When students returned to class this year, a growing number of them were greeted by adults with no teacher training and, in some cases, no more than a high school diploma.
The pandemic has created staffing crises in many schools. In other places, like Oklahoma and Arizona, they existed long before 2020, in part because of low teacher pay, school spending cuts, and declining interest in the teaching profession.
The moves to address these issues today come as right-wing politicians portray schools and universities as bastions of liberal ideology. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right), who previously called a college degree “a magic piece of paper that probably would have cost too much anyway,” recently introduced a program to place community college students and veterans in classrooms with teacher mentors.
“Teachers who become great teachers don’t become great teachers because they’re sitting in a college lecture hall listening to a bloviate professor,” DeSantis said when he announced an initiative allowing community college graduates to teach under the guidance of a mentor teacher for two years. “What makes a teacher great is being there, doing it, observing experienced teachers and seeing what they do that works, working directly with students.”
Many states have relaxed employment requirements over the years to attract more people to the teaching profession. In 2019, only 15 states required applicants to pass a basic skills test — which measures whether they are proficient in math, reading and writing — according to a National Council on Teacher Quality report. Many states allow people to work on short-term licenses while they are still in teacher preparation programs. During the pandemic, more states have relaxed requirements, some just temporarily.
Trust in teachers plunges amid culture war in education
Critics of the measures worry about the consequences of putting untrained adults in front of students at a time when school closures have dramatically reduced educational outcomes. Research from the Economic Policy Institute shows that very poor schools have less experienced and less qualified teachers than the richest and that the shortage of teachers is more acute in very poor schools.
“So we are placing our least prepared, least qualified and least experienced teachers in schools where students need them most,” said Heather Peske, chair of the National Council on Teacher Quality. She said states had eroded preconditions for years, many have removed exam requirements that test whether aspiring educators actually know the material they want to teach. “When we do this, we ignore in the research how you should teach children specific skills like early reading or numeracy or the knowledge base that exists to serve students successfully..”
School officials say certified emergency teachers need far more support than other first-grade educators and are often surprised at how difficult and slow the job is. They underestimate how technology has changed school and how unintuitive skills like managing Google Classroom are now needed.
“There’s this old adage that everyone thinks they know everything about schools because they went to school,” said Chris LeGrande, principal at Guthrie High outside of Oklahoma City. He led certified emergency teachers who didn’t know how to schedule lessons that filled up class time and left students alone if their classes ended early. “I see a lot of kids on the phone,” he said, “which I consider to be a waste of teaching time, which ultimately isn’t beneficial to our students.”
Florida – where shortages in some places are acute and teachers work under a series of recently passed laws that restrict how they talk about racial and sex education – has increased teachers’ salaries. He also introduced an initiative that will allow military veterans to teach alongside an accredited teacher for two years and then conduct classes on their own, provided they have served four years of active duty, earned 60 college credits and enrolled in a five-year teacher license program. . As of Friday, 341 people had applied to participate in the program.
The Arizona State School Board voted earlier this year to allow substitute teachers, who only need a high school diploma, to serve as full-time teachers for an entire school year. in response to the shortage of state personnel. It also allows bachelor’s degree holders to teach under a mentor for two years thanks to legislation passed this year.
“Schools struggle to find substitute teachers, which disrupts student learning and puts pressure on teachers and administrators,” council members wrote.
Paul Tighe recently left his post as superintendent of the Saddle Mountain Unified School District on the outskirts of Phoenix. During his tenure, he said, it became so difficult to find qualified teachers that an elementary school ended up hiring two parents who were working on their education degrees to teach elementary classes on their own. The term “substitute teacher” has become a misnomer in many Arizona schools, as many finish teaching full-time to fill vacancies, instead of being a substitute for an absent teacher.
“We basically gave them on-the-job instruction,” Tighe said.
Oklahoma has implemented a “assistant teacher” program that allows school boards to hire anyone who passes a background check as a teacher, provided that state education officials also approve. According to John Waldron, a state legislator who represents Tulsa, there have been 248 applications for auxiliary teachers this year.
Oklahoma State Rep. Jessica Garvin (R) said she thinks teacher preparation is important, but she also thinks the state’s requirements are too rigid – and prevent people in other careers with the potential to be excellent teachers. So she introduced a bill to expand the program, which previously only allowed them to work part-time.
She was partly inspired, she said, by her doctor, who told her he was working on getting his teaching credentials so he could teach anatomy at a local high school. She was shocked that he needed ID.
“I was like ‘You could amputate my leg, but you can’t go teach anatomy?’ said Garvin. “I just felt like it was so restrictive.”
The program has no minimum requirements. Garvin said she was confident school boards would be careful about who they hire.
Waldron, a former history teacher who is now a state representative, fears desperate school districts are hiring people unfit to be in classrooms. Waldron ran for office in 2018 after budget cuts and low teacher pay prompted a statewide teachers’ strike that ultimately led state lawmakers to increase education funding and increase teachers’ salaries. It did little to stem the shortage, Waldron said.
“We’ve hit rock bottom, broken through, and found a whole new bottom,” Waldron said of the new adjunct teacher law.
Oklahoma, which has long faced a severe teacher shortage, just over a decade ago passed a law allowing districts that had exhausted all means to find qualified educators to obtain a ” emergency certification” for anyone with a university degree, even if they had no training.
America faces a catastrophic teacher shortage
It was meant to be a stopgap measure in extraordinary circumstances — in the program’s first year, the state issued 32 licenses — but the emergency never seems to have ended. Last school year, the State Board of Education issued more than 3,600 emergency teaching licenses, according to KOSU, an NPR affiliate in the state. It is on track this year to break that record, increasing the proportion of untrained educators among the state’s 45,000 teachers.
In a roundtable with reporters last week, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said that to attract people to the teaching profession — and to keep them there — working conditions must improve. . He listed a litany the challenges faced by teachers: they feel attacked, micromanaged and disrespected; they are not given the resources to help their students succeed; and they sometimes have to take a second job just to make ends meet.
“Better working conditions also mean we are revisiting the normalization that teachers could work in 95-degree classrooms all day with a class of 27 students,” Cardona said. “If we really want to improve the profession, if we really want to reduce education, we have to invest in our educators.”
In a letter to headteachers in December, Cardona explained how schools are recruiting and retaining teachers, including using coronavirus relief funds to increase teacher pay, focusing on staff well-being and attracting more people to the profession by covering the cost of their teacher preparation courses in exchange for a commitment to teach in the district. He also urged states to introduce teaching apprenticeships — programs that pay for an aspiring teacher’s training and allow them to work and get paid while they graduate.
But nowhere in the seven-page letter did he suggest removing the job requirements.
“When the national report card shows our students have dropped drastically – providing educators who are not qualified or trained in the pedagogy of teaching is a slap in the face to the profession,” Cardona said.