Washington state is experiencing a significant teacher shortage in its public schools. But you probably already know this. Either you have a child in the schools, or you have stayed up to date throughout the Tri-City Herald’s continuous coverage.
This affects Kennewick. It affects Richland. It affects Pasco. It affects all areas of K-12 and is particularly acute at the elementary level. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there have been teacher shortages dating back to the 1990-91 school year, before many of our new teachers were even born. But the current shortage is different. With a state deficit of about 7,000 teachers, this is on an order of magnitude that is difficult to comprehend. Rural and remote school districts are being disproportionately affected. And in this mix, throughout the state and country, is the very real shortage of teachers who are culturally and linguistically diverse.
Washington is not the only state with this problem. With enrollment in teacher preparation programs down 30 percent across the country, many states are finding it difficult to fill their teaching ranks. Thus, this is a national issue.
One key factor for the decline in our state was the economic downturn from 2008-2012. Teachers who had been expected to retire chose to stay. New teaching graduates then struggled to find jobs. The Legislature encouraged programs, such as ours, to reduce student slots. Fast forward to the present day, and those retirements that were predicted earlier are now surpassing even what was previously predicted. Coupled with the mandate to reduce class size, and the state is in a real bind.
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The Professional Education Standards Board (PESB) has produced a number of documents that describe the problem, describe factors that have likely contributed to the decline in the number of teachers, and give strategies to address the shortage. (See http://data.pesb.wa.gov/).
Obviously, if there were easy solutions, they’d be in place. But because this shortage is on a scale we’ve never before seen, it is requiring stakeholders to think creatively. We’ve heard ideas about suspending the retire/rehire plan, or early retirement plan.
One idea we’ve heard proposed is to open up teaching slots to those who do not have regular credential coursework or student teaching experience. Many of the arguments supporting this may seem sound. Yet, we must be judicious in our approach, and use research that is available to help inform our decisions.
Our state’s teacher preparation programs have done a good job over many years to increase standards, be selective, and produce better-prepared teachers. In a 2009 California class size study, published in the Journal of Human Resources, the authors found that positive gains in smaller class sizes are diminished by allowing emergency-credentialed teachers into the classroom – teachers who have not obtained regular credential coursework and student teaching experiences. The effect is even more pronounced for disadvantaged schools.
One thing that is clear to me is that the teacher shortage is not just a production issue. My own experience and intuition suggests to me that the reform efforts experienced by K-12 for more than 30 years, and the seemingly relentless chorus of criticisms of the teaching workforce that accompany various reform efforts, have discouraged many young people from considering teaching as a viable career choice. While increasing pay and incentives to attract new teachers will be necessary, we will also need to find a way to better articulate teaching as a solid career choice.
K-12 education is the largest item in almost all state budgets; thus, it receives considerable attention and rightly so. Our young people and local communities deserve and expect a quality education for all students. The economy depends on it. We must also re-ignite interest in a wonderful career; a career that has arguably been the backbone of our democracy and an essential component in the development of a prosperous, well-informed, and civil society. The stakes are high.