Teacher Shortages

Students at Chimborazo Elementary School in Richmond listened during an arithmetic lesson earlier this year. Virginia Department of Education data showed that in 2017, there were around 1,000 teacher vacancies.

By Kate Cassada and Kathy Burcher

Lately, the conversation is unavoidable and laced with words such as crisis, alarm and critical shortage. A sense of urgency exists for good reason as Virginia experiences significant difficulty ensuring K-12 students are taught by fully qualified teachers, in every classroom and community.

Our country prides itself on educating every child, affirming that a free and appropriate public education is a right, not a privilege. While the U.S. justly educates all children, regardless of ability and income, we find we cannot educate all children with fidelity because we are unable to place qualified educators in all classrooms.

Educators and education have been neglected and maligned to the point that teaching has become an unattractive career choice. The pipeline and supply of K-12 teachers have been starved. This is a situation that calls for alarm.

Statistics surrounding teacher employment are startling. The Wall Street Journal reports that in 2018, teachers left education at the highest rate on record. In 2017, the number of unfilled teaching positions in Virginia public schools was 40% higher than 10 years ago at around 1,000, according to the state Department of Education. Turnover rates are as high as 30% in some divisions.

In addition, it has become increasingly difficult to attract teachers to the profession. Enrollment in preparation programs has dropped significantly over the past decade. Diversity concerns also exist, as the approximately 80% white educator population serves Virginia’s majority-minority students.

While teaching vacancies exist across the commonwealth, they are not evenly distributed. High-poverty, high-minority and low-achieving schools have a disproportionate number of openings. Underqualified and inexperienced teachers are more prevalent in special education, English as a second language, math and science classrooms. The Learning Policy Institute reports that teachers with inadequate training are two to three times more likely to leave the profession than adequately prepared colleagues. These statistics perpetuate the cycle of instructional instability across Virginia, placing our most vulnerable learners in classrooms with our most vulnerable teachers.

In the conversation, compensation statistics cannot be ignored. Virginia is the 12th wealthiest state in the U.S. but ranks 32nd in teacher pay, according to the Virginia Education Association. The Education Law Center ranked Virginia 49th in U.S. teacher pay competitiveness in 2015.

A lack of support for new teachers, challenging working conditions, inadequate compensation in relation to required college degrees and better career opportunities are reported as key reasons for leaving the profession. Each of these challenges reflects an absence of necessary resources.

In September, Peter Greene noted in Forbes magazine that the term “teacher shortage” is a misdiagnosis of the problem. Greene asserted there is no shortage of people who have the ability to teach. Instead, there is a shortage of people willing to teach under the current conditions in education.

It is time to create conditions that equip Virginia’s classrooms with highly qualified educators and fund the resources necessary to provide quality instruction for all children.

Attracting and retaining people with the heart and skills requires a serious look at teacher preparation and support, working conditions and compensation. The Virginia Public Education Coalition (VPEC) calls on Virginia to invest in K-12 learning environments.

VPEC is a group of 12 education-invested professional organizations. Since the mid-1990s, VPEC has provided a unified voice in advocating for and improving public K-12 education in Virginia. The coalition strives to ensure that policy and funding structures are in place to promote best practices across the commonwealth.

At VPEC, we believe today’s resources do not align with expectations placed on public education. Dedicating sufficient resources to public education must be a priority. Today’s economic realities and the need for all students to be prepared for tomorrow’s educational and workforce demands challenge Virginia to reconsider its investment in public education. This can be accomplished, in part, by supporting those who dedicate their careers to students.

VPEC’s recent Strategies to Address Virginia’s Teacher Shortage document serves as guidance for Virginia’s citizens, including voters and elected officials. It offers a multi-pronged approach for attracting qualified teachers, improving teacher induction and ensuring teacher retention. The plan focuses on three key aspects of public education: teacher compensation, preparation and support, and working conditions. The proposed strategies will promote sustainable conditions missing in Virginia’s schools.

How can the disastrous decline of high potential teachers be interrupted? Talk to policymakers about your expectations for public education in Virginia. Many candidates in recent elections included a commitment to education in their campaigns. Let decision makers — those who make policy and those who fund it — know that the education of Virginia’s children is a non-negotiable priority.

We believe that citizens, elected state representatives, and education organizations across Virginia should openly talk to each other about their goals for students and the role well-educated kids play in the economic advancement of the commonwealth.

VPEC organizations are unified in calling upon Virginia’s leaders to dedicate resources that create sustainable conditions in education. We ask you to join the discussion.

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Kate Cassada serves as associate professor and assistant chair of graduate education for Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Richmond. Her children attend regional public schools and for 14 years, she served as a public school classroom teacher, senior teacher, assistant principal and principal. Contact her at: kcassada@richmond.edu Kathy Burcher is director of government relations for the Virginia Education Association. Her children attended Henrico County Public Schools and she is a past president of the Henrico County Council of PTAs. Contact her at: kburcher@veanea.org

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