Commentary

Collaboration, instead of lower standards, is a better fix for teacher shortages

October 20, 2022 12:01 am

Albert V. Norrell School in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has adopted a new tack in trying to stem thousands of teacher vacancies across Virginia. He wants to hire more educators for the state’s 1.25 million students in K-12 public schools, and the guv has bet that lowering the bar for licensure will ease the shortfall. 

He should reassess that wager. 

Youngkin signed an executive directive last month allowing the superintendent of public instruction to issue licenses to teachers credentialed in other states. Grants for recruitment and retention bonuses will target divisions with high and persistent teacher vacancy rates. 

The administration also just launched a social media and advertising campaign to urge people to “Become a Teacher.” 

A pre-pandemic Oct. 1, 2019, “snapshot” of school staffing found 1,063 teacher vacancies in Virginia, a state Department of Education spokesman told me by email. That compares to an Oct. 1, 2021, total of 2,563 – the most recent data available. States around the country face similar teacher shortages. 

The guv, though, should’ve consulted more with critics of the proposals he announced last month. He’s not attacking the problem at its roots. Plus, he risks weakening standards just to get more bodies in front of the classroom. 

One of his earlier initiatives, a teacher snitch line – the euphemism is “tip line” – had a chilling effect too. More on that later. 

Detractors say, with justification, that his proposals don’t solve the underlying reasons why recruiting and retaining educators are such hard sells here. Low pay, a chronic issue in Virginia, is likely the biggest reason. 

Virtually every teacher survey notes pay is the No. 1 factor in leaving the profession, James J. Fedderman, president of the 40,000-member Virginia Education Association, told me this week. The state also ranks near the bottom in most surveys tracking teacher pay, he noted. 

The Virginia Mercury previously cited a 2019 analysis by the Economic Policy Institute that ranked Virginia last in the country in terms of the “teacher wage penalty,” referring to the gap in weekly salaries between teachers and other college-educated professionals. Business.org this year ranked Virginia 49th (behind Arizona and Washington, D.C.) when comparing the average salary of teachers to the average salary for all jobs in the state. 

Charles Pyle, the state DOE spokesman, noted Youngkin signed a budget with a 5% pay supplement effective Aug. 1, and another 5% supplement effective July 1, 2023. The budget also includes a $1,000 bonus for each teaching and support position. 

It’s a start, but there’s a lot of catching up to do for teachers here. It’s noteworthy that federal pandemic money will pay for the increases. Would the state have done this on its own? 

Spending priorities are particularly galling when you consider Virginia’s wealth compared to other states. For example, Virginia is a top 10 state in household income, but it ranks 41st in state per-pupil funding. 

Another issue is preparation. Some career-switchers who get into education lack the experience of being in front of the classroom. 

That might mean they’re more likely to quit after a few years. A recent Gallup poll found that K-12 workers have the highest levels of burnout of all industries in the country. 

Kim McKnight runs the Center for Teacher Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, and she’s directing an expansion of VCU’s teacher residency program, called RTR. Students are paid for a year to partner with experienced educators in hard-to-staff schools. So they get hands-on training and funding. 

“You’re learning alongside an expert,” McKnight told me Wednesday. “It’s not just getting them here, but keeping them here.” 

Fedderman noted teachers face a lack of respect from public officials. “Teachers don’t have autonomy to teach the truth in the classroom,” he said. 

That sounds like a swipe at Youngkin’s denunciation of critical race theory, which he used to help win the 2021 gubernatorial election. His first executive order banned CRT, even though K-12 schools don’t teach it in Virginia. 

Back to the snitch line. Youngkin, a Republican, early this year announced the start of an email address to report parental rights violations and “inherently divisive practices in schools.” Educators, state Democrats and celebrities criticized the tactic. News media outlets sued over the administration’s refusal to release records about it. 

The move evoked decades-old tactics in communist countries, where neighbors spied on neighbors in places like East Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin. It’s deplorable. 

Fedderman told me he’s unaware of any teacher firings or resignations because of the tip line. Instead, he noted, “People have seen that for what it is: a divisive tactic to pit parents against teachers. 

“We should be a collaborative, cohesive unit” so children become the best they can be, the union chief added. 

Indeed. Youngkin’s directive on teacher hiring might help bolster numbers, but he’ll need to do much more to keep teachers in the classroom. 

Ending the snitch line should be part of the package, Comrade. 

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

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