from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Teacher shortages - the real crisis in American education 

this was originally posted at dailykos on April 5

The tug of war for talented teachers heats up every spring as graduation nears, particularly among the Washington suburbs, which demand far more teachers than nearby education schools can deliver. Virginia's teaching programs produce about 3,100 graduates a year in a state with more than 7,300 job openings, according to recent data. Maryland's programs have offered only about 2,500 potential candidates in recent years for as many as 7,600 jobs statewide.

The above is from a Washington Post article on April 4 entitled Loudoun Tunes Up Its Sales Pitch in Quest for Teachers. Loudoun is a Northern Virginia county with an exploding population growth and an equivalent growth in schools and thus the need for teachers. And the lengths to which it is going to try to hire teachers is symptomatic of the real problem in American education - the shortage of qualified teachers.

This is a personal commentary - it is not officially connected to the official Education Uprising / Educating for Democracy effort for Yearlykos, but there is an inevitable relationship.

It is hard to imagine effective schools without competent teachers. I think that is one of the few statement one can make about public education without immediately being in the midst of a heated argument. There is far less agreement on how we determine what demonstrates that a teacher is competent (and if you think the performance of students on a one-shot external test is either sufficient or even necessarily accurate you can stop reading now).

Let's recognize the basic problems. First, most teachers are not fully competent until at least three years of teaching. For many, the first year is one of being overwhelmed, attempting to keep one's head above water, creating a year's worth of lesson plans, and doing all the other quotidian tasks of the teacher's life. The big mistake most make in the 2nd year is to try to take the lessons off the shelf and reuse them. Perhaps near Christmas time it finally dawns on the sophomore teacher that the students in this year's class(es) are not identical to those of last year, so that the lessons need to be modified. By the end of the 3rd year one is beginning to hit one's stride.

But by the end of 3rd year we have lost perhaps 30% of those who started out around a thousand days back. Thus we are constantly subjecting our students to teachers who are trying to figure out how to teach effectively. Perhaps the only apt comparison of which I can think is the high rate of casualties for and in units commanded by newly commissioned 2nd lieutenants, who really do not know what they are doing. And I make that comparison deliberately.

So one key problem is how we can shorten the time it takes to help teachers become fully competent. And that points us at teacher preparation.

There are many argument that can be made against traditional methods of teacher preparation. Some want to bypass the normal education programs, perhaps do something intensive in the summer before taking over a class, providing support during the first year or so of teaching. Among other things such programs are often less expensive for the teacher candidate than doing what I did - I left my previous career and did most of an MA in teaching in 7 months. But in that time, and in the succeeding 4 months of student teaching, I had no income, and eventually had to decide to take a risk a drop health insurance because the cost uneder COBRA was simply too great.

I will not argue against those who can point at teachers who should not be teaching young people. I have seen my share since I began the process of changing careers in 1994, some while I was studying, others, while I student taught, and more than a few in the time I have taught, often in good schools. Our current approach to ensuring that every teacher is "highly qualified" does not, however, address the issue. The procedures used to ascertain that classification often have nothing to do with effectiveness in the classroom. And even alternative certification processes do not solve the problem. You still need an adult body in the classroom, and it is very hard for an administrator to remove a fully licensed teacher no matter how ineffective when the only replacement available may be a substitute who lacks academic background in the subject. I have been in schools where we had to cover a class for weeks at a time with someone who did not even have a minor in the subject area because that was the only body we could get for that period of time - many who substitute do NOT want to work a full day.

And in some jurisdictions substitutes cannot prepare lesson plans - so some one else has to take on that burden, and assist the warm body in correcting the work, and so on.

Go back and look at the figures cited for Maryland and Virginia, the inability to produce in-state sufficient qualified candidates for the openings in state. I remember when 15% of our new hires were not fully certified, but were hired provisionally. We got a new superintendent from out of state, and she immediately forbade the hiring of such provisional certs, but only fully qualified teachers. Of course, that meant that we had a large number of classrooms for which there were no certified teachers, so they had to be staffed by substitutes. At least a provisionally certified teacher would have had content knowledge background, but often the substitutes did not.

We need to seriously reexamine a lot of issues.
- why do so few people want to go into teaching?
- why do so many leave teaching after a brief whilew
- what do we need to change to address the shortage of teachers?

Some will argue that we need differential pay, to pay more for content area in which there are shortages - science, special ed, math, certain foreign languages. I believe that is to make the mistake of believing that the issues of education can be addressed in the same way one would for profit organizations. I am in my 12th year of public school teaching, and I do not believe differential pay will do anything except exacerbate our problems of recruiting and retaining teachers. Those whose subject area is not considered critical, and therefore are paid less even though they are doing equivalent work, well you can imagine the resentment it will breed and hence the concomitant loss of teaching experience.

What most people don't realize is how unattractive teaching is as a career. Even with increases in starting pay, most who qualify as teachers get paid less than they would for work outside the classroom requiring similar training and responsibility. And please don't fall into the trap of people like Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute who tries to argue that teachers are overpaid because we only work 10 months and have a short workday - if all I did was work in the hours I am required to be in the building, 8-3:30, and never did anything in the evening or weekend, i would be an ineffective teacher by any measure.

Money is not the main motivation for most teachers. It can be a discouraging element, particularly if one wants to have a family, and lead a normal life, a situation exacerbated when your significant other is also a teacher, and for many young teachers they lack time to socialize with anyone other than their educational peers.

The lack of respect for the work one does is probably a far more significant discouragement. Let's be clear - if politicians and pundits continually bash teachers, do not expect parents or students to show much respect. Granted, I believe it is my responsibility to demonstrate to my students that I am worthy of their respect. But it does not help to hear as I and other teachers often have a retort from a 14 year old who when you try to correct behavior says something like "my father says I don't have to listen to you because you are only a teacher, so can't be all that smart." Administrators and superintendents who believe they demonstrate their own competence by belittling teachers, by infantilizing them merely to demonstrate their own power, these are also part of the problem. I have been fortunate not to work in such environments, although I know of far too many both in the system in which I teach and a few in the system in which I live. And I hear enough about such situations in electronic and personal exchanges with other teachers.

We need to rethink what it is we want from our teachers. They should be prepared for the job we want them to do. They should be paid as professionals, treated as professionals, and then maybe it becomes realistic to expect them to act as professionals. We need to do a far better job of transitioning people into the classroom so that they are not overwhelmed , so that they can experience success from the first day.

Then perhaps we will be able to recruit and retain a sufficient number of teachers that all of our students will have access to effective teachers in all of their classes.

If not, if we continue to overburden, undertrain, not support, and even disparage and demean, we have no right to complain about the results in our schools.

Please note - I am not even going to touch the issue of lack o9f support or preparation outside of school, that is, what happens in the family and the larger community, both of which have a powerful impact on the effectiveness of the learning which can be facilitated by the teacher in the classroom. That is another serious can of worms, but we can leave that until fishing season.

Let me make it more concrete. I began with some figures for MD and VA. Let's try another state. Also from the article:
Florida has one of the biggest teacher-candidate deficits in the country. State officials anticipate about 22,000 job openings next year, but the education programs graduate only about 7,000. Recruiters look north or anywhere they can think of to fill the gap.

Ultimately states and systems begin to cannabalize one another. If we really cared about the shortages, we might start by doing what is necessary to traing sufficient candidates instate to meet our own needs. Let me point out the local effects, from a sidebar article:
Before the next school year begins, Loudoun County needs to hire more than 800 teachers; Prince William County, 900; and Fairfax County, about 1,450. Montgomery County usually hires about 1,000; Prince George's County, about 1,300; and the D.C. school system, about 350.
. I teach in Prince George's. That figure of 1,300 is a bit lower than it has been some years. I don't remember the exact figure, but I think we have around 8,400 teachers in the system, so that represents a fairly substantial turnover. It is hard for a school to perform effectively without some sense of school culture - teachers do NOT do their work as individuals, but as part of communities, and it is hard to have a school culture without some staff stability.

I said this was a personal rant. I am frustrated at the teacher bashing I see, including in some of the proposals to "fix" NCLB. I am tired as well of people seeking magic bullets to replace the hard work of rethinking what it is we are doing so that we understand what is not working and why.

And I hadn't done a diary, so I sat down and did this. The first thing I did after coming home to start my Spring "vacation."

Basta. Do with this what you will.
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