Researchers, state policymakers and educators from Virginia’s colleges and public school systems gathered at the Curry School of Education on Tuesday to discuss the details, causes of and solutions to the state’s teacher shortage crisis. Speakers included Virginia Secretary of Education Dietra Trent and State Superintendent for Public Instruction Steve Staples. The event also included a fireside chat between Curry School Dean Bob Pianta, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and others.
“Repeated analysis of state and district achievement data over the last decade clearly show that of all the factors present in K-12 schools, of all the investments we make to promote student learning, classroom teachers have the single biggest influence on student outcomes,” Pianta said in his opening remarks. “We have come to a point where we have a shortage in the most important educational resource.”
In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Pianta expanded on the problem.
“A thousand classrooms went without a teacher this year, up from 800 last year,” he said. “But the shortages are not the same in Northern Virginia as it is in South Side and it is not the same in math as it is in special education.”
Staples discussed several possible causes for the shortage, including teacher salaries not matching other career fields’ salaries and the high cost of college debt. He also pointed to a decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs nationwide and a lack of mentorship and support for new teachers leading to high turnover rates.
“As we dig into turnover, we see a migration away from our neediest students,” Staples said. “If our best and brightest teachers are leaving our most challenging schools … we have a real problem because we’re trying to solve our equity problem without our most talented teachers.”
Critical teacher shortages include not just the lack of teachers in classrooms, but also the lack of fully licensed teachers and teachers licensed in the subjects they teach. Some Virginia school districts have had to hire more provisionally licensed teachers, add long-term substitutes and bring teachers out of retirement.
“I was going to put an endorsed teacher in every classroom if it killed me,” Franklin County Public Schools Principal Bernice Cobbs said. “That was five years ago — this year I’m just glad to have a person in that classroom. And that saddens me greatly.”
Staples also expressed concern over an increasing lack of diversity in the Virginia teaching workforce, during a time in which the student population is growing more diverse.
“I’m not saying children of color can only learn from teachers of color,” he said. “But the research is pretty specific that having teachers who look like them is important for building, learning and inspiring.”
Staples pointed to possible causes, including a lack of diversity in initial enrollment for teacher preparation programs and an achievement gap between minority teachers and white teachers on licensing tests. This gap mirrors the achievement gap between minority and white students on K-12 standardized testing.
“A third of our provisional teachers who are black will likely be exited out before obtaining full licensure,” he said.
The teacher shortage crisis continues to worsen, which poses considerable challenges for the Commonwealth’s next governor.
“I say this is the biggest challenge [for the incoming governor] because ... we have too many open high-paying jobs that we can’t fill,” McAuliffe said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “You can’t build the Virginia economy if you don’t have the most dynamic and exciting education system, and you can’t do that without the teachers.”
According to McAuliffe, the varying degree of teacher shortages from district to district present is one of the most difficult challenges to address.
“In certain areas it’s a tougher challenge for a teacher in a classroom and we need to recognize that,” McAuliffe said. “The higher poverty rate [areas are] the hardest places to get our teachers and we need to reflect that and do something about it.”