Address the teacher shortage in Indiana

Recognizing the Honorability of the Teaching Profession.

Goal #10 – Address the teacher shortage in the State of Indiana

 “Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”  Historian and educational philosopher Jacques Barzun’s quote summarizes a key reason for teacher shortages being felt across the State of Indiana.  Perhaps, and rightfully so, focusing on the causes of these shortages can bring awareness to a more troubling sign for education than the select teachers’ desks that were unoccupied at the beginning of the school year…for I suspect that, as hinted by Mr. Barzun, the lack of regard by many for the teaching profession is a core contributor to this alarming statistic.

 First, some numbers.  At the start of the 2016-2017 school year, a survey conducted by the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents resulted in 176 school districts reporting 631 vacant teaching jobs with the largest number of vacancies in special education, science, math, English, foreign language and general elementary education.  Locally, Kokomo School Corporation opened the year with 11 vacant positions; three of them remain so.

 One thing stands above all in education: Teaching IS an honorable profession!  On a daily basis, I have the opportunity to work with teachers who are truly inspirational; who go about their business day in and day out committed to improving the lives of the students in our community; who have made it their life’s work to positively impact future generations; and who must find the patience to disregard the criticism of public education coming from national think tanks and education reformers.

 Addressing the teacher shortage in Indiana requires more than the current strategy of financially incentivizing people to enter the teaching profession.  This idea seems to imply a quick fix exists for the teacher shortage even though this simplistic solution does not consider the deeper reasons why fewer and fewer people are going into education; and why more and more people continue to leave education.

 I suspect the cause is directly related to the problems outlined in my prior articles.  The goal of addressing the teacher shortage was intentionally placed last on my list of ten education goals for Indiana; not because this goal isn’t important, but because addressing the other nine problems will fix this one.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t reflect on the state of education in Indiana in 2016 and remain cognizant of the startling data that demonstrates we have too few qualified teachers to fill vacant positions.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address the fact that we do not have enough students enrolling in collegiate schools of education.  We should! 

 However, doing this in isolation will lead only to placing new teachers in classrooms on the first day.  Indiana’s current marketing and recruiting efforts to increase enrollment in collegiate schools of education will have only a short-term benefit if the long-term problems within the profession – many created by recent State policies and decisions – are not addressed. 

 Consider a new restaurant opens in your community.  The restaurant has a nice sign, a trendy design, and all that is needed to encourage people to try the new restaurant.  However, if diners visit the restaurant and do not like the food, or other factors associated with their first experience, it is likely they won’t return.   Indiana leaders should be commended for introducing an approach to encourage people to enter the teaching profession…but what are we going to do to ensure that teachers remain in the profession?

 Beginning teachers who leave the profession within the first few years create additional burdens for school districts.  Teacher turnover increases staff vacancies and the costs associated with filling positions.  Moreover, beginning teachers require greater investment through professional development, mentoring from veteran teachers, and additional time for evaluation.   These additional costs are not recuperated when a teacher does not remain in the profession.

 One reason for recent teacher turnover during the past decade: Indiana has failed miserably in keeping school funding on par with inflation.  Consider the funding levels from 2010 to 2016: During this time, the State has increased funding for education by $270 million from approximately $6.55 billion to $6.82 billion.  This $270 million has resulted in an average increase in foundation-level funding for public schools of just over 4% (or .687% per year)...which is less than 1% a year.  At the same time, according to the Historical Inflation Rate Index published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, inflation has increased an average of 1.68% annually over the same period of time. 

 Indiana’s median income for families also has declined.  In 2004, Governor Mitch Daniels ran on a platform of improving Indiana’s per capita income (the State ranked 33rd at the time).  Twelve years later, Indiana now ranks 38th.  During the same time, the percentage of people living in poverty in Indiana has gone from 10.2% to 14.9% (Stats Indiana using U.S. Census Bureau data).  These economic facts create a classroom reality that looks much different from past generations since families are earning less income, on average, and more families are living in poverty.  These factors impact the students our teachers are working with on a daily basis.  Further, these economic facts matter since student academic performance is directly correlated with poverty.

 Next, consider Indiana State leaders’ insistence, through State laws, that Indiana teachers be compensated based upon student academic performance on high-stakes tests.  This creates a further reality that compensation is based, in part, on factors that are outside of a teachers’ direct control.  This is not to say that some teachers do not have students scoring above this average.  But, of course, such “above-average” performance mathematically requires a balancing act, or the average wouldn’t be where it is.  And this range of student test scores correlates with poverty.  Therefore, we have teacher compensation based on a student’s family income…and you can see Indiana is “below average” when compared nationally on median family income.  Imagine if elected State legislators were paid based upon this data!

 So we have a perfect storm.  K-12 education funding is not keeping up with inflation.  New laws are linking teacher compensation to faulty, high-stakes tests.  Poverty is increasing...and the list goes on.

 Indiana teachers educate students on “cause and effect” in many forms throughout the K-12 curriculum.  Cause and effect is introduced at a basic level in primary school classrooms and discussed in-depth in high school.  Indiana’s State leaders MUST address the cause of Indiana’s teacher shortage. 

 State leaders must begin to treat teaching as an honorable profession, not only by their comments, but by their actions. State leaders must stop the incessant annual practice of criticizing teachers as a whole for student performances.  State leaders must provide adequate funding so that teachers can be fairly compensated.  State leaders must stop ranking teachers based on familial and societal factors beyond the teacher’s control.  Finally, State leaders must stop thinking that problems in education stem solely from local educational institutions and their employees; when in reality, many of the problems have been caused by the past decisions of these same State leaders.

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