Offering Hope for Teacher Shortage

This article was originally published by Altoona Mirror and is reprinted with permission.

Pennsylvania’s children — many of whom face academic and social-emotional challenges — deserve high-quality, well-prepared teachers, but due to teacher shortages many school districts are struggling to hire and retain well-qualified candidates.

The teacher shortage is real and alarming, but there is hope.

The shortage has been building for many years.

Since 2010, new in-state teacher certifications have decreased by nearly 70% to record low levels. In response, the state has issued more emergency teaching permits than new certificates.

According to 2021-22 data, 6,366 people with bachelor’s degrees received an emergency permit with only 4,220 new graduates earning teaching certificates.

The shortages of teachers exist throughout the profession, but are most acute in math, science, and special education — all subjects where students need great state-certified teachers to help them master topics and prepare for the future.

There are real consequences for students when their schools cannot fill vacant teacher positions or hire quality candidates.

Some school districts have been forced to increase class sizes, have non-instructional school employees cover classrooms, and even shut down face-to-face instruction and switch to remote learning modes, which leaves students in less-than-ideal learning environments when not implemented properly.

Because of this shortage of qualified teachers, some classrooms are being led by staff who — while dedicated to caring for our students — lack appropriate knowledge and skills to deliver instruction.

Shortages of qualified teachers disrupts the learning environment; further marginalizes students of color, students with disabilities and students from low-income families; and limits the development of positive relationships between students, families and teachers.

School leaders contact me almost daily, searching for help to fill vacant positions in classrooms. Universities like ours and local schools are engaging in innovative efforts to address the problem, though they’re not enough.

For example, we partner with some local school districts to have graduate students in our Literacy/Reading Specialist program work up to 20 hours a week as graduate assistants, while continuing to take graduate classes.

The IUP students are already state certified and can help K-12 students by serving as literacy instructors, assisting teachers in the classroom and serving as substitute teachers.

This collaboration benefits everyone. K-12 students learn from high-quality teachers, local schools temporarily fill open positions with certified educators and IUP students get more experience and a paycheck.

Unfortunately, those efforts are not enough. Pennsylvania will need an estimated 10,000 more teachers by 2030.

Meeting that demand and easing the current teacher shortage will take investment from Harrisburg. The harsh reality is the teacher shortage will continue unless more people can afford the college education necessary to gain the skills and knowledge to become certified teachers.

There are not enough people with incomes high enough to fill all the jobs.

We must reduce the cost to students so more people from low- and middle-income families can become teachers, and that requires creative solutions.

Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), which includes IUP, is asking the General Assembly for $112 million so our universities can provide more financial aid to education students and a handful of other majors with worker shortages.

The investment would save each education student an average of $1,500 a year and students with high needs around $6,500 a year.

That additional direct-to-student financial aid would be life changing for many PASSHE students. Despite attending a state-owned public university, many students must work one or two jobs while taking a full course load, and they still struggle to make ends meet.

PASSHE’s proposal tackles the affordability problem by boosting university-funded financial aid to lower the price that teacher candidates pay.

With the reduced cost, more students will be able to afford to start college, stay through graduation and enter the workforce. Plus, the state’s return on investment is greater because our universities already produce graduates at a lower cost per student.

Pennsylvania has a shortage of teachers, but not a shortage of great people who would make outstanding teachers.

Addressing the shortage requires our state to ensure more students from low- and middle-income families can afford college teacher preparation programs.

The State System’s plan strategically targets financial aid that opens the door of opportunity to more people to become the high-quality teachers that children need and deserve.

The plan is good for our students, our schools and our communities in every corner of the state. It’s the hope and solution that Pennsylvania needs, but it requires state investment to achieve.

Sue Rieg is interim dean of the College of Education and Communications at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.