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We Know What to Do About Teacher Shortages

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By Kristoffer Kohl

In 1996 the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF) released What Matter's Most: Teaching For America's Future: "A blueprint for recruiting, preparing, and supporting excellent teachers in all of America's schools." The landmark report made sweeping recommendations to ensure competent, qualified teachers in every classroom.

Yet 20 years later, few would argue that those recommendations have been achieved at scale. Plenty would argue that misguided efforts to achieve NCTAF's vision have landed teachers in restrictive environments that have diminished authentic teaching and learning. In a recent interview, NCTAF commissioner Linda Darling Hammond reflected on the lack of progress over the past two decades: 

"Higher standards are often ignored for teachers when hiring for high-needs schools... salaries have in fact fallen. Fewer teachers had mentoring in 2012 than had it in 2008 because of the cutbacks from the recession—now only 59 percent of teachers say they're getting mentored, it used to be over 75 percent."

While indicators of this malaise abound, the Learning Policy Institute's Solving the Teacher Shortage: How To Attract and Retain Excellent Educators is a guide to the policy levers that demand attention if we are to address dramatic shortages of qualified practitioners. The report cites an extensive, growing body of research on teacher recruitment and retention while focusing on five leading factors that influence teachers' decisions to enter, remain, or leave the profession: 

  • salaries and other compensation;
  • preparation and costs to entry;
  • hiring and personnel management;
  • induction and support for new teachers; and
  • working conditions, including school leadership, professional collaboration and shared decision making, accountability systems, and resources for teaching and learning.

Each of these elements is dense enough for its own series of blog posts. Here, I'm going to focus on working conditions since they are closest to the classroom and felt by teachers on a daily basis. (For a comprehensive view of the teacher shortage from those uniquely positioned to comment on it—practicing teachers—I recommend this provocative Teaching Ahead blog series.) 

School Leadership: Teachers are more likely to remain teaching when they feel supported by administrators, when administrators are effective communicators, and when administrators view themselves as "facilitators, collaborators, team leaders, or leaders of leaders," the report indicates. It cites six studies to conclude that effective school leaders are successful managers who ensure teachers have what they need to get a complex job accomplished, instructional leaders who help teachers to continuously improve, and inclusive decision-makers who engage teachers in change efforts and trust their autonomy in classrooms. 

Professional collaboration and shared decision-making: As this blog has reported before, there is an emerging movement of teacher powered schools (several of which can be found in LAUSD) redefining staff structures within schools to provide meaningful roles for teachers to lead the profession without leaving the classroom. As the report makes clear, teachers working in schools with cultures of collaboration make more significant improvements in practice relative to those working in schools with weaker levels of collaboration. 

Accountability systems: The report cites that 25% of teachers who left the profession in 2012 indicated dissatisfaction with the influence of assessment and accountability measures on their instruction as extremely or very important in their decision to leave the profession. The U.S. Department of Education's recent decision requiring California students to take a test aligned to science standards from 1998 in addition to a pilot assessment aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards being thoughtfully (read: slowly) implemented across the state only adds fuel to the fire. Fortunately, California has stood up to the feds with positive results for students and teachers in the past. 

Resources for teaching and learning: Higher student-teacher ratios are correlated to elevated rates of staff turnover in schools. According to an NEA report, California ranked 46th in the nation on the ratio of students enrolled (21.3) for every teacher in the state. Those figures makes the outcome of Prop 55 important for the sustainability of the teaching profession in the state.  

The 1996 NCTAF report concluded with two visions of what teaching and learning might look like in 2006.

If the country embraced thoughtful reforms designed to realize teaching as a true profession, teacher shortages would be met with higher salaries and incentives to join the profession. Increased salaries would foster a profession willing to undergo rigorous preparation and ongoing support, thereby negating costly, unscientific efforts to measure the value of individual practitioners. 

If the country maintained its course, then the predictable retirement of baby boomers would lead to teacher shortages, larger class sizes, teachers teaching of out of subject, and recruitment of untrained personnel into the classroom. Teachers serving high-need communities would have minimal preparation experiences focused solely on the fundamentals, leaving them woefully unprepared for the challenges of increasingly diverse learners and more likely to leave teaching before it had the opportunity to fully develop as a career. 

As a former teacher who started in 2006, I am all too familiar with the narrative that has played out for the past two decades. Yet I am more encouraged than ever that enough research evidence has accumulated in recent years for the ship to change course. We know far too much about what works to continue pursuing what does not. 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Kristoffer Kohl works at the Center for Teaching Quality to cultivate, incubate, and scale the bold ideas and expert practices of accomplished teachers. He co-authored Teacher leadership for 21st-century teaching a learning, a report outlining a set of strategies to narrow the achievement gap in California by fueling the development of a teacher leadership system.





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