Meeting the national need for teachers

Bolstering Education
This article and photo is reprinted with permission from
Illinois State, August 2019 issue.

Media alerts announce another school shooting with lives lost. Another extended teachers’ strike is called to protest inadequate pay. Another round of standardized test results show that American students are falling behind. Another cut made in funds earmarked for public education cripples school districts struggling to keep pace with changing curricula and technology.

ISU College of Education Dean James Wolfinger will tell you the regular recurrence of such reports sparks mounting negative sentiments toward the teaching profession as a whole, which results in one more equally troubling headline: America is facing a critical shortage of teachers.

“The problem is serious, it is real, and it is not overblown by the media,” said Wolfinger, who became dean at Illinois State July 1. Having worked years in higher education as an administrator and professor, most recently at DePaul University, he has carefully monitored what he calls “a perfect storm” intensifying across the country and leaving school districts struggling to fill vacancies.

“Part of the issue is about teacher salaries and insecure pensions, another part is the declining high school demographic in the Midwest and dropping enrollments in colleges of education at the same time teachers who are baby boomers are reaching retirement age. And yet another part is seasoned teachers and parents increasingly discouraging high school graduates from pursuing a career in education,” Wolfinger said.

“There is consequently,” he said, “no one magic-bullet solution.”

The growing shortfall is well documented. The Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., reports that the shortage of teachers nationwide from preschool through high school worsened from 64,000 in the 2015-2016 academic year to 110,000 just two years later. The agency projects the shortfall will reach at least 200,000 by 2025.

Statistics within Illinois are also troubling. According to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), there were 1,407 teaching vacancies unfilled in 2018 across the state, which has approximately 130,000 teachers. The board report documents that 562 of the positions left open last year were within the Chicago public schools. Rural areas also struggled to attract applicants, as confirmed by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools. It surveyed schools to discover that 85 percent experienced difficulty filling teacher positions in 2018.

The greatest need for teachers is consistently within the subject areas of special education and bilingual education, including classes where English is a second language. Foreign language, math, reading, and science teachers are also among the most in demand, with elementary education positions the easiest to fill.

Hope for an improved hiring scenario in the near future is hard to sustain.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) revealed in a report released last year that the number of people completing teacher preparation across the country dropped 23 percent between 2008 and 2016. From 2010 to 2016, the number of individuals who finished a teacher preparation program in Illinois dropped by 53 percent.

Illinois State University is seasoned in meeting the challenge of preparing educators, as that was the institution’s sole mission upon its founding in 1857 as a teachers’ school. In the decades since, the University’s College of Education has been a leader in the field nationally.

From 2013 to 2017, it ranked as the 4th largest producer of teachers in the country. It was 7th largest in the U.S. in number of special education majors in 2017, and 8th largest for elementary education majors nationally that same year. At least one alum works in 87 percent of the state’s public school districts.

The University has approximately 42,000 living education graduates, with teachers and administrators working in every state, as well as 62 countries. And yet, enrollment has dropped over the past five years in ISU’s teacher education programs from around 5,000 to 3,600 education majors. The percentage of decline is greater at other education programs across the state, with fewer prospective teachers attending the 1,689 colleges of education nationwide, according to the AACTE.

“Illinois State has held remarkably steady compared to most schools when there has been an industry-wide decline, with many programs down in enrollment between 30 percent and 50 percent. This shows the problem is pervasive, and that ISU is weathering the challenges because of its strength and reputation,” Wolfinger said. The University offers 28 undergraduate teacher options; nine graduate programs, including four at the doctoral level; and nine certificates.

All students preparing to teach at the secondary level— as well as all planning to teach grades K-12 in art, physical education or music—earn a degree in the college that offers the subject area they wish to teach. All others are enrolled in one of three areas within the College of Education. They are Special Education; the School of Teaching and Learning; and Educational Administration and Foundations, which focuses on graduate programs.

There is ample evidence that Redbird graduates are recognized as holding stellar credentials, and that the energy exerted to hire teachers is intense. For example, ISU consistently draws recruiters from 172 districts in Illinois and 15 other states during educator hiring fairs organized by the campus Career Center.

The College of Education’s ability to remain strong in the storm is a credit to the efforts of faculty, who are at the forefront of working to remove barriers to entering the field. For some students, included on the list of obstacles is the cost of a four-year degree. The average teacher salary is $52,000 annually, wih entry-level teachers earning less.

Enrollment has dropped over the past five years in ISU’s teacher education programs from around 5,000 to 3,600 education majors. The percentage of decline is greater at other education programs across the state, with fewer prospective teachers attending the 1,689 colleges of education nationwide.

Scholarships to reduce the debt load are consequently an important incentive. The college distributed more than $500,000 in scholarship funds during the 2018-2019 academic year, and is working to increase that amount of aid going forward. A total of $14.25 million has been received by the college as a result of the University’s ongoing campaign, Redbirds Rising, with a percentage earmarked for student support.

Christy Borders, assistant dean and director of the college’s Cecilia J. Lauby Teacher Education Center, knows that financial help is just one tool in the fight to offset the hurdles prospective education majors must overcome. With low pay, long hours, and work that is no longer as respected as in past generations, Borders realizes she and her colleagues “face an uphill battle” to entice students.

“They see that we have a black eye,” she said, with attacks from multiple directions making it hard to heal. She is determined to bolster enrollment and the profession as a whole by focusing on what can be changed versus nonmalleable factors such as the dropping high school population.

What remains and must be addressed are issues such as requirements for a degree in education, content standards, and the option of eliminating a standardized academic proficiency test requirement that deters students from the major. Many educators, including those in ISU’s college, are involved in efforts to see regulatory and policy changes made. They are, however, cautious with the worry that steps taken to increase teachers on the supply side could negatively impact the quality of preparation.

“We are working closely with legislators in Springfield to address the quantity and quality piece of the problem together,” Borders said, including options for students to gain more than one teaching endorsement as they complete the major.

“The state is paying attention,” she said, by “admitting, seeing, and understanding that we have a problem.”

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