Boomers already in our schools. Traditionally, we have accepted that teachers retire and take accumulated knowledge with them. Boomers create a unique opportunity for school leaders on all levels. As a group, Boomers look different — they stayed in teaching longer and were less likely to leave when compared to newly minted educators. For instance, about 8 percent of new teachers in 1988 left after the first year. By 2004 the percentage approached 12 percent. This loss of experience had a detrimental impact on student learning in many districts and this pattern continues today. In 1988 new teachers entered a profession where the modal level of experience was 15 years. By 2007, the mode was two years, with a quarter having less than five years, according to “Who will teach? Experience matters,” a publication of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

The average age of retirement for educators nationally is 56, much younger than many other highly educated professions. States, districts, and colleges of education are facing a unique opportunity to capitalize on the enormous costs associated with defined retirement benefit packages and massive numbers of new retirees. Losing these Baby Boomer educators to retirement is especially tough, as they currently hold leadership and mentorship roles that are vital in helping new teachers. The cost of losing these academic coaches, induction mentors and teachers on special assignment to retirements cannot be understated. A drive to identify experienced mentors who can help new teachers during the critical early years and likely increase retention should be undertaken by all school districts. If all goes well, utilizing the talents of those closest to retirement can provide additional support for new teachers, and potentially retain the Boomers for a few years longer.

Intervention needed 
The teacher shortage is real and growing. Thankfully there are a number of steps we can take to cushion the blow. First, we must be strategic in our recruitment efforts. Student success depends on getting strong candidates into all types of educator preparation programs, to graduate, and to be prepared to work in a variety of learning environments. Next, we must work to retain new teachers. The constant turnover of new hires is inefficient, expensive, and does little toward creating strong programs, schools, and lasting connections with communities. Schools, districts, and colleges/universities must open the lines of communication early in order to entice strong candidates into the profession. Further, teacher preparation programs must strengthen their own requirements by exposing candidates to a multitude of different school settings, and districts need to harness the expertise of veteran teachers to support and help develop novice teachers. The teacher shortage crisis is real, and we must do all that we can to ensure PK-12 students are as insulated as much possible from the very real implications of it. 

Reprinted with permission from American School Board Journal, August 2018. Copyright 2018 National School Boards Association. All rights reserved.  Sarah J. Kaka is an assistant professor in the Department of Education at Ohio Wesleyan University. Robert Mitchell is assistant professor of Leadership, Research, and Foundations and Grant Clayton is assistant professor at the College of Education at the University of Colorado. Resources and references for this article can be accessed at blog.iasb.com/p/journal-resources.html.