Report: State test, ‘unclear’ requirements, and costs may be barriers in teacher pipeline
JLARC cautions ‘root causes’ of teacher shortages must be addressed
Secretary of Public Education Aimee Guidera speaking on Sept. 12 in Richmond. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)
As Virginia school divisions continue to face teacher shortages, a state oversight agency found a state-required licensure test, potentially “unclear” licensure requirements and teacher preparation costs may be significant barriers for applicants.
According to a Sept. 12 report from Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which conducts analysis and provides oversight of state agencies on behalf of the General Assembly, those factors are likely contributing to problems with getting sufficient teachers into the job pipeline.
JLARC’s study follows reports from numerous Virginia school divisions that they are struggling to recruit qualified teachers. At the start of the current school year, Danville recorded the highest teacher vacancy rate in the state, at 40.4%, followed by Charles City County at 21.5%, the report states.
According to data from the Virginia Department of Education, the state’s teacher vacancy rate overall grew by 0.8% to 3.9% from 2021-22 to 2022-23. The teacher vacancy rate was 4.8% at the start of the current school year.
In response, the commonwealth has begun relying more on provisionally licensed educators. Over the past decade, the percentage of Virginia’s teaching pool that was fully licensed dropped from 94% to 84%, while provisionally licensed teachers grew from 4% to 8%, according to JLARC. The state has also partnered with a for-profit online teacher credentialing company in an effort to fast-track teachers into the classroom.
However, while JLARC offered several recommendations to improve Virginia’s teacher preparation and licensure processes, it cautioned that “Virginia’s teacher shortage will not materially improve until the root causes of the shortage are addressed.”
The commission pointed to a survey conducted in July 2023 that found most teachers in Virginia have left the profession for personal reasons or because they were unhappy with the job due to inadequate support, high workload, ineffective school leadership or low salaries.
“Therefore, the potential benefits of the recommendations and policy options in this report related to the teacher pipeline must be considered in the context of these broader factors that more heavily influence teacher recruitment and retention,” JLARC concluded.
State licensure assessment and requirements
To help with pipeline problems, JLARC recommended the Board of Education either replace a Virginia-specific teacher licensure assessment known as the Virginia Communication and Literacy Assessment with a nationally recognized test or stop requiring it for licensure altogether.
The test, JLARC wrote, is outdated and “may present an unnecessary barrier” to prospective teachers.
“According to staff at 11 of the 14 Virginia public teacher preparation programs, failure to pass required assessments such as the VCLA is a top reason individuals are unable to enroll in and/or complete preparation programs,” the report stated.
In 2019, the General Assembly allowed school division superintendents to recommend individuals be granted full licensure without passing required assessments. JLARC said expanding that law to allow colleges to recommend qualified individuals who still need to pass the assessment, but meet the remaining criteria to be granted a full license could take some time.
JLARC also recommended VDOE work with colleges and universities to publish specific courses that fulfill licensure requirements and make clear what license types and endorsement areas in other states can count toward a Virginia license.
About a third of division staff surveyed by JLARC expressed the belief that the state’s licensure requirements are complex and unclear.
“The lack of clarity about licensure requirements can be especially challenging for teachers with provisional licenses and fully licensed teachers in other states interested in teaching in Virginia,” the report found.
On Tuesday, Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera and Secretary of Public Instruction Lisa Coons agreed the state should increase transparency around teacher licensure but said JLARC had omitted key information.
In particular, the two said the report failed to include VDOE’s ongoing efforts to improve the system and address a backlog of teacher licensure applications.
Guidera also asked for more data on teacher preparation programs’ outcomes.
“We must have actionable quality data and research to make informed decisions on these important issues, and in all issues in education,” Guidera said at the JLARC meeting on Tuesday. “We need a robust data system so we can identify what is working, and that we can learn and replicate from those successes.”
Traditional and indirect pathways
JLARC also found that “traditional” pathways to the teaching profession — such as college or a teacher residency program — came with a higher cost than more “indirect pathways” such as provisional licensure. However, the report found teachers who followed traditional paths were more prepared than provisionally licensed teachers.
“School divisions believe traditional higher education preparation programs better prepare people to teach than indirect pathways,” JLARC wrote. “For example, 46 percent of school divisions surveyed by JLARC reported that provisionally licensed teachers are very poorly or poorly prepared to be teachers, while only 3 percent of school divisions reported poor preparation among individuals who attended traditional higher education preparation programs.”JLARC teacher pipeline
Guidera objected to that finding, saying some high-quality alternative pathways can produce teachers who demonstrate equally good or better student outcomes than teachers with more traditional training.
“There is a balance of ensuring teacher preparation pathways quickly and cost-effectively get teachers into classrooms and developing teachers who are highly qualified and prepared to meet the needs of their students,” she wrote in a Sept. 12 letter to JLARC. “But it is antiquated to correlate more time and coursework with more effectiveness.”
JLARC analyst Lauren Axselle acknowledged that teachers’ pathways to licensure don’t always determine their effectiveness in the classroom. However, she said, “overall, there are some trade-offs in terms of preparedness across the different tactics.”
Loan program and costs
Cost is also a significant barrier to licensure, the report concluded.
“Staff from 10 of the 14 traditional preparation programs at Virginia’s public higher education institutions cited financial concerns as a top reason why teacher candidates did not enter or complete their program,” JLARC wrote.
While Virginia has three state-supported teacher residency programs, their capacity is limited, the report states. Similarly, the Virginia Teaching Scholarship Loan Program, which requires recipients to teach at least two years in a critical shortage area or economically disadvantaged school, is facing “substantial unmet demand” with current funding.
The General Assembly has allocated $708,000 to the loan program for fiscal years 2023 and 2024. In contrast, JLARC found North Carolina and Maryland appropriated at least $6 million in each of those two fiscal years to comparable programs.
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