As the new academic year commences, millions of students are stepping back into the world of education marked by a significant teacher shortage. The deficit of educators forces schools to pack classrooms, shift courses to online platforms, and even resort to teachers who many argue are underprepared for the job.
The decreasing teacher certification standards across states is a troubling trend for educational experts. They fear that such tactics may further impede the already impaired academic recovery of students due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the school cafeteria of Lancaster, Texas, the harsh reality of a dwindling number of teachers comes to light. Nearly 50 ninth-grade biology students huddle together in one room for a lecture by Briana Jack. Jack is the sole certified science teacher they have. A second, uncertified science educator supplements her efforts by managing small instructional groups and addressing student queries. Despite being in her second year at Lancaster Independent School District, she herself is amid a certification process and learning the ropes of teaching.
For all involved, the situation is taxing. Large class sizes make it difficult to minimize distractions and ensure effective learning for students. Regardless, teachers must adapt and make the most of available resources. This is the narrative across several school districts in the US that are struggling to recruit qualified teachers and fill vacancies.
As per Lancaster Superintendent Katrise Perera, the quantity and quality of applicants have declined, making the task of finding suitable candidates increasingly arduous. To provide a solution, creative measures are sought. The district has collaborated with Elevate K-12, an online learning company. The company offers live virtual classes conducted by certified teachers, which are projected on a large screen. In-person assistants are available to help students.
The demand for such programs has surged since the pandemic outbreak, with districts investing heavily in virtual teachers. However, a significant concern remains – the absence of a well-qualified teacher who understands the content and can cater to diverse learning styles within the classroom.
Pandemic-induced challenges have transformed what was once a luxury into a compromise. This realization dramatically affects the quality of education. Lancaster witnesses temporary, online teachers from out-of-state addressing classrooms, filling in the gaps created by teacher deficits.
An evaluation of data from 37 states and DC reveals that most states are grappling with teacher shortages to different degrees. The pandemic has also been instrumental in increasing teacher turnover, with more numbers quitting the profession than ever before. This surge can be attributed to several factors, including low wages, escalating workload, deteriorating student behavior, and growing politicization of school curricula and teaching.
With decreasing numbers of graduates opting to become educators, districts often have to resort to hiring what are thought of as underqualified teachers or long-term substitutes. The Learning Policy Institute (LPI) reveals that around one in ten teacher positions remains vacant or is filled by someone uncertified in the respective teaching subject.
On the flip side, more states are now fast-tracking the teacher certification process, with at least 23 states lowering the certification standards for new teachers.
In this uneasy scenario, some districts are experimenting with alternative solutions, such as converting support staff into qualified educators. Reach University, a non-profit, extends free or low-cost certification training to school employees—ranging from paraeducators to custodians and bus drivers. The condition being they must commit to teaching in the district once certified.
Despite the challenges, there is a glimmer of optimism. A paraprofessional and bus driver in Arkansas, Katie Lee, is undergoing the Reach program with the aspiration of being a certified teacher in a year and a half. She recognizes the dire need for teachers who can positively influence the lives of students, and she is eager to fulfil this role.