- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2022

America’s K-12 schools struggled and often failed to replace teachers during the first full year of the COVID pandemic in 2020-21, according to new data from the Department of Education.

The department’s National Center for Education Statistics reported that 42% of public schools struggled or were unable to fill vacancies for foreign languages, 40% for special education, and 37 percent for physical sciences.

Private schools struggled the most to cover special education (44%) and computer science (35%). They also struggled to replace mathematics and foreign language teachers (32% apiece).

“Schools had difficulty finding teachers for a variety of disciplines and subjects, including special education, computer science, and mathematics and foreign languages,” NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr said in a statement, noting that the problems continued into 2021-22.

The report is based on a national survey of 9,900 public schools and their principals, 68,300 public school teachers, 3,000 private schools and their principals, and 8,000 private school teachers.

Larger shares of public schools reported difficulty filling general elementary, special education, English or language arts, social studies, computer science, foreign language, and music or arts positions than in 2015-16.

The report adds to a growing body of research showing that the switch to virtual learning during the pandemic provoked teacher burnout, declining test scores and increased anxiety and depression among students.

“The problem has expanded from a teacher shortage to a people shortage, as schools struggle to fill most positions from bus drivers to school business officials to principals and everything in between,” Meredith Critchfield, dean of education at Grand Canyon University, said in an email.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 300,000 teachers and staff quit their jobs between February 2020 and May 2022.

Many grew exhausted by “an unbearable amount of work that just seems to continue to increase,” said Victoria Damjanovic, an assistant professor of education at Northern Arizona University.

“Instead of calling it a teacher shortage, I like to think of it as a teacher mass exodus,” Ms. Damjanovic told The Washington Times. “Teachers are leaving the field because they are underpaid and the field as a whole is not valued.”

It will take more than “a few years” to replace them, she added.

“I think in order for things to change, the field of teaching needs to be considered valuable by the people in their community,” Ms. Damjanovic said. “Teachers need to first be respected.”

Teachers are quitting faster than education programs can replace them, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

The number of young people finishing teacher training programs fell by 30% between the 2010-11 and 2019-20 school years, according to the AACTE’s latest figures.

In a fall 2021 survey of the association’s member schools, 55% said new undergraduate enrollment dropped even further as COVID-19 restrictions extended into last year.

“The pandemic exacerbated a trend that has been gaining steam since the Great Recession: more teachers leaving the profession and fewer new graduates to take their place,” Jacqueline E. King, an AACTE consultant, said Wednesday. “The NCES report points to the vital need for qualified educators and the urgency of making teaching a more attractive career.”

The best way to attract young people to teaching is to pay them more, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“While teachers have never received the wages and respect commensurate with the work they do to help all children reach their promise and potential, the culture wars and stagnant wages of the last few years have made this worse,” Ms. Weingarten said in an email. “Recruiting and retaining a diverse teaching force has become increasingly difficult — indeed, most parents say they wouldn’t want their kids choosing teaching as a career.”

According to the NCES report, regular full-time teachers in public K–12 schools earned an average base salary of $61,600 in 2020-21. Regular full-time teachers in private schools received $46,400.

As the shortage has worsened, states throughout the country have introduced alternative certifications and hiring bonuses to fill positions. Some districts have relied on long-term substitute teachers, hybrid learning and non-professional employees to get by.

Teacher training programs have expanded virtual learning and tailored their offerings to attract more students.

More than 11,000 education students graduated this year from Western Governors University, where a competency-based model maps all licensure programs to evolving certification requirements in all 50 states.

The private university in Utah has also succeeded by becoming more flexible for applicants, said Stacey Ludwig Johnson, executive dean of the education school there.

“Some aspiring teachers need to work full-time while pursuing an undergraduate or graduate-level degree, others have family responsibilities and some have the burden of tuition expenses and the complications of commuting to a college campus,” Ms. Johnson said in an email.

Focusing on getting students certified as quickly as possible is the best way for education programs to “meet people where they are,” added Scott Bailey, an assistant provost at the American College of Education. 

But some experts say other issues have made teaching less attractive – a problem that no amount of tweaking to certification requirements seems likely to fix anytime soon.

Today’s teachers are expected to navigate culture wars over race and gender content, a “mental health tsunami among young people and an uptick in school shootings, said Thomas Plante, a clinical psychologist and member of the American Psychological Association.

“Now they are expected to be psychotherapists in addition to teachers,” said Mr. Plante, a professor at Santa Clara University. “There are lots of good reasons why reasonable people who are great teachers would either retire or find different work to do.”

Administrators looking for more money will get little support from parents who protested their COVID policies at school board meetings, added Kimberly Fletcher, president of Moms for America.

“In 2020 and 2021 as schools shut down and went online, more moms started to realize the radical agendas being pushed on their children,” Ms. Fletcher said in an email. “Parents are getting involved and speaking up.”

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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