August 28, 2018

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Educator Shortages and the 115th Congress

 Teaching has long maintained a place near the top of the list of most respected professions. However, given the rhetoric around failing schools and the decreased investment in education, that position is slipping. In the 2018 PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, only 61 percent of respondents have trust and confidence in public school teachers. Also, slipping steeply throughout the decade, only 46 percent of respondents say they would like their children to become teachers. This illustrates the danger of a persistently negative public perception of public school teachers. The teaching profession is seen as disrespected, difficult, dangerous, and low paying.

Given this perception, it is not surprising that districts are having difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers. A recent AASA survey found that 91 percent of superintendents have had difficulty hiring qualified teachers in the past five year. The greatest difficulty has been in hiring special education (50 percent) and STEM fields (40 percent). Another 24 percent reported difficulty in hiring for non-teaching positions and 18 for administrative positions.

In the survey, superintendents were asked what they have done to fill these positions. Most common was hiring less qualified individuals for the position (60 percent). Other remedies were the use of alternative certification programs or models (33 percent) increasing salary and benefit packages where possible (33 percent) and rehiring retired teachers (32 percent).

When asked what improvements would help them recruit and retain quality teachers, funding for salary and benefits was clearly the most popular. This need was illustrated through the teacher protests of 2018 and is commonly understood to be a need – 66 percent of PDK poll respondents agree that teacher salaries in their communities are too low. However, funding for education has fallen or remained stagnant in most states and local districts since the 2008 recession.

A common concern is the lack of localized teacher preparation programs. An individual is most likely to teach close to where they were raised or where they went to college. In rural communities, this means that many residents go away to college and do not end up returning to teach in their home community. Districts are often supportive of high quality “grow your own” teacher training and certification programs, in four-year universities, community colleges, and other settings. Two pieces of legislation have been introduced this year (though they have not moved past introduction) to support and expand grow your own programs. The first, introduced by Senator Tina Smith (D – MN), is the Supporting Future Educators Act. It creates a competitive grant program for LEAs or ESAs that could be used to create or expand teacher residency or mentorship programs, grow your own programs, teacher preparation pathways in secondary schools, or other evidence-based strategies.

Another bill has been introduced by Senator Tim Kaine (D – VA). The Preparing and Retaining Education Professionals (PREP) Act amends Title II of the Higher Education Act (not ESSA, though easily confused!) to better support rural districts and to increase the flow of teachers from historically black colleges and universities. It also encourages the creation of grow your own programs and teacher and leader residency programs.

Another barrier to hiring qualified teachers reported was the strictness of certification rules in many states. Superintendents commented that an individual who is certified to teach second grade may not be allowed to teach first grade, even if there is a great need in the community. State-level certification requirements also pose a barrier to teachers who may be interested in moving states or superintendents looking to recruit nationally. A proposal by the centrist think tank Third Way to create a national standard for teaching for states to opt into, much like the common core state standards, strives to simplify the bureaucracy of teacher certification and create one high standard for states to share.

A final improvement that would improve teacher recruitment and retention is assistance with tuition or loan repayment. This has been a big topic in the House of Representatives this year, as it was a key part of the Republican-backed PROSPER Act. There are currently three major loan forgiveness programs available for teachers; the most prominent is Public Service Loan Forgiveness(PSLF). Under PSLF, anyone working in a public service or nonprofit job (including most education professions) can enroll in an income-based repayment plan. If that individual makes 120 on-time income-based payments (10 years of repayment) and work in an eligible field, whatever is left on their loans can be forgiven. This is an important recruitment and retention tool for educators, who often have high loads of debt following a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and relatively low salary.

Under the PROSPER Act, which passed the House Education and Workforce committee on a party-line vote, PSLF and all other loan forgiveness programs would be eliminated. The House Democrats released a rebuttal bill, the Aim HigherAct. That bill not only keeps PSLF – it expands it to additional professions (mostly in the farming industry).

It is unlikely any of these pieces of legislation will move in this Congress, as everyone has turned their attention to the November mid-term elections. As we move into the next Congress and another attempt at reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, I will work to ensure the issue of educator shortages is top of mind for those writing the reauthorization. We remain hopeful we can have a bipartisan bill focused on supporting future and current teachers and ensuring they are prepared to teach in your schools.


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