Addressing Teacher Shortages: Context Matters
March 16, 2018

Classroom photos courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action


National headlines tend to portray teacher shortages as one of two extremes—“massive” or “mythical”—but the reality, advocates say, is much more complicated. According to advocates, true shortages, whether focused on subject area, geography, quality, diversity, or other factors, depend entirely on local context.

Across the Network, champions for kids are pursuing a wide variety of strategies to address specific types of shortages. We asked advocates in three states (Arizona, Illinois, and Texas) to share insights into their local challenges, including how they’re working to craft nuanced solutions that fit their context.

As it relates to teacher shortage challenges, what’s important to know about your local context?

Emily Anne Gullickson, Executive Director, A for Arizona  

Arizona has roughly 2,200 public district and charter schools, and about 2,000 teacher positions that remain unfilled three quarters of the way through the school year. Special education and upper level math and science courses remain our hardest-to-fill positions. As a right-to-work state, we do have more flexibility to address the significant bureaucratic barriers that impede our ability to solve this problem, and have been pushing for certification reform.

Our general teacher shortage is not universally widespread, and this is important data. Arizona’s highest performing schools—both high poverty and low poverty—have the highest teacher retention in the state, and often more applicants than positions, even though many are also rapidly growing and expanding.

Their primary problem remains one of quality— finding the right high performing teacher candidate within a pile of applications.

We also asked our best school leaders who their best teacher trainers were, and their response was “themselves.” That response spurred our efforts to provide proven high quality schools with clear authority in the law to train and ultimately certify their own top talent. 

Ginger Ostro, Executive Director, Advance Illinois

Teaching shortages in Illinois are disproportionately affecting low-income students and students of color in all regions of the state and Chicago. The shortage is resulting in a significant number of students being taught by substitutes, taking courses online, or missing out on upper-level classes altogether. The greatest shortages are in special education and bilingual education, but foreign language, STEM, and physical education are other areas of need.  

Of the current unfilled teacher positions in the state, 74 percent are in majority-minority school districts, 81 percent are in districts where the majority of students are low-income, and 90 percent of vacancies are in underfunded school districts. (Despite historic funding reform that passed last year, the vast majority of Illinois school districts remain underfunded.)

Superintendents are reporting that they do not have enough applicants to fill open positions with quality teachers.

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of B.A. education program completers in Illinois has declined by 40 percent.

Teacher diversity (17 percent teachers of color) does not mirror the diversity of the student population (51 percent students of color), which continues to be a significant concern.  

Because of the pressure of the shortage, Advance Illinois convened the Teachers for Illinois’ Future (T4IF) coalition, including teachers, K-12 administrators, higher education institutions, and advocacy organizations, to address the shortage in the short-term while working to elevate and modernize the teaching profession in the long-term.

T4IF testified at a March 7th House Committee hearing in the Capitol, and will evaluate legislative solutions in alignment with its principles.

John Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, Educate Texas

The landscape of teaching in Texas creates an immense shortage challenge for the state to serve its massive student population. Every year we hear that teacher shortages are a challenge across the state. During the last decade, Texas’ shortage areas have not varied significantly, including Bilingual/English as a Second Language, Career and Technical Education, Computer Science/Technology Applications, Mathematics, Science, and Special Education.

While the number of first-time certified Texas teachers has increased, teacher preparation providers do not produce the number of teachers necessary to meet workforce projections.

As traditional schools of education see declining enrollment of students interested in pursuing a career in teaching, the state continues to hear pleas to make it easier to fill classrooms with a variety of individuals as teachers. Legislation has often passed to address those pleas without considering the impact the quality of the educator has on student achievement. The changes allow individuals with career and technical work experience to serve as teachers without certifications, as well as creating districts of innovation that allow an approved district to hire teachers without certifications in any subject.

Educate Texas has always contended that a certification is a foundation, and if teacher preparation is done right, we can provide the necessary instructional practices and tools to move our students forward. Peeling away the systems that have framed our educational system creates a different system. While it’s possible that Texas might be ready to make that shift, it must be made deliberately and with a preparedness for a variety of consequences and alterations to the systems that were built for over a century ago.

In some states, efforts to reduce teacher shortages have included alternative certification options. We asked advocates from A for Arizona and Educate Texas to share further insights into the impact of alternative certification on their states’ teacher talent pipeline.

Emily Anne Gullickson, Executive Director, A for Arizona  

A for Arizona and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry are huge proponents of new routes to certification as a way to address the teacher talent pipeline in Arizona. Looking to the U.S. Chamber’s talent supply chain efforts, we encouraged school leaders to use the private-sector driven Talent Pipeline Management to improve their access to quality teacher candidates in the public sector. Over the past two years, we have advocated for changes to teacher certification that allowed Arizona’s highest performing schools to train their own recruits who already have college degrees but are not necessarily in education.

Not having to rely on traditional certification pipelines alone is a game changer for our public schools, especially our highest performing schools.

We believe it’s a no brainer to let the best train the best.

They are brilliant recruiters and exceptional trainers, as demonstrated by the huge academic gains that have put Arizona on the map for consistent academic growth on the Nation’s Report Card and our state AzMERIT assessment. Once dated bureaucratic barriers were set aside, our school leaders have been able to embrace a set of new freedoms that address classroom placements, out-of-state reciprocity, and grow-your-own efforts. Arizona has long been a pioneer in certification reform, with one of the first Teach For America corps and now 1,000+ alumni, as well as other pathways into the classroom. As a result of these latest reforms, our market has attracted new alternative certification programs to the state, which will further strengthen and expand our teacher talent pipeline for the 2018-2019 school year.

John Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, Educate Texas

There is no question that there should be multiple pathways to the classroom; however, Texas’ long history of alternative teacher certification programs provides a cautionary tale for states looking to grow alternative certification programs. Educate Texas has engaged both at the legislative and regulatory level to make sure standards remain high for both traditional and alternative certification programs.

The largest concern with alternative certification programs is that graduates become the teacher of record with no classroom experience and just 30 hours of field-based experience.

This has helped Texas to meet the needs of schools, but often with just a warm body and not with the effective teacher that our students deserve and need.

Many alternatively certified teachers are also serving our neediest students, who attend schools that often have unfilled positions as the start of the school year approaches.

Last year, Texas’ largest private alternative preparation program prepared close to 4,700 teachers, yet over 700 left the classroom before they even completed their first year of teaching, leaving thousands of students abandoned. Ultimately, Texas’ alternative certification programs are not closing the shortage gap.

As states are more interested in growing alternative certification programs to address teacher shortages, several considerations need to be front and center.

  • Programs must be held to high standards and required to make changes if they are not meeting the needs of the teacher candidates.
  • When teachers are in their internship towards certification, states should consider if those teachers should really be listed as the teacher of record. Perhaps a co-teaching role could be employed to allow those alternatively certified teachers to learn their craft.
  • The accountability system for those programs should allow states to sanction and remove accreditations if programs are not serving teachers well.
  • It is important to share data about teacher preparation and the potential trade-offs of opening up certification pathways. States must cautiously determine the policies that can address the shortage issues without diluting the teaching and learning in the classroom.       

Resources for Advocates

The below reports offer additional teacher shortage data points and policy considerations. To connect with other advocates working to address teacher shortages, please reach out.

  • The National Council on Teacher Quality’s Teacher Shortages and Surpluses Databurst analyzes each state’s efforts to address teacher supply and demand challenges, and highlights promising practices in action.
  • This Bellwether Education Partners publication outlines state methods for tracking and reporting teacher supply and demand, including the extent, geographic spread, and content areas of teacher shortages.

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    Eric Eagon

    Eric is PIE Network's Senior Director, Educator Voice and Policy

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