Jim Nowlan: Where have all the teachers gone?
The agriculture teacher at my local high school recently up and left, days before the school year started, heading for greener pastures in the private sector and leaving the school district in the lurch. He’s not alone.
School leaders in low-paying rural districts, as well as in the good-paying-but-challenging Chicago public schools, are scrambling to fill teacher vacancies. Many will do with marginal staff, substitutes, online and distance learning (over the internet) course offerings. It’s not fair to the students.
When I was a boy post-World War II, talented women were steered into teaching because they had few other career choices than nursing and secretarial work. Not today. They go to law and medical school, where they now outnumber men, and are beseeched to go into computers and the sciences, where their numbers still are low.
Today, teachers and parents often steer youngsters away from teaching. In this space a couple of years ago, I reported on responses, from a group of excellent teachers I know, to the question: Would you recommend teaching as a career?
Most said no, even though they mostly found their teaching careers rewarding. The lament I heard most often was about “the pressure to teach to the standardized tests.” It takes the zest out of teaching, the teachers said.
Then, there is the lack of parental support. One recently retired teacher told me only 20 percent of his pupils’ parents came to parent-teacher conferences—and they are, you guessed it, the parents whose children are doing just fine.
Others said teaching could be a good career, but not in Illinois, where state budget problems put pensions and future pay boosts in peril. New teachers in Illinois are under a new pension program. They must teach until 67 — rather than until their 50s, as in the past — and will receive, according to one student of pensions, benefits about the same as for Social Security (Illinois teachers are not covered by Social Security).
I talked with Jim Rosborg, an award-winning superintendent at Belleville who now heads a teacher preparation program at McKendree University; and Jason Leahy, executive director of the state principals’ association.
The shortages stem, the two educators agree, from both fundamental issues, such as low pay and poor pensions for newbie teachers, as well as ill-advised policy barriers to entry into the field.
Rosborg cites the change in the test in Illinois for students for entry into the education major, at about the junior year in college.
He said under the old Basic Skills Test, college education departments were seeing 80-90 percent of their students pass. In 2012, the state education agency replaced that test with a Test of Academic Proficiency, and only 15-30 percent have been passing each year, Rosborg said.
“The test is screwed up. Students have to pass all four portions of the test, such as math and English, when they may not need proficiency in all fields.
“Potentially great teachers can’t get into education.”
Rosborg also cited an example of a new bureaucratic rule that limits teacher flexibility: Teachers certified to teach at the elementary level no longer are qualified to teach kindergarten.
Leahy points out as well successful people interested in a second career in teaching, such as early-retired engineers, have to jump through too many education-coursework hoops to become licensed to teach.
“We have sharp people who are teaching at our community colleges who can’t teach in high schools.”
As a result, the numbers taking state-administered tests to become licensed and certified to teach in Illinois are down, dramatically. In 2012-13, 51,400 took such tests in our state; in 2016-17, just 13,500 took the tests. Special ed test-takers dropped from 5,000 to 2,000. Numbers taking the tests in sciences, math and computer science fell from 1,769 to 680.
What to do? This past year, the Legislature enacted stop-gap measures. For example, teachers licensed in other states no longer have to take the Illinois licensure test. Substitute teachers, another area of severe shortages in some areas, no longer need to hold bachelor’s degrees.
For the long run, the good old law of supply and demand will have to work its magic. If you want me to teach, pay me decently, now and in retirement, and show me some respect.
Until then, low-paying and troubled districts probably will have to do with less than the best, if they can find anyone.