The Education Ecosystem Crisis
AACTE President and CEO Lynn M. Gangone and Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, authored this article that originally appeared in the District Administration and is reprinted with permission.
Our nation’s education ecosystem is complex and multifaceted. When one component of the ecosystem is impacted, it creates a ripple effect that is felt throughout the entire system. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic created a tidal wave of uncertainties, resulting in budget cuts, teacher shortages, and remote learning challenges.
An ongoing concern for school districts, teacher shortages have now become more severe. Teachers are leaving the profession at an accelerated rate, due primarily to health concerns and budget furloughs, and forcing superintendents to close schools not because of infection, but due to a lack of personnel to keep them open. The shortage also expands beyond teachers. It includes bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and essential support staff. Such reductions, caused by budget cuts resulting from the pandemic, are having a crippling effect upon school districts, and increased operational costs are eroding critical funds necessary to hire the staff desperately needed for in-school instruction.
Compounding the teacher shortage crisis are educator preparation programs (EPPs) with shrinking budgets, programs, and enrollment. Keeping EPPs intact is imperative to ensure a pool of well-prepared teachers. Schools and colleges of education remain the leading source of prepared teachers for school districts in their communities. If these university-based programs close, school districts will be further disadvantaged in recruiting new teachers, as most candidates desire to teach within their own communities. Additionally, the shortage is further compounded by state licensure requirements, which can vary significantly by state and increase the difficulty in transferring teaching licensures.
Last October’s announcement by The University of South Florida (USF) to eliminate its College of Education undergraduate program is a case study on the vital impact an EPP has on local school districts. According to data from the Florida Department of Education, 45% of Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) teachers are USF graduates. Without this pipeline, Hillsborough County schools would be challenged to find qualified educators to fill their classrooms. Combined with Florida’s growing budget limitations and escalating teacher shortage, USF’s announcement generated a community outcry to retain the program, successfully persuading USF to reevaluate and preserve some of its undergraduate education programs. While USF overturned its decision, it is clear from this case that schools and colleges of education are vulnerable to significant cuts, particularly in educator preparation.
As enrollment in teaching programs continues to decline, recruiting students, particularly students of color, will continue to be challenging. School districts and institutions of higher education must work in conjunction to recruit students into a career in education beginning in high school. Building relationships between high schools and EPPs to offer dual credit programs and provide scholarship opportunities for students will create a pipeline for them to enter schools and colleges of education. Such successful pipeline building can increase the number of candidates receiving their teaching degree, while also growing communities by allowing teachers to reenter the school districts from which they graduated as students.
The struggles faced during the pandemic have reignited a nationwide discussion regarding the importance of school districts and EPPs to collaboratively find solutions that ensure all students receive a high-quality and equitable education. School districts and EPPs must address the technology challenges that the pandemic has exacerbated. Teachers are trained for in-person instruction, not to teach online. The ongoing health crisis continues to expand the need for effective, online instruction. Teachers have been thrust into an unprecedented teaching environment, for which the majority are understandably unprepared, and forced to adapt to the best of their innate ability. And as in-class instruction begins to resume across the country, the need for quality online instruction will not be eliminated. To prepare future teachers for virtual, in-class, and hybrid teaching environments, EPPs must integrate technology instruction across the education curriculum, and school districts must provide opportunities for teachers to continually enhance their remote teaching skills. This will require a change not only in curricula and pedagogy, but also in how each state supports the inclusion of online instruction into its stringent degree and certification requirements. To fulfill these critical needs, EPPs and school districts must work collaboratively to enhance pedagogy through clinical practice, mentoring programs, and robust professional development.
We must provide models for colleges and universities to be effective community partners with their local school districts. A quality PK-12 education is the foundation of all other professions. Our future successes as a society begin with quality PK-12 education and the capacity for our school districts and EPPs, with state support, to partner with one another to facilitate an exemplary educational experience for our children.