Pennsylvania will need thousands of new teachers by 2025, according to the state Department of Education, and it’s fighting an uphill battle to get there amid a nationwide teacher shortage intensified by the pandemic and widespread educator burnout.
The state Education Department on Monday laid out a road map for bolstering its number of teachers in the next three years, vowing immediate action to stem its “educator workforce crisis,” illustrated in the number of teachers it certifies alone: Ten years ago, Pennsylvania certified 20,000 teachers; last year, it issued credentials to just 6,000.
Combine that 70% drop with a higher rate of educators leaving the profession, and the supply of teachers available is “one of the most pressing challenges our schools are facing,” said Eric Hagarty, Pennsylvania’s acting education secretary.
“Teaching is the profession that unlocks the workforce for all other professions, so we must find ways to encourage more individuals to answer the call and enter the classroom,” Hagarty said at a Harrisburg news conference.
Over the next three years, officials said, they would aim to increase the number of students enrolled in Pennsylvania’s teacher preparation programs from 18,000 to 21,600, and lower the number of educator vacancies at all Pennsylvania schools. To do this, they will rely on stronger recruiting strategies for aspiring teachers, making policy changes to educator preparation programs with help from the state Board of Education and General Assembly, and expanding programs like apprenticeships.
Officials said they would make permanent changes that make it easier for substitute teachers to get credentialed, work with educator prep programs to identify coursework requirements that are possible barriers to entry for some candidates, and find resources to help school districts offer competitive pay and incentives so they compete better in the job market.
Hagarty said Pennsylvania was particularly concerned about attracting teachers of color.
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“We know that students have the best chance for success when they have the opportunity to interact with educators who look like them and have shared backgrounds and experiences, yet less than 7% of Pennsylvania’s teachers are people of color, which is nowhere near the student population that we serve,” Hagarty said.
The state Education Department wants the percentage of teachers of color entering the field to rise to 25% from its current rate of 13%. It also wants to add effective mentoring and supports for teachers of color, and wants 90% of teachers of color to stay in the profession after their first year teaching, up from the current 80%.
One strategy for achieving those goals is making it easier for teachers to get credentialed by reducing the time it takes for applicants’ paperwork to be processed by the state. To do this, officials said they would modernize their practices and policies and modernize the state’s Teacher Information Management System.
Officials said they would also work with Pennsylvania’s teacher preparation programs to expand pathways into the education profession. They will recommend changes to regulations that now present barriers to entry for some candidates in certification programs, issuing guidance and providing support for education schools around structured literacy, professional ethics, and culturally relevant education.
Bolstering professional development opportunities with more meaningful training is another strategy the state identified as a way to bring more teachers into the fold and ensure they stay in Pennsylvania classrooms.
The state’s work was informed in part by interviews with Pennsylvania educators who highlighted barriers to being able to fill teaching jobs and entice teachers to stay, including: negative perceptions of teaching as a career, financial and policy hurdles to enrolling in Pennsylvania schools of education, a lack of effective recruitment strategies for educators of color in some districts, a clunky state-certification process, relatively low pay compared to other industries, and subpar teacher training.
The stakes are incredibly high, said Laura Boyce, executive director of Teach Plus Pennsylvania, an education nonprofit working with the state Education Department on the recruitment strategies. Boyce, a former Philadelphia teacher, had a fifth grade teaching vacancy for half a year when she was a principal in Camden. Without substitutes or adequate building staff to cover the class, Boyce taught it herself while juggling administrative responsibilities.
“It nearly killed me,” she said. “These shortages cause a vicious cycle that makes conditions for the educators who are there untenable.”
One teacher Boyce worked with developed a bladder infection from skipping prep periods and bathroom breaks to cover classes. A principal resigned midyear because of stress-induced vertigo.
The cost to students may be even higher.
“Imagine being a student with no teacher. Your class is being covered by a substitute, or split up among other classrooms, or experiencing a revolving door of tired teachers covering your class during their prep,” said Boyce. “How can you learn with no teacher?”
Though not unique to Pennsylvania, the teacher shortage requires “ambitious and transformational changes,” and Boyce said the plan advanced Monday was a start, but would require resources, both from the state and others.
“It’s time to elevate teachers — the most important profession in our society — to the level of appreciation and prestige that they deserve, and invest in them,” Boyce said.