Parents talk with me about a variety of concerns during the course of a normal school year. A lot of these conversations (and for that matter, a lot of social media patter) relate in one way or another to perceived teacher quality. Every parent wants his or her child to have an excellent teacher, and rightfully so. The research is very clear: teacher quality is the most significant factor in student achievement.
During the next 10 years, it is expected more than 40 percent of the 45,000-plus public school teachers in South Carolina will retire. This is particularly concerning because our state is not producing nearly enough new teachers to fill this void (only 2,180 during the past five years). To find teachers, our district recruits pretty extensively out of state, as do many districts in South Carolina. We also try to attract teachers from other districts, although we do lose more than a few teachers each year to neighboring districts, especially in the Columbia area, which pay more and offer better facilities and other professional amenities.
Unfortunately, the looming teacher shortage is not a problem which will simply solve itself or be solved by a “silver bullet” approach. It will require a coordinated and sustained set of strategies, which will require funding and other structural changes.
To avert this problem before it becomes an honest-to-goodness crisis, there are some very basic problems which must be addressed.
Get serious about compensation
People who enter the teaching profession are generally altruistic and don’t teach to get rich. However, the longstanding mindset of teaching being a “second income” must change. This means statewide improvement to salary scales. It means providing teachers the opportunity to be compensated fairly and given time for taking on additional responsibilities such as mentoring less experienced teachers. It means providing teachers reasonable compensation for time spent on professional development, planning and curriculum development work.
I keep hearing our leaders talk about how we need to attract “the best and the brightest” to teaching, but then I mostly hear excuses from them about why we can’t compensate and treat them in a way which will actually do so. (To make matters worse, the “tax swap” scheme being considered in Columbia to address roads will also reduce revenues supporting teacher salaries and other critical state needs.)
Expand teacher education programs
The fact South Carolina is not producing enough teachers presents particular challenges in hard-to-fill areas such as English, math, science, vocational and special education. In addition, during the past two years, it has even become challenging to find teachers for the elementary grades.
Gov. Nikki Haley has offered some interesting proposals to attract teachers to poor rural districts, including tuition-free college attendance and payoff of student loans in exchange for teachers committing to working up to eight years in these districts. Her ideas might be viable, but only if our postsecondary institutions are turning out enough candidates. Until this happens, the more affluent districts will continue to swallow up the most promising candidates.
A big part of the problem in South Carolina is there is no unifying vision for postsecondary education and no reasonable oversight of state colleges and universities to ensure the state’s employment needs are being met. South Carolina’s public postsecondary institutions by and large operate as they see fit without much coordination or statewide “big picture” thinking. This is a major reason why teacher preparation programs are getting the short end of the stick.
Improve preparation for career switchers
Career switching is a reasonable approach, especially for vocational areas, math and science. The problem is the Program of Alternative Certification for Educators (PACE), South Carolina’s avenue for career-switchers, basically throws these folks into classrooms and expects them to learn the ropes on the job. The first semester for these people is essentially their student teaching, except it’s not done with the same intense level of supervision as a normal student teaching experience. This does not lend itself to either good instruction or long-term retention.
A more effective approach would be a career switcher program which requires a student teaching experience first. Content expertise is obviously a very important aspect of good teaching, but classroom management, planning effective lessons and assessments, using technology effectively and working with parents and colleagues are the areas where career-switchers often struggle. A solid practicum experience with a strong teacher followed by mentoring support would make career switching a much more effective option. Right now, we’re just throwing these people into the deep end of the pool and hoping they learn to swim. I think this reflects a perception on the part of decision-makers that “anyone can teach.” Not so.
The three areas I have identified are ones which must be tackled if a very serious teacher shortage is to be averted in South Carolina and nationwide. That said, there are other issues which detract from teacher recruitment and retention. These include good facilities, access to up-to-date technology and strong school-based administrative leadership. I can tell you from experience these areas very seriously factor in to the thinking of the best teacher candidates when considering a job offer.
The teacher shortage is real and will worsen quickly without attention. Duct tape solutions, for which our state is notorious, will not be adequate. It’s imperative to get serious and develop comprehensive solutions before we hit crisis mode. Unfortunately, our state often has a disturbing tendency to react to crises versus trying to prevent them.
I’m always pleased to talk with community members about our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district website. I invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at on our award-winning website, www.kcsdschools.net. I’m also on Facebook and welcome Friend requests.