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Teacher shortage hitting Illinois school districts hard

State Journal Register

Monday, November 13, 2017  |  Article  |  Jason Nevel

Education--Educators/Administrators

When it came time to hire a physical education teacher before the start of this school year, the A-C Central School District only received a few applications.

 

Out of all subjects, P.E. used to be the easiest to fill, Superintendent Tim Page said, because it was often a gateway for former high school and college athletes to get into coaching.

 

But the applicants this time simply weren’t there. And the ones who did apply turned the district down, Page said.

 

Stuck between an open gym and a hard place, the district convinced a retiree to teach P.E. a few days a week and have other staff fill in the gaps, Page said.

 

A-C Central’s experience illustrates the new reality for school districts across the state. They’re facing a shortage of teachers and qualified applicants, forcing some districts to even cancel classes or programs because they can’t find anyone to teach them.

 

It hasn’t just been P.E. for Page’s district. It didn’t get any applicants when it posted a job for a Spanish teacher. The same was true when two elementary teachers quit shortly before the start of the school year. An opening for a middle and high school art teacher also drew little interest.

 

In some ways, Page said, his district was fortunate because it had retired teachers and permanent substitutes to fill the vacancies. But if left unaddressed, the shortage of applicants will only get worse, he said.

 

“The licensed teachers are just not out there or in the pipeline,” Page said. “It’s not just a small school issue. It’s across the board and across all subjects.”

 

More than 2,000 unfilled positions

 

According to a 2015-16 school year survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of School, 75 percent of districts surveyed had fewer qualified candidates than in previous years, especially in rural districts and those in central and northwest Illinois.

 

Furthermore, 16 percent of schools canceled programs or classes because of the lack of teachers -- mostly special education, language arts, math and science classes.

 

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, there are currently 2,013 unfilled positions in the state. The total includes teachers, administrative staff and school support staff.

 

Of that total, 21 positions are vacant in Sangamon County.

 

In Springfield, Superintendent Jennifer Gill said this is the first year where there aren’t many candidates left over from the pool at the beginning of the year to fill positions during the second semester.

 

Gill said there are fewer applicants because not as many people want to go into teaching, or they attend a university in a different state and find it hard to transfer back to Illinois.

 

“It’s a good time to go into teaching because there are going to be a lot of openings,” she said.

 

In Auburn, Superintendent Darren Root said the district had openings in Spanish, P.E. and special education to start the year.

 

Root said a “perfect storm” of factors, including negative perception about education, unfunded mandates and the budget impasse have hurt the profession.

 

“There has been a ripple effect and it discourages people who may want to go into education,” he said. “Teacher shortage is just one piece that is destroying public education in Illinois. It’s an extremely important piece that few outside of education seem to recognize or fully understand.”

 

Too much red tape?

 

While the teacher shortage is not unique to Illinois -- one recent study says there could be a nationwide shortfall of 112,000 teachers by 2018 -- the Land of Lincoln hasn’t done itself any favors.

Lawmakers on the Senate’s Education Committee heard testimony last week at a hearing in Decatur from teachers and superintendents who said teachers often skip over Illinois for a variety of factors, including the difficulty to get a license and low starting salary.

 

In Decatur, Superintendent Paul Fregeau told the committee the district has 39 unfilled positions.

 

The district hired a full-time recruiter this year, but has found many teachers from other states are deterred by Illinois’ teacher certification process.

 

“Once people find out the steps it takes to get certified here, they choose not to apply because there is a less-resistant path to get certified in other states,” Fregeau said.

 

A lack of applicants in Illinois is also troubling. At his last job in Missouri, Fregeau said, he often received 150 applications, while jobs in the Decatur district often receive two or three applications.

 

“We were still having vacancies for P.E. teachers,” he said. “I’ve never seen this.”

 

Even though the state passed a budget, Fregeau added, the fear of the state not funding K-12 education looms over many potential educators, prompting them to look for work in other states or other fields.

 

Others testified they feel part of the problem is the path for Illinoisans to become a teacher is too onerous.

 

Suzanne Kreps, president of the Decatur Education Association, testified she nearly discouraged her own son from going into teaching for that reason.

 

A teaching credential in Illinois usually involves three main requirements: earning a bachelor’s degree, completing a teacher preparation program and passing several key exams.

 

But students typically must score a 22 or higher on the ACT or 1,030 on the SAT to get into a teaching program at an Illinois university. Potential teachers also have the option of passing an exam in lieu of ACT or SAT scores.

 

In addition, Illinois passed rules in 2012 that made its basic skills test to become a teacher significantly more difficult in an effort to ensure quality teachers in the classroom.

 

Page said the rigorous testing requirements went too far.

 

“The intent was good to raise standards, but they really cut their nose off to spite their face,” he said.

 

Any changes coming?

 

State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, a member of the education committee, said Monday’s hearing was the first step of many to help determine if changes can be made to make it easier for teachers to be hired in Illinois.

 

After hearing from educators, he said, it’s clear more can be done to make the licensure process more seamless.

 

“We’re preventing good people from being classroom teachers,” Manar said.

 

The Senate Education Committee also heard from Jason Helfer, Deputy Superintendent for Teaching and Learning of the Illinois State Board of Education.

 

Helfer said ISBE is considering a number of options as part of a one-year study to address the teacher shortage. A bill with changes could be put forward during the next legislative session, he said.

 

Options being considered include bringing down the cut scores on the basic skills test and reinstating a one-year licensure program at universities rather than two.

 

Helfer, in a comment that surprised some lawmakers on the panel, said there is no evidence to support the ability to pass a basic skills test translates into being a quality teacher.

 

In addition, the state also is considering ways to make it easier for out-of-state teachers to work in Illinois and possibly for people to switch paths mid-career and enter teaching, he said.

 

However, advocates for tough licensing standards say eliminating coursework and testing requirements may not ensure educators have the credentials necessary to be a good classroom teacher.

 

“What’s interesting is that when there is a shortage in, say, nursing, no one thinks of taking away a requirement,” Phillip Rogers, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, told the Chicago Tribune earlier this year.

But Helfer said he believes the changes being considered are a good balance.

 

“It doesn’t remove rigor. It’s just another way of getting highly effective educators into the classroom,” Helfer said. “There needs to be more ways of entry.”