Are Lowering Qualifications an Answer to the Teacher Shortage?

The Current Teacher Shortage

Though we are accustomed to thinking of teacher shortages as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, in fact, the supply of teachers has been inadequate for some time. For example, this article from University of Massachusetts Global points out that during the 2016-2017 school year, 80% of California school districts reported a shortage for the 2017-2018 school year–several years before the pandemic. 90% of those districts reported that the shortage was worse than it had been the previous year.

Nor is this a problem exclusive to California. The same article reports a combination of increased turnover and a decline in the number of people completing teaching training programs have led to shortages all across the country, particularly in certain high-demand fields like special education, math and science.

The Band-Aid Solution: Lower Qualifications

Education Week reported that last fall, 50% of all districts struggled to fill all their teaching positions and that the situation is expected to be worse this coming year. Twelve states have already lowered credentialing requirements for next year. Keep in mind that some of these states and many others have been lowering requirements for years in an unsuccessful effort to solve the problem.

Some state characterize what they’re doing as eliminating redundant requirements, such as using tests to assess competence for teaching candidates who have successfully completed related coursework. They could be correct in this assessment–we’d have to see before and after data on teacher effectiveness to know whether or not that claim is accurate.

I’m more concerned about the states that drop requirements completely. A number of states, California included, have been issuing emergency credentials for years. Practices vary, but generally, an emergency credential can be issued to someone with a bachelor’s degree. Some states also require that the applicant be in a teaching credential program to be eligible.

Problems with This Solution

Pragmatically, such a process can be justified on the theory that a teacher (even if less qualified) is better than no teacher. In a true emergency, there’s no question about which is better. But should we be running our schools in a perpetual emergency mode?

It’s important to note that this emergency mode is not stable but tends to lead to continued lowering of standards. This year, Florida is breaking new ground (and not in a good way) by not not even requiring a bachelor’s degree of military veterans. In 2018, Florida adopted a program allowing veterans to teach in certain subjects with a teaching credential providing that they had a master’s degree in the field in which they would be teaching.  The current approach, effective July 1, allows veterans to teach with no college degree as long as they have completed a certain number of college units with at least a (not particularly high) 2.5 GPA and have passed a state subject exam for bachelor-level subjects. We’d need to see a study of the difference between applicants who take the exam and applicants who actually have a bachelor’s degree in order to judge whether or not that’s a reasonable accommodation.

Regardless, the biggest problem with all of these solutions is the underlying assumption that it isn’t really all that important to be trained to teach. This isn’t intended as a criticism of veterans or any other group, but the reality is that teaching, like any other profession, requires skills that people don’t necessarily develop if they aren’t fully trained for that purpose. I’ve known plenty of people over the years who might have had good subject matter expertise but couldn’t effectively teach what they knew to others. Different skill sets and different training are involved.

That’s not to say that subject area knowledge isn’t important. A teacher who knows teaching methodology but not the subject matter being taught would obviously be a disaster. But it’s also important to note that someone who barely scrapes through college (or perhaps hasn’t even completed a college degree in the subject) isn’t going to be very effective, either. Lowering qualifications nearly always reduces the specific teacher education requirements but, as we’ve seen, can also result in reducing the level of subject area knowledge as well.

How important is it to have well-trained, knowledgeable teachers in classrooms? Many studies confirm that student achievement increases substantially when teacher quality increases. Education Next has a thorough article about how contemporary research confirms earlier findings on teacher quality. For example, it quotes ten different studies that all find student achievement in math and/or reading are significantly higher in classrooms with teachers at the 85th percentile than in classrooms with average teachers (those at the 50th percentile). The same article cites a Stanford University study by Raj Chetty and others which shows that high-quality teaching can lead to increases in future graduation rates, college attendance, employment, and wages. Amazingly, this finding holds up even if we’re only talking about one high-quality teacher. In other words, even a one-year difference in teacher quality continues to affect students for many years.

Not only is teacher quality a substantial contributor to student success, but considerable evidence shows that it is the most important school-related factor. For example, an article from Edutopia (George Lucas Education Foundation) says that, “Great teachers help create great students. In fact, research shows that an inspiring and informed teacher is the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement, so it is critical to pay close attention to how we train and support both new and experienced educators.”

All of that said, there is some disagreement over what factors make an effective teacher. There is broad agreement on certain personality variables, as there is on subject area knowledge. In the latter case, the specific classes an instructor is teaching doubtless make a difference–one needs a greater depth of knowledge to teach an advanced course than a regular one, for example.

There is more disagreement over whether educational factors like advanced degrees affect teacher quality. Per the first source cited, the Coleman Study from about fifty years ago supported the idea that a teacher’s education background is important, particularly a teacher’s performance on a verbal skills test, and the teacher’s highest educational level. On the other hand, in recent years, some studies have shown an advanced degree to not have that much impact. The article suspects that may have something to do with the fact that school district salary schedules reward masters degree holders, even if the degree is in a subject other than the one(s) the teacher is responsible for teaching.

Every human being is unique, so it’s not possible to say that every teaching candidate taking shortcuts is going to be worse than every candidate that doesn’t. It’s even possible that some people take to teaching naturally, without needing much training–though I’ve never met anyone who claims that distinction. But it think it’s fair to say, based on what evidence is available–as well as dealing with teachers with a wide variety of backgrounds–that lowering entry requirements is at best risky. Perhaps it can be justified as a temporary stopgap but certainly not as a permanent feature of the system.

Other Possible Solutions

There is no one easy solution to this problem. But the bottom line is simple–as a society, we need to make teaching more attractive as a career choice.

The teacher shortage wee have today is a product of two forces I’ve mentioned earlier: a reduction in the number of people training to be a teacher, and poor retention rates for those who do become teachers. I would say it’s probable that some of the same factors influence both problems.

However, I fear this post would become too long if I did a detailed analysis of all the factors involved. That really deserves a blog post of its own. But it doesn’t seem reasonable to end this post with no discussion of solutions. I’ll give you a brief rundown of some the issues and hopefully flesh them out more in a subsequent post.

First, teachers need to be compensated better for the increasingly complex jobs that they do.

It’s not that teachers are necessarily paid badly. Some school systems pay pretty well in an absolute sense.

One issue with teacher pay is that it is based on assumptions, some of them unconscious, about what teachers do and how long it takes them to do it. Almost all of the public school teacher contracts I’ve looked at are based on a seven and a half hour day or something close to that. However, most studies on the issue come out somewhere closer to ten hours as the real teacher workday. For example, EducationWeek cites a recent Merrimack College Study that shows the average teacher works a 54-hour week (14 hours more than what would be considered a typical fulltime job, or 10.8 hours per day if one just counts the school week,  9 hours per day if one works 6 days, or 7.7 if one works 7 days.) To be clear, no public school has more than a five-day formal week, but preparation and grading often extend into the weekend. (At my peak as a high school English teacher, I worked about ten hours per day on weekdays and four hours per day on weekends, for a total of sixty hours per week. Sometimes, I stopped early on Friday and added more weekend time to compensate. Anyone wondering why I never got married? Anyone wondering why I retired at fifty-eight?)

It’s also important to keep in mind that teachers never earn overtime, at least not in any system I’ve ever heard of. Some extracurricular jobs are paid extra, coaching being a good example. But an English teacher with all those essays to grade still gets paid as if he or she were done after that 7.5 hour day ends.

“Ah, but you get a lot of vacation time,” someone will say. Well, yes–on paper. But, as with the length of the day, the number of days off or number of weeks of vacation are deceptive. A good chunk of winter break is often spent polishing off the last of the college application essays and, depending on the school calendar, catching up on grading . A similar fate often befalls spring break. Summer break which shrank from twelve weeks to ten early in my teaching career and then eroded further when in-service days were shoved into it, is often consumed at least partly by continuing education classes (required in some states), as well as curriculum planning for the following year. I think the figures in this EdTech article are too high, but it gives you a rough idea of the kinds of things people might do during the summer. (Teachers typically get one paid day to do things like set up their classrooms, and much of that is usually consumed in meetings. Otherwise, ever single piece of preparation and set-up for the next school year is done on a teacher’s own time.)

Is it possible to get by with working fewer hours? Yes. A lot depends on factors such as subject area, grade level, years of experience, and other considerations. Keep in mind that the 54 hour figure is the median, not a guarantee of what each and every teacher does. There are some working fewer hours–and some working more.

But hours are not the only factor that makes teaching more demanding than it might seem. Not only does subject matter expertise in some areas require a lot more to keep up with than it used to, but teachers are required to have a wider range of skills than before, They must not only know their specific subject matter, but also educational technology and how to deal with special-needs students, among other things. And, since schools are now expected to compensate for shortcomings in the students’ out-of-school lives, teachers need to know a number of other bits of psychology and social work.

A final consideration is how teacher salaries compare to salaries in other education-related fields. That proves to be another reason teachers leave teaching. There are many job opportunities outside the classroom that lead to higher salary levels than one can get in the classroom. I’ve seen people move to positions as publisher sales reps (for textbooks), curriculum developers, education directors at museums, corporate trainers, and many other professions. All of them were making more money than they had in the classroom within six months, some of them immediately.

Second, teachers need to be more involved in the decision-making process at all levels.

We have known for a long time that happy employees tend to be better employees. We have also known that a certain amount of control is an important contributing factor in employee happiness. For example, take a look at this Business Insider article. Yet we sometimes forget that teaching works the same way other career paths do in this regard. Teachers also function better when they are happy, and teachers are usually happier when they have some control over instruction.

Thought it makes sense to have curriculum standards in each subject area, it also makes sense to give teachers input into those standards. The same thing is true of building-level policies regarding discipline, grading, and other important matters.

But in the real world, that often doesn’t happen. National and state standards often become political footballs whose fate is determined by who won the last election or what must be done to win the next one rather than by what students need to learn and be able to do. A number of these decisions get made with little or no teacher input, and sometimes in open defiance of teacher recommendations.

Shameless Plug: For a somewhat more detailed treatment of how politics affects education, check out my book on that very subject:

The situation isn’t necessary better at the school district and school level. While some local school board members may listen to teacher input, many tend to listen only in cases in which they don’t already have an opinion on an issue. In other cases, they don’t hesitate to bulldoze their way to the solution they want, even if every teacher with relevant knowledge is telling them that this is a bad idea.

That’s not to say that school board members don’t respect teachers–in abstract terms. They often praise teachers in general and give shout-outs to particular teachers who’ve done something they appreciated. Sometimes, they even play lip service to the importance of teacher input. But as always, actions speak louder than words.

As for administrators, since their jobs are dependent upon the whims of the school board, even those who have a participatory management style are often constrained in ways that make it impossible for them to use it.

Any way one looks at it, the situation is terrible. There’s no question that it contributes to teacher burnout and turnover, exacerbating the shortage. But even those teachers who remain may not be as effective as they would have been in an environment more open to their voices.

In School Leadership That Works: From Research to Results, the authors, citing Silins, Mulford, and Zarins, write that, “a school’s effectiveness is proportional to ‘the extent to which teachers participate in all aspects of the school’s functioning–including school policy decisions and review–share a coherent sense of direction, and acknowledge the wider school community.'” In other words, not including teachers in decision making reduces the effectiveness of the school.

It’s not hard to see why this would be true. School board members, though they often study the issues before them, vary widely in terms of their previous experience with education. A few are or have been teachers. A much larger group have experienced the classroom only as students. It would be surprising indeed if they had the same insight into curriculum and instruction as veteran teachers do. 

Administrators, of course, have more experience, but from what I’ve seen, some quickly forget the realities of the classroom. Many more are experts in the subjects they taught themselves, but not necessarily knowledgeable in other areas. That doesn’t mean that they can’t support teachers in those areas. It does mean that many of the teachers are likely to know more about those areas than the administrators do. Medium-sized high schools typically have three to four administrators (one principal and some assistant principals). Even if each administrator has experience in a different academic department, that leaves most departments unrepresented.

I can illustrate this problem by mentioned the various administrators who supervised the English department in my former school. For much of my early career, my supervisor was a former English department chair, but that was only true once during the latter half of my career. Otherwise, the supervisors included a former elementary school teacher, art teacher, dance teacher, counselor, and physics teacher.

There is a wealth of evidence supporting the idea that teachers should be more involved in decision making, too much to include in what is already a long post. Below I’ve listed a couple of useful titles for those of you interested in reading more.

 Suggestions for Further Reading

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