October 17, 2019

Editor's Page

Teaching, Anyone?

Mark R. Howard | 9/25/2019

When I graduated from college a few decades ago, the supply-demand equation for teachers was such that Florida could require that prospective teachers have either an education degree or have completed a two-year teacher prep program.

I’d gotten a degree from a reasonably well-regarded out-of-state university and was interested in teaching. It surprised and annoyed me to find that my subject-area expertise mattered less than a bunch of methods courses. The hard facts were that I probably needed a bit of how-to-teach instruction; but with plenty of ed-school grads from Florida schools in the pipeline, the state didn’t need to figure out a way to give someone like me a quick dose of pedagogy and put me in a classroom.

With time and the state’s growth, things changed. For at least a decade, the state has had to work to create ways to get more people to teach in public schools. And so today, most public and private colleges and universities in Florida and most of the state’s county school districts offer alternative certification programs for aspiring teachers who don’t have education degrees or who haven’t completed a traditional teacher-prep program.

That flexibility extends to keeping teachers in classrooms: The state has had to consider ignoring the results of basic knowledge tests given to teachers as part of the certification process, to avoid having to fire teachers on temporary certificates who fail it. It’s ironic that as the public education system has taken steps to boost accountability, it’s having to tweak and fudge the standards for the classroom teachers who are essential to improvement.

In any event, the efforts to expand the teaching labor supply aren’t working. As this school year began, anecdotal reports from around the state emerged of unfilled teaching slots and increased use of substitutes and “permanent substitutes” to fill the gaps. The state teachers union claimed there were more than 2,000 empty positions.

We may have entered free fall in the supply-demand equation. In Florida in 2010-11, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, 8,032 people completed teacher-prep programs of all types, both traditional and alternative. In 2016-17, the most recent year for which data is available, that number had fallen to 5,612 — a 30% reduction in the potential supply from in-state.

Certified teachers who move to Florida from out of state will likely make up some of the shortage in the short term. Longer term, however, it appears that the supply of teachers migrating from other states may dry up as well — the teacher-prep picture is just as dire nationally. The number of people enrolled in teacher-prep programs nationally has fallen from 684,801 in 2010-11 to 444,244 in 2016-17. That’s a 35% decline. The number of those who complete teacher-prep programs has fallen from 217,492 to 160,020 — a 26% decrease.

Those are pretty shocking numbers. And behind them are the specifics of the shortages — according to the state, the core-competency areas of science, English, reading, math, English-as-second-language, technical education and exceptional student education are all “critical shortage areas.” Another aspect of the shortage? Teachers teaching “out of field,” in disciplines in which they’re not certified. In Duval County in 2017-18, according to the state, a quarter of all classes were being taught by teachers working out of their field of expertise.

The fix? Higher salaries will be important to attracting qualified people and re-establishing respect for the profession. But I don’t think that taxpayers — as much as they think teachers deserve more — will support the taxes it will take to pay them more unless there are other changes in the system aside from bigger paychecks.

Union contracts may need to be replaced by salary schedules that allow for higher pay for teachers in shortage areas. Physics teachers and elementary school teachers may work the same hours, but it may take a higher salary to attract and keep a physics teacher. Tenure may have to give way to three- or five-year contracts between a specific school and a teacher. Principals will have to get more autonomy — and more responsibility — in running their schools, including the ability to make hiring decisions.

A 2108 survey by Education Week found that teachers themselves believe the most important factor in attracting people to teaching is improved pay and benefits, along with more professional autonomy and better working conditions. But when asked what keeps teachers in their jobs, 18% said leadership is key, compared with 17% who said salary was paramount.

Meanwhile, the survey found half of parents wouldn’t want their children to become teachers. And I feel sometimes like I dodged a bullet rather than missed an opportunity when the state’s requirements kept me out of teaching back when I was exploring my career options.

 

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