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Can Tech Fill the Gaping Hole Left by Teacher Exodus?

America, we have a problem

by Charles Sosnik

It’s as if schools are sitting on the deck of the Titanic, playing music as the great ocean liner descends into the murky depths of the North Atlantic. As the band plays on, their music is filled with our day-to-day challenges. We are engulfed in issues like superintendent firings, metal detectors in schools and union negotiations. We talk about student mental health and opioid use in schools.

All these issues are important, and the discussions are fueled by our local news organizations who are the first to point out our flaws.

But the one thing that isn’t getting enough coverage in the media is akin to a massive iceberg on the horizon that threatens the very existence of our public schools: we are losing our teachers. The fact is teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers, we have a diminishing talent pool from which to recruit new teachers, and we have no answer to the teacher exodus.

By the Numbers

American humorist Mark Twain once said, “There are lies, damn lies and statistics.” But in this case, the numbers don’t lie. In the last eight years, we have seen a 37 percent decrease in the number of college students enrolled in teacher prep programs.

Add to that, the fact that many states are losing a quarter of their new teachers after the first year and our new teachers are Millennials with no expectation of long-term employment, and we have a teacher shortage problem.

It’s the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room.

Unless we believe technology is a magic bullet that can replace our disappearing teachers, we need to figure this out. If not, in a few years we may be yearning for the good old days of 40-student class sizes.

Here are a few additional facts to add to the mix:

• Almost half (46 percent) of teachers who graduated from a school of education and accepted employment in a US school district will leave the profession altogether within the first five years.

• Schools experiencing periods of high turnover are more likely to hire teachers who are not fully licensed.

• High-poverty schools are more likely to have vacancies and are more likely to fill positions with first-year or non-credentialed teachers

• In the past eight years, the number of students enrolled in traditional schools of education in the U.S. has dropped from 609,106 to 337,690

• In the past eight years, the number of students enrolled in non-traditional teacher preparation has risen from 38,595 to 66,173.

• By 2025, the number of new teachers needed is expected to be over 300,000 per year, while the expected supply of new teachers is expected to be just over 100,000.

• In some states, uncertified or unlicensed teachers are in classrooms.

• The number one reason teachers are leaving is because of a lack of administrative support.

• We have a growing number of non-traditional students (homeless, poverty, minority) who come from non-traditional families (merged, minority, single parent, two-working parents) and who learn in non-traditional ways (technology).

• The largest shortages are in Special Education, English as a Second Language (ESL), Science, Math and Technology (STEM)

 Can Technology Save Us?

Clearly, the number of vacancies in the coming years is expected to outstrip the number of available new teachers by an untenable amount. What shall we do?

Some experts cite the promise of technology to make up the difference. Others believe the roll of teachers will change, but the need for qualified professionals will remain constant. According to LeiLani Cauthen, CEO of the research and publishing firm The Learning Counsel, the roles of teachers may change significantly, but technology will not defer the importance nor the demand for teaching professionals.

“There will be more employment needed, not less,” said Cauthen, “but some of the roles will change.” The arguments about choice and teacher-to-administrator ratios are based on existing whole-group-by-age-batch and classes, specifically the classroom; they don’t acknowledge the fact that there is a different way to think about all of it now that technology and sophisticated algorithms are on the scene.  There’s more to this discussion, but the top-line rough estimates are that the 3.3 million-or-so K-12 teaching jobs will eventually change roughly as follows:

“Approximately 50 percent of teaching jobs will go into prep and analytics to provide totally personalized learning pathways. The role will get into the deep use of analytics showing what a student may be missing in the length of time it takes them to complete a task, what quizzes and tests reveal, cross-analysis of their interests and more in order to adjudicate next steps. This moves subject expertise into a “back office” function and can be done from anywhere, untethering this role from place. A portion of this work may be outside support services contracted with schools or districts. Education won’t lose jobs, but it will need to morph some jobs into new functions, disassembling roles and institutional structure, and to reassemble into new roles and a distributed structure. 

“Approximately 25 percent will be in traditional lecturing, direct instruction, and a modified all-subject homeroom type classroom, plus labs of all kinds, sports fields and office one-on-one subject-expertise meets.  This role monitors live on-site work in physical schools as scheduled by planners predicting which cohort of students is about to arrive at a needed lecture moment (like Uber schedules you with a driver). 

“Approximately 25% will be para-professionals possibly mixed with fully credentialed teachers doing the following:

• Online support/chat-window or conference, either employed by a school or by a courseware company contracted with the school or via a student-purchased subscription.  

• Staging for the direct instruction teachers such as gathering the science lab materials needed before instructor and students arrive, plus other small and large group project-based learning duties.  

• Data entry flanking the instructor so that information gets back to the planners to continue to level-up the personalization and next stages for each student. 

These three key roles are typically embodied in one classroom teacher right now, modified by school and district-level staff as overlays, but a disaggregation opens new vistas of personalization and leverage of different teacher skill sets.”

Even with the amazing opportunities technology can provide to our students, in our present system of learning it will not alleviate the need for teachers.

In fact, according to Cauthen and others, the demand for teaching professionals may increase as we ratchet up the use of education technology. The answer seems to be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, which might seem humorous if our children’s futures weren’t hanging in the balance.

 America, We Have a Problem

Franklin Schargel, bestselling author with thirteen books on education including the soon to be published Who Will Teach the Children? Recruiting, Retaining & Refreshing Highly Effective Educators, and more than a hundred academic articles to his credit, believes the problem can be lessened using the tools and human resource practices now employed in the private sector.

“The first thing we need to do,” said Schargel, “is to find out why teachers are leaving their jobs and the profession. That starts with an exit interview. Education may be the only industry that doesn’t require an exit interview as employment terminates. In my home district, Albuquerque Public Schools, teachers are allowed to leave their jobs without a word of explanation. No exit interview is conducted and therefore no data is collected to determine why a teacher is leaving. This leaves little opportunity to gain feedback from employees in order to improve aspects of the organization, better retain employees, and reduce turnover.”

When asked why districts across the U.S. are not conducting exit interviews, the number one reason given is the expense of creating and conducting the interviews.

However, according to the Learning Policy Institute, “High teacher turnover—or churn—undermines student achievement and consumes valuable staff time and resources. It also contributes to teacher shortages throughout the country, as roughly 6 of 10 new teachers hired each year are replacing colleagues who left the classroom before retirement. Research shows that urban districts can, on average, spend more than $20,000 on each new hire, including school and district expenses related to separation, recruitment, hiring, and training. These investments don’t pay their full dividend when teachers leave within 1 or 2 years after being hired.”

Digging Out

According to Schargel, ”The looming teacher shortage is a problem of our own making. Why would anyone want to become a teacher? They are faced with low pay, poor working conditions, low social status, having to pay for their own office supplies, and being held singularly responsible for the failure of young people and the failure of keeping America globally competitive.

“According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Predicting the Need for Newly Hired Teachers in the United States, depending on the assumptions made, projections for the number of newly hired public school teachers needed ranges from 1.7 million to 2.7 million to replace those retiring. Since 46 percent of all educators leave the field within five years, that means we need to hire between 2,482,000 and 3,942,000 qualified teaching professionals. We need to conduct ‘stay-in’ interviews to find out why teachers remain in their schools and classrooms.

“It used to be possible to get additional bodies from those females graduating from college,” said Schargel. In the past, the main occupations for women were either secretaries, nurses or teachers. Even today, 77 percent of all public-school teachers are female and 56 percent of them are over the age of 40. As work opportunities continue to open to female professionals, the available labor pool of teachers will continue to decline. That makes the current exodus of teachers even more alarming.” The challenge before us is daunting, but not insurmountable. A good friend of mine from Texas once told me, “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you should do is quit digging.” I think we can safely say we have found ourselves in a hole.

With a concerted effort, we can still create the kind of workplaces that will attract and retain our brightest and our best. Schools of education need to actively recruit teacher candidates. Our middle schools and high schools need to tout the merits of the teaching profession. If teachers leave our districts, let’s make it a point to find out why. When our teachers stay, let’s understand that as well. We have bright people in education at all levels. It stands to reason we can get our hands around the problem

And then let’s quit digging this hole and fix it.

This article was originally published on The Learning Counsel 

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