Better training could reduce teacher shortage

Economic Policy Institute finds teachers need to learn from other teachers

A teacher instructs college students. (Shutterstock)

A teacher instructs college students. (Shutterstock)

By Ted Cox

A new national study finds the teacher shortage is “real, large, and growing, and worse than we thought,” and that a possible way to address it is through better on-the-job training, especially for young teachers.

The new Economic Policy Institute study released last week has a title that’s a mouthful: “The role of early career supports, continuous professional development, and learning communities in the teacher shortage.” It’s the fifth article in a continuing EPI series on the nationwide teacher shortage under the title “The Perfect Storm in the Teacher Labor Market.”

But its findings are clear: there’s a good foundation in teacher training, but teachers generally aren’t getting the sort of training they need and appreciate, especially from other teachers; they tend to lack influence in forming their curriculum; and those problems are pronounced at schools serving low-income students.

The good news, according to the report, is there’s a relatively solid foundation to build on in offering training to teachers. It finds that “large shares of first-year teachers work with a mentor (79.9 percent) or participate in teacher-induction programs (72.7 percent). And large shares of teachers generally are accessing certain types of professional development, including workshops or training sessions (91.9 percent), activities focused on the subjects that teachers teach (85.1 percent), (and) regularly scheduled collaboration with other teachers on issues of instruction (80.8 percent).” It also finds that two-thirds of teachers have an opportunity to observe or be observed by other teachers in the classroom, a practice teachers both want and benefit from.

But the study also finds teachers are jaded about these more routine forms of training, and that only about a quarter get the sort of training they want and appreciate. It finds that only 26.6 percent of teachers attend college courses on teaching, and just 23.1 percent present workshops. Only 21.6 percent make observational visits to other schools.

“The demands in teaching are constantly changing, and teachers need to adapt their knowledge and practice,” said Emma Garcia, an EPI economist and co-author of the new study. “We must improve the types and usefulness of the professional supports offered to teachers, to allow them to keep up with advances in research on effective teaching and face the challenges of the job, and give teachers more of a say in the decisions affecting their jobs and careers.”

Among first-year teachers, a minority, 37.1 percent, have time set aside from the classroom for additional training, only 26.9 percent have a teacher’s aide, and just 10.7 percent have a reduced teaching schedule in this most demanding year of entry into the job. Among all teachers, more than half, 50.9 percent, get time away from teaching for professional development, but just over a quarter are reimbursed for conferences or workshops, or get stipends for professional development away from the classroom, and just 9.4 percent get full or even just partial reimbursement for college tuition when taking extra courses.

Teachers tend to be jaded about the training they do receive, the study finds, stating: “Less than a third of teachers found any of the activities they accessed ‘very useful,’ and over a third of novice teachers felt that working with a mentor was only a little or not at all helpful.” Almost three-quarters of all teachers “report that they have less than a great deal of influence over what they teach in the classroom or what instructional materials they use,” with just 11.1 percent reporting they have “a great deal of influence in determining the content of professional development programs.”

The study found, of course, that these problems are acute in high-poverty schools.

“It is essential that we improve these supports across the board, so that teachers in high-poverty schools are not overlooked,” said Elaine Weiss, co-author of the study. “As we discuss throughout this series, policymakers need to think holistically about how to address the teacher shortage, and strengthening professional development, career supports, and respect for teachers’ judgment and their contributions is a crucial part of it.”

Studying teachers who thrived, the report finds that “larger shares of teachers who stayed in their schools (relative to those who quit teaching) had received early support in the form of an assigned mentor or induction programs, found their subject-specific professional development activities very useful, worked in highly cooperative environments, and felt they had more influence over the contents taught in their classrooms.”

The EPI has estimated the nationwide shortage at more than 100,000 teachers. Statewide, a recent report by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools found that “85 percent of schools surveyed are experiencing difficulty filling teacher positions — up from 78 percent in 2017,” adding, “The shortage is worse in central and southern Illinois.”

State Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill passed a series of bills this spring intended to address the teacher shortage, including an increase in the state teacher minimum annual salary to $40,000.

The new report’s suggestions were nothing new to the Illinois Education Association, which released a poll in April that found that more than two-thirds of Illinois residents called education “one of the most important issues” for the state, with an additional 15 percent of those polled saying it was “the single most important issue facing Illinois” — meaning 83 percent of Illinoisans display a strong commitment to public education. Some 71 percent believe funding for public schools should be increased, and an overwhelming majority of 62 percent think the $13,000 a year spent on average per pupil across the state should be increased.

“There’s a teacher shortage in our state,” said IEA President Kathi Griffin on the poll’s release. “We are in the midst of a teacher shortage, and this poll tells us why.”

Teacher engagement is key, she added. “The public views teachers as the experts to solve the problems,” Griffin said. “Everything in the classroom is governed by those who are not in the classroom.”

Griffin said at the time that improving the conditions for teachers was critical to improving education — and to addressing the teacher shortage.