MY TURN: Teacher shortages require community action

MY TURN: Teacher shortages require community action

By Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus, Adelphi University; Author, How University Boards Work, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018; Eric Hoffer Awardee, 2019

The news stories about teachers and schools seem constant. Politicians, parents, and pundits criticize the teaching of American history and school board meetings repeat the political divisiveness in the country.

The COVID pandemic has exacerbated ill feelings about schooling and a decline in student learning.

A report in 2011 said, “Since 2001, Americans have soured on schools in general. When 1,002 adults were asked June 13 to give a letter grade to ‘public schools in the nation as a whole’, only 17 percent gave them an A or B … down from 27 percent in 1985” and this was in 2011!

In 2012, the president of the American Federation of Teachers said, “that budget cuts and so-called ‘teacher bashing’ by politicians and media have savaged morale… and that 29 percent of teachers say they are likely to leave the teaching profession within the next five years – up from 17 percent in 2009.”

In a New York Times op-ed, a special education teacher explained “that the current teacher-evaluation push has produced an environment of pressure, humiliation, criticism, and constant scrutiny.”

The 2001 federal No Child Left Behind program for standards-based, assessment-based education reform had the unintended consequences of squeezing out creativity and lowering teacher job satisfaction. The program resulted in lots of tests, reduced curriculum choice, and minimal improvement in student achievement.

I wish I could say “that was then,” but conditions have only gotten worse. Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, with students competing for table and computer space at home and teachers shifting to remote instruction, there are 567,000 fewer educators in America’s schools for the 73 million public school children.

It is estimated that over 50 percent of remaining teaching are ready to leave. The conditions in schools and the constant harping over what is taught, and how, have sapped the joy from seeing young people develop, which was and is a strong motivation to teach.

Teachers are leaving, or thinking of leaving because they are burned out for a variety of reasons, including the increased testing, added work-loads due to understaffing; reduced opportunities for one-on-one teaching due to larger class sizes and covering for teachers who left; and assisting under-credentialed colleagues.

Teachers are also leaving due to low pay, pay that is lower than comparably educated professionals. Some school districts have loosened certification requirements, allowing people without even a bachelor’s degree to teach high school subjects. Others have shortened the school week to four days due to staffing shortages that shortchange students.

Nationally, three-fourths of school districts report having fewer applicants than jobs available. The shortages vary by zip code; schools serving largely students of color and students from low-income families suffer the most.

The shortages are especially critical in math, science, special education, and speech language pathology. This is true for rural as well as urban schools. On Long Island, the degree of shortage varies by location and year.

Another factor in the shortage of teachers is a decline in the number who want to teach. The lack of respect for teachers and teaching by the public and politicians dissuades potential candidates from seeking a post. In addition, the rancor at school board meetings, the interference in curricula and library holdings, and the campaigns by single-issue candidates for school boards has sapped the enthusiasm of those in the profession who might be recruiters of prospective teachers.

How can our public schools fulfill their state charters and mission for preparing students for citizenship as well as careers if they cannot function?

In New York State, the basis for free public education is contained in the state Constitution. It declares that “The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.”

In addition, the New York State Board of Regents is charged with helping school districts and BOCES develop comprehensive systems of preparation, support, and advancement for educators that are responsive to local context.

The Office of Educator Quality and Professional Development of the State Education Department is intended to ensure that all students, regardless of demography or zip code, have access to great teachers and school leaders.

We have the mandate, yet our children suffer when schools are devastated by a pandemic, understaffed, and required courses are not taught by certified professionals. What can we do?

First, we need local interest. The Parent-Teacher Association should be alerted not only to the need for teachers but also to the support teachers need. Service clubs and chambers of commerce should be called into action.

If we fail our schools, and our schools fail our children, our children will fail our communities, creating a vicious cycle of decline.

Another community asset to be called upon to support the schools is our higher education sector. Colleges and universities prepare teachers but could do more to partner with local school districts for continuing professional development of teachers and administrators, curriculum development infused with the latest in research that has been tested, and both in-school and after-school programs for students.

While these initiatives will not improve the pay of teachers, they can go a long way in enhancing the profession, showcasing the excellence of teaching in the community, and rallying public support.

Some colleges and districts are broadening their reach by recruiting military veterans to become teachers.

They have many of the skills and abilities necessary for ensuring productive learning environments. In some parts of the country, local universities are actually managing school districts, thereby fulfilling their public charters by being of greater service locally and regionally.

We need more such initiatives. They can help our public-school students and teachers, they can help prepare high school students for colleges and careers, and they can help colleges and universities fulfill their public charters to be of service to society.

Robert A. Scott is president Emeritus, Adelphi University; Author, “How University Boards Work,” Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018; Eric Hoffer Awardee, 2019

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