Last week we were all obsessing over the college admissions scandal where we learned that celebrities were spending millions of dollars to falsify college admissions documents to get their children into seemingly prestigious schools. Many of us heard the stories and questioned the integrity and the morality of those involved, and rightly so, but I believe we have much bigger problem to address than the admissions struggles this story tried to highlight.
Every state in America has a compulsory education law on its books. Students from 6-16, by law, have to attend school, receive an education, be assessed on their academic progress, and receive a high quality education. Laws such as these were put on the books, not so much to protect the happiness of individual students or systems, but as a way to protect the durability and elasticity of our economy and our national security. An educated workforce is the foundation for a productive workforce, but the question now is, are our school systems still aligned and prepared to meet this demand.
In direct contrast to the news stories we heard last week, I would challenge that America does not have a college admissions crisis. As a matter of fact, out of the 34 industrialized countries in the world, America ranks 8th in its college enrollment rate. Of those same 34 nations however, America ranks 33rd in its college completion rate (I could examine some of the disparities we see in subgroups, but will save that for a future post).
In America today, 100% of students aged 6-16 are required to attend school, but the graduation rate (completion rate) of those who are able to successfully navigate just a few more years of that system drops down to below 85%.
In America today we are well aware of the teacher shortage that exists in every state, in virtually every school district. There are classrooms today, in the middle of March, that have been unfilled by certified teachers, all school year long. We are made to believe that we no longer have teachers showing up in college to become certified and trained. We are made to believe that young people today just don’t want to grow up and be teachers anymore because they are not paid enough. But the truth of the matter is, just like with our high school completion rate, just like with our college completion rate, the issue has little to do with getting people in the door. The issue is holding on to them and supporting them once they are there.
The reason we have a shortage is not because little boys and girls no longer dream of being teachers. The reason we have a shortage is because once teachers enter into the profession, more than ever before, they are deciding that there is no way they can do the difficult work required of them for thirty or more years. They sign up to do the job, enter their classrooms, and within only a few years, the vast majority have decided to move on. They are not supported. They are not groomed. They are not grown.
Many of us are familiar with the writings of Malcolm Gladwell where he describes the need to practice a task for 10,000 hours before becoming a master. To a teacher who works 40 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, this means he/she would have to practice being a teacher for a minimum of 6.25 years to develop a sense of mastery. The average new teacher today lasts less than 5 years before moving on, well before becoming a master.
In states across America today, to tackle the teacher shortage, decisions are made that at first glance appear to be solutions, but, in reality, simply throw more fuel on the fire. States have decided to allow teachers to work without a license and designated training, in some cases for up to three years. Administrators are given the green light to remove or “non-renew” any teacher who is not performing in their first few years. This self-fulfilling cycle of hire, replace, hire, replace, gets perpetuated as administrators focus their attention, not on supporting the new who need it the most, but on the veterans who fall outside of the cycle. After all, in many administrator’s minds, if a new teacher is not performing at a mastery level, he/she can just be replaced by someone new. There is no need to train, coach, or support, when you can just scrap and start over again. In schools of poverty this is even more apparent and prevalent.
In many states, the path to certification has less to do with learning the art of instruction and the nuances of pedagogy and more to do with the ability to pass a content-specific exam. These newly certified teachers walk into their classrooms filled with academic knowledge, but get frustrated when they are unable to translate that knowledge into learning for their students.
We have states who have responded to national accountability legislation by enacting strict evaluation policies. These policies have teachers who were once willing to ask for help and support from their superiors and peers, now afraid to show vulnerability and express any professional development needs, for fear of those insecurities being used against them. In our quest to hold schools accountable, we have perpetuated the crisis by creating teachers who have stagnated in their growth, administrators who have an inability to successfully support and train, and new teachers filling the growing number of vacancies in every school across the country.
Right now we are seeing the struggles with the inability to retain quality teachers. Soon we will begin to see the inability to find quality leaders as the pool of “experts” and masters decreases. Fewer quality leaders will exponentially heighten the critical nature of the epidemic.
If we want to address the epidemic we are currently facing, sure money would go a long way, but the real issue is not the lack of a pipeline, the issue is the lack of support once inside. We have to allow for a system of growth, a system of improvement, a system of individuals.
In elementary schools today we understand the importance of early literacy intervention. We know that students should be given tremendous support in their first four years of school to gain foundational skills that will set them up for future success. It is time that we begin to model this same expectation with the teachers we employ. We have to provide intensive support early on. The only way to become great at anything is through repeated practice, repeated struggles, repeated feedback, and repeated support.
Let’s work to eliminate the teacher shortage by doing what matters most. Let’s support the teachers we have. Let’s remove the labels we place on their abilities. Let’s focus on growth over achievement and begin to understand that what we say is best practice for our students is often best practice for our teachers too.
Our future depends on it.