COMMENTARY: Teacher shortage in Illinois
By Hans A. Andrews

Teacher shortages across Illinois have been evolving over several years and have come under professional scrutiny and garnered much media attention. Similar teacher shortages are also making headlines in other states and nationally.

Illinois State Superintendent of Education Carmen I. Ayala, Ph.D., is seeking proposals on how to address a shortage of teachers that, as of this writing, numbers in the thousands. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is looking at options in changing requirements for obtaining a teaching certificate.

A statewide study of teacher shortages by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools (IARSS) in 2017 found the following:
  • 56 percent of the districts surveyed felt they had a minor problem with shortages.
  • 22 percent felt they had a major problem with shortages.
  • 65 percent indicated having fewer applicants than five years earlier. The most pronounced areas of shortages were bilingual and foreign language teachers and in recruitment of school psychologists.
  • 53 percent of school districts reported a shortage of substitute teachers, more than in previous years.
In a follow-up survey in 2019, IARSS summarized the following and established a regional perspective:
  • 85 percent of school districts identified a major or minor problem with teacher shortages in their schools (up from 78 percent a year earlier).
  • More than 60 percent identified serious problems with substitute teacher shortages
  • 89 percent of central Illinois districts and 92 percent of southern Illinois districts had issues with staffing their teaching positions with qualified candidates.
These shortage numbers were up from a year ago and have continued to grow significantly over the last five years in Illinois. The challenges are many in terms of how to overcome the shortages and have the greatest impact in reducing or eliminating them in the shortest time possible. It is time to begin thinking out of the dead-end box that is the current state of the profession for individual teachers and is contributing to teacher shortages and teachers leaving Illinois schools, or leaving the profession after a very short time in the profession.
Improving school climate is a must if future teachers are going to be recruited to, and keep working in, the schools they commit to joining. Taking an honest look to identify these problems is the first important step:
  • A large percentage of the teaching profession is in an uproar over the high-stakes testing that has been pushing out much of the quality teaching that teachers are trained to provide.
  • Merit pay has been instituted in many schools across Illinois and across the country, and has proven to change the teaching climate in terms of cooperation between teachers.
  • Recognition for the great things accomplished by thousands of teachers goes wanting in Illinois and across the nation for most teachers.
  • Fewer students are now enrolling in teacher education programs.
  • Many highly qualified Illinois high school graduates are seeking college degrees outside of Illinois
  • There are high numbers of teachers leaving the teaching profession after a few years.
  • The cost of a college degree has gone out of sight, and put a teaching career out of reach, for low-income families and minority students in many areas of Illinois.
These are some of the most glaring concerns that are known by the teaching profession, K-12 and higher education systems, and legislators throughout the state. 

Merit pay fallout
A recent book by researcher and educator Daniel Koretz, titled The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, identified what has come to dominate everyday life in schools today: tests. His concerns center on how much time is now spent on testing preparation, shortening time in other school subjects. Koretz also reported on widespread “cheating” by teachers, administrators, and others who have succumbed to pressure to demonstrate test score improvements. In the arena of teacher evaluations, he suggests getting away from testing as the way to evaluate teachers for merit pay and decisions to retain or dismiss.

Koretz says these decisions should be accomplished by getting back to evaluating teachers on their teaching practices, by reverting to unscheduled observations, where actual teaching is evaluated.

In summary, Koretz finds testing has replaced curriculum within the schools.
The following are testimonials from administrators and teachers on how merit pay has been eroding the cooperation and growth among teachers in schools where they have worked.

A high school principal in a high-performing school near Grand Rapids, Michigan, responded to how merit pay changed the instructional climate in his school, “The introduction of merit pay can ultimately slow or stop the process of school improvements. Competition, through merit pay, leads the culture of a building, school, or school district in the opposite direction.”

He saw the idea of “recognition” providing an opportunity for growth for all teachers in a much more cooperative setting. A similar response came from a public school teacher who experienced both recognition and merit pay programs in schools where she worked, “One of the reasons I went into teaching is because I knew I’d make the same as my male counterparts. The large factor I learned with merit pay is that it pits teachers against each other. How do I know? I worked in a district that issued merit pay. If my reading scores were higher than my colleagues I got more pay. This made us scramble not to take on special education students or physical or [otherwise health impaired] students, and we hoarded our ideas. It was awful!”

Another teacher working in an elementary school in Colorado submitted the following comments from her experiences in working in both merit pay and recognition climates in schools she had personally worked, “The first school I worked in had… pay for performance (merit) and there was virtually no collaboration and none of the first-grade teachers got along at all or worked together. It was horrible! Throughout my teaching career I have only worked in one school where there was any teacher recognition, and the morale, collaboration, and congeniality at that school was significantly higher than it was at the other two schools I taught.”

In a review of the literature on merit pay over a 35-to-40 year period, the author found that merit pay initiatives have failed in nearly every area of the country in which it has been tried.

Initiatives to consider
‘Grow your own’ initiative: Several school districts in Illinois and other states have approached lessening the teacher shortage through a Grow Your Own (GYO Teachers) program. The priorities in the GYO Illinois program are 
  • Creating a pipeline of highly qualified teachers of color (GYO defines highly qualified as pedagogical and subject matter content mastery and a high degree of cultural competence).
  • Supporting GYO teachers once they are in the classroom.
  • Advocating to close the teacher/student diversity gap across Illinois.
This program was first funded by the Illinois legislature in 2004 to help create a pool of diverse, community-based teachers that could address shortages in the state’s high-need schools. The leadership of the program is stationed in Chicago. One student in the program testified, “The program has played a big part in motivating me to continue the road to obtaining my teaching degree no matter the obstacles.”

What forms do these programs take? Some are aimed at attracting high school students into the teaching profession; some attract para-educators; substitutes; and/or local community members. Providing financial assistance is one of the greatest needs of these programs. This is especially true in school districts with high poverty and high diversity in the schools. Grow Your Own initiatives can do much to help diversify the Illinois teaching workforce and are worth exploring expanding throughout the state. Eddy Ramirez, writing for U.S. News and World Report in 2007, suggested that many of the best candidates for these programs already live in the neighborhoods where these teacher needs are greatest.

Educators Rising: As stated, the basis of the current shortage is insufficient supply: there are simply not enough future teachers in the pipeline to staff current and future vacancies. The greatest available, yet not fully prevailed upon, resources to fill this pipeline are the current high school students in Illinois classrooms. What is needed is a viable, actionable, and scalable plan to recruit future teachers from the more than 330 public high schools throughout the state.
A plan of this nature was offered to the Illinois State Board of Education in the fall of 2018. The 2018 ISBE “Teacher of the Year,” Lindsey Jensen, an English teacher from Dwight THSD 230, organized a special ISBE meeting at her home school. The focus of the meeting was to discuss a statewide “Educators Rising” program as a plan to increase interest in the teaching profession and attract more high school students to pursue careers as teachers.
Educators Rising is a division of Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) International, the nation’s oldest and foremost professional teachers’ organization, which exists to “support teachers and school leaders by strengthening their interest in the profession through the entire arc of their career.”

Educators Rising specifically focuses on attracting and recruiting future educators. It offers a free national membership to more than 2,400 high schools throughout the country which sponsor a “future teachers club.” These clubs are extra-curricular organizations lead by a faculty advisor, and their purpose is to help high school students explore teaching. 

Educators Rising has a website rich in resources, and it regularly promotes relevant events to the affiliate clubs, such as celebrating “Teacher Appreciation Week” each May. Additionally, individual club activities typically include teacher shadowing, teachers’ panels, mini-teaching experiences, and field trips to elementary schools, all designed to nurture students’ interest in the profession and help them begin to develop knowledge and skills needed to be successful educators.

Present at this meeting were representatives from the College of Education and Human Performance of Aurora University to discuss their successful Educators Rising model. It is a university-centered model wherein 16 public high schools partner with AU to promote interest in the teaching profession. All 16 high schools are Educators Rising affiliates, as is the University. The partnership provides additional and unique opportunities of career exploration for the high school students. For example, the University recently hosted the first “Educators Rising Moment Competition,” a nationally-recognized activity during which students give a brief speech describing their unique experience in choosing to become teachers. 

For the past 10 years, the partnership has recorded 75 teacher candidates. If one Educators Rising program can produce that many teachers with 16 schools, consider what a successful statewide program could potentially produce.

Given the success of the current model and its potential for scalability, Jensen submitted a formal funding request to ISBE seeking $325,000 for a new, statewide, university-centered Educators Rising program. Since that time, a new governor and state superintendent have taken office. The author hopes that this viable proposal will not be lost in the transition. 
Community colleges as contributor/partner: Another available, yet mostly un-prevailed upon, human resource for future teachers is the large and richly diverse student population in the state’s community colleges. These colleges presently provide the first two years of a baccalaureate degree that transfers to almost every public college and university and most private colleges and universities. Coordination between entities was improved in the 1990s so that transfer between these institutions would be seamless.

Community colleges offer opportunities each year to thousands of students graduating from secondary schools and adults wishing to obtain college degrees after taking time out to work or to raise families. Many are location-bound in terms of family commitments and financial restrictions within their families.

Community colleges, therefore, provide low-cost tuition and fees and closeness to most of their students living at home. They provide options, such as taking college courses to community schools or other facilities in many throughout the state. College and university internet courses now provide options for students who can obtain a number of college credit hours. The dual-credit options for secondary school students allow many students to obtain college coursework prior to high school graduation.

Community colleges have been allowed to move into baccalaureate degrees preparation as a way to address economic and labor market needs in areas of Illinois where professional personnel shortages have been identified. For example, students can take courses towards becoming a baccalaureate degree nurse (BSN) in areas of states where BSNs are in short supply and in high demand.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), in “Fast Facts 2019,” shows 23,216 baccalaureate degrees in 130 public and 53 independent community colleges during 2016-2017. The AACC report also listed 86 community colleges in 16 states offering bachelor’s degrees. 

Considerations for utilizing community colleges in Illinois to start offering teacher bachelor degrees would include working closely with and collaborating with the University of Illinois and other state universities and private colleges and universities. 

These colleges have a network approved through the state agencies and senior colleges in Illinois to offer several baccalaureate degree programs in areas that the state has identified as needing professionals in professional areas that cannot be completely satisfied through the existing state or private colleges.

There are many potential students who can now benefit from community colleges now being designated by these same state agencies as baccalaureate degree eligible for elementary and secondary school and community college teachers in subject areas unable to be covered with the shortage of teachers in Illinois.

These movements can immediately start closing the teacher shortage in Illinois. Can it be done with 20, 25, or 30 of the 48 community colleges? Planners can settle on a reasonable number depending on where the greatest needs of the state exist in shortages now and adapt programs to new areas of the state as future teacher shortage needs are identified. 

Summary and recommendations
To significantly “budge” the numbers of minority faculty, staff, and teachers to fill the shortages in various academic areas, and develop Illinois’ future teachers, more candidates must be made available. A different human resource management strategy is needed. Both K-12 schools and community colleges have opportunities now to “grow their own” future teachers by devising strategies to enlist future faculty and staff members. This calls for a situation similar to talent acquisition in Major League Baseball. Enticing excellent players from the existing talent pool to stay in the “big leagues” and developing more teachers through a local “farm team” such as dual-credit offerings and/or community colleges are starting points. 
Improving school climate is a must if future teachers are going to be recruited and kept working in the schools they commit to joining. If K-12 schools commit to and find funding sources to assist those students with the greatest financial need, and commit to developing talented students into teachers, they could find students returning to the home school districts that have recruited and supported them.

A statewide program of “future teachers” clubs affiliated with Educators Rising can be implemented relatively quickly and inexpensively. It will do much to create a formal pool of future teachers drawn from the richly diverse population of the state’s high schools. Such a proposal has the potential to not only supply a sufficient number of teacher candidates to meet the shortage but also supply a more diverse population of candidates better-suited to address the needs of special education and bilingual and English-Language Learning students. 

This challenge can be successfully addressed. However, it will require more than better recruitment efforts. It will require the vision and leadership of board members, teachers, and administrators at all levels of the K-12 system, community colleges, and senior universities and colleges. Associations such as the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Community College Trustees, and the Illinois Community College Board, to name a few, will have major support roles to play.'

Can the teacher shortage in Illinois — a major challenge and expanding problem­­ — be alleviated in the short run? The answer is “yes” but it needs to be urgently and creatively addressed now. 

Hans A. Andrews is past president and currently Distinguished Fellow in Community College Leadership at Olney Central College.  He is president of Matilda Press. Resources and references for this article can be accessed at blog.iasb.com/p/journal-resources.html.