Teacher shortage: How higher education is working to solve the K-12 crisis

University leaders trying to build back the pipeline of educators say changes to systems and support are needed.

Data from the Institute of Education Sciences shows that 44% of public schools across the United States are experiencing at least one teacher vacancy, with one-tenth of them having openings in 10% of their classrooms.

More than half are because of resignations, forcing districts to get creative by allowing staffers and current teachers to handle tasks outside their typical duties. The crisis of teacher shortages, dire before the COVID-19 pandemic, has gotten exponentially worse, with nearly 600,000 positions unfilled. There has also been a huge increase in retirements, with experts predicting more to come as worn-out and underpaid employees seek other options.

“The pandemic has exacerbated a problem that we’ve been dealing with in the K-12 world for much of the last decade,” said Sari Factor, Chief Strategy Office of Imagine Learning. “The school of education that I went to was enrolling a third fewer students than 10 years ago in 2019. So the question is, where are we going to find teachers?”

At the root of the problem, aside from the burdens on teachers, is the lack of interest from those matriculating through postsecondary education. Only around 4% of all students are pursuing the dream of becoming a teacher, down nearly three times from a decade ago. The collective disinterest and groans from K-12 districts have gotten the attention of the Biden Administration, which recently sent out a call to action to help address the shortages.

Institutions of higher education can be pivotal in helping solve the problem, and several leaders from powerhouse universities recently came together for a discussion at the ASU-GSV Summit, a standout education technology conference hosted annually by Arizona State University, the nation’s No. 1 school for innovation. The goal: reimagine the future of learning, build back that pipeline and most notably, give teachers way more support than they’ve been getting.

Carole Basile, Dean of the Teachers College at Arizona State University, said any discussion on teacher shortage and learning for the future must be met head-on with the idea that the system must change. So at ASU, they are rethinking preparation and the structure of schools.

“What we have done is to stop talking about teacher shortage, recruitment and retention and really start thinking about this as a workforce development issue,” she said. “We’ve seen in other fields, including technology and health care – when those fields have actually rethought about who’s in the profession, how they work together, how they function, what roles do they play – then it has transformed those fields. Education is going to have to do the same thing. We have to change the way we think about teachers.”

And that starts and ends with the notion that one teacher for one classroom still exists. Data at more than half the schools across the country just don’t support that.

So instead, Basile said, “we’re going to build a team of adults around our students, people with counseling backgrounds and wellness backgrounds, and financial literacy and academic supports. Instead of saying, here’s your 30 kids, how can we leverage our assets, build schools where we say, here are the kids and let’s figure out who the adults are that those kids need. Start thinking about how those adults distribute expertise. In education, we don’t [lean on each other]. We’ve got to train teachers how to work on teams, how to lead teams and how to engage the community. We cannot keep spending billions of dollars on professional learning, believing that every single teacher is going to be a widget teacher. Those days are gone.”

What’s happening

That is very apparent in areas of California such as Los Angeles, where student needs are high and where staff shortages are such a concern that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to allow for substitutes to get more hours and for retired workers to come back. Pedro Noguera, Dean at the University of Southern California’s School of Education, said “the schools that need the most help are the hardest to help,” so USC is trying to bridge the gap and get more students interested in the profession.

“The university is building on a partnership with 40 schools [in South Central Los Angeles and East L.A.] to make sure that new teachers don’t get the most difficult jobs and they get support during their first few years through ongoing relationships with us,” Noguera said. “More importantly, we’re going to make it free for teachers to become teachers, not saddled with debt. Two thirds of our master’s students will be on full scholarship. We’re also working with L.A. Unified to develop housing for teachers, because it’s impossible to find housing on a teacher’s salary in L.A., and the district has surplus property. We’re working with groups like the AmeriCorps program to get people already in schools as tutors into our credential programs.”

Similarly, Robert Lee, Dean of the Stanford University College of Education’s National University, said he sees a real opportunity for colleges to help develop and scale up talent locally.

Workforce engagement should be directly recruiting out of communities, to help ensure that our classrooms are filled with culturally responsive educators who know and understand not only the challenges that are happening within the community, but also the wonderful and rich cultural assets that are there for them,” he said. “We have people that are already embedded within community schools. We have parents. We have paraprofessionals. Meet students where they are.”

With just about every school district in every country struggling to fill at least one spot – be it math, science or special education – it is imperative Basile said, for those rising teachers to have help. And in a tech-based world, why not build resources beyond individuals schools and districts?

“As we think about how teachers begin to work in teams and share rosters of kids, you have technology supporting that,” she said. “You’ve got places where we’re never going to find enough physics teachers, so there may be an opportunity to be able to remote people in. You have technology that should be supporting teachers as they’re working on teams so that they can be in communication with each other in real-time. It’s not a matter of just thinking about the handheld device and the next new program that’s going to teach content and curriculum to kids, it’s a much bigger systems view that we have to take. Please stop thinking about building technology for one teacher, one classroom.”

One of those supports developed by USC is its Mindful initiative, which can help teachers cope with stress. Universities are also working with state legislators across the country to try to eliminate barriers created by government to help support teachers.

“Every new teacher that enters into the classroom, they’re leaving in just a couple of years,” Lee said. “How do we create a more meaningful pathway that also leads to the retention aspects? How do we as institutions both provide support to mentor teachers and those new recruits that we’re bringing in, to give them a place to reflect and to learn? We’re asking our candidates so much right now but giving no time to just think critically and talk to other professionals and watch and observe them.”

Despite the declines, the din of teachers expressing the desire to leave and those who say they don’t want a future in education, these leaders remain hopeful.

“When the conditions are right, lots of things are possible,” Noguera said. “We need to create models where things are possible.”

Basile added: “What I’m optimistic about is that we can get to a focus on systems and structures and culture. People are saying, yes, we think we need something different.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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