As squawking about the teacher "shortage" many states have developed methods to either take advantage of the situation ("Now we can finally break the teachers union and public education by letting any warm body stand in front of a classroom because, hey, there's a shortage") or try to figure out a way to actually solve the problem.
In Virginia, a coalition appears to be taking a shot at the latter approach. The Virginia Public Education Coalition is a group of a dozen Virginia organizations encompassing public school professional groups, school boards, principals, superintendents and even the ASCD and PTA. Collectively, they've come up with some ideas about how to attract and retain folks in Virginia teaching positions.
Is their plan a good one? It makes a nifty flyer. And can other states learn from it? Welll…..
The plan ignores some of the bigger reasons to avoid taking a job there. For instance, Virginia is a right-to-work state, meaning that a teacher in Virginia may, if she teaches in one of the areas where the union has been fully neutered, find herself with little or no employment protection or voice in her teaching conditions. If Virginia wants to attract more teachers, they have to recognize "We make sure them unions keep quiet" is not a winner. In 2012 a study was jointly produced by the right-tilted Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now, the "action" wing of Democrats for Education Reform, a group of hedge fundie privatizers masquerading as Democrats. The study ranked the relative strength of each state's teachers union; Virginia was 47th. Proposed slogan for Virginia teacher recruitment program: "Welcome to Virginia, teacher-- you're on your own!"
So they missed some parts. Did they do well with the rest? They talk about three areas, for each of three areas.
According to some studies, Virginia has the largest teacher pay gap (gap between teacher pay and pay for other college-educated folks) in the country. Depending on who's counting, Virginia ranks thirty-somethingth in the nation for teacher pay. But the plan calls for more complicated steps than a simple, "Pay teachers more," though it does start with a wordier version of that, a la "establish compensation and benefits" that attract beginners and encourage them to stay. Well, yeah.
Fix the recession-era budget language that caps state funding for support staff, which would both pay support staff more and free up local dollars to spend on teachers.
Reform student loans, including loan forgiveness, and try a few other things to make it less expensive to become a teacher. Fix the busted formula use to calculate "prevailing practice' for teacher salaries. And an interesting idea-- come up with some state-funded supports for student teachers during their semester, like actual pay and housing allotments.
Preparation and Support
Here we run into trouble. "Ensure that the competencies included in the Profile of a Virginia Leader and Profile of a Virginia Educator are reflected in Virginia's educator preparation programs." Those profiles appear to be works in progress, building the structure for a new evaluation system, and it just all looks very jargon-filled and that certainly has its place, but it's no substitute for the kinds of preparation and support that new teachers need, which is more of the "which of these questions should I use top discuss Hamlet and how can I get that discussion to actually happen and what do I do about the kid who is being not quite but close to insubordinate to me face every day?" The challenge of the dailiness of teacher life, particularly new teacher life, is not the challenge of philosophical underpinnings or global standards, but how to deal with the specific classroom actions needed to make some education happen in the next forty minutes. This is why mentoring programs, when done properly, are powerful.
Virginia has a grow-your-own teacher program, which is basically about starting recruitment when students are still in high school and grooming them to return to their old school. It's a process that makes sense because so many teachers end up teaching close to home anyway. The plan says to take a look at the program and see how it's working.
Third and worst, the plan calls to "initiate multiple options for accreditation" of programs. "allowing for options that respond to the teacher shortage and offer opportunities to diversify the teacher pipeline." Yes, Virginia happily welcomes Teach for America temps, and has since 2013. If by "diversify," the proposal means "get more non-white teachers in the classroom," that's on point, but it seems more likely that it means "support more ways to fast-track amateurs into classrooms."
There are plenty of reasons not to like that idea. It's not just that it shuffles a lot of warm, unprepared bodies into classrooms. Those folks, beyond not pulling their own weight, also extract a toll on the system. There's the cost of churn, of being a student in a school in which "teachers" just keep coming and going. If you're saying, "Well, at least we got someone in that classroom for that year," you don't get it-- this is a short-term solution that creates long-term damage to the system at a cost to all the future students who will pass through it. These churning bodies also put extra strain on the rest of the staff who have to pick up after them. And finally, I don't understand why some folks still don't get the fundamental insult of TFA. You're a person who really wanted to be a teacher, went to college for it, went through student teaching, paid your dues, prepped hard and hoped to land a job, and now here comes somebody who just waltzed through five weeks of superficial training and they sit in a classroom just like you, and you ask yourself "Was I just the victim of some huge scam? Why did I bother with any of that?"
Why make it a point to say that you're going to make sure that teacher prep programs reflect all your lovely competencies if you are also going to say that you want to come up with a bunch of ways to circumvent those programs?
Establish a state "clearinghouse" of available jobs, with a common application. As someone who spent his first summer out of college applying to about seventy different districts, I say, "Bravo!"
They repeat the part about compensation here.
They propose a career ladder that doesn't require teachers to go into administration. This always sounds like a swell idea if 1) it doesn't involve lowering everyone's salary to make room for ladder-climbing "raises" and 2) if you can pry administrations' fingers off of the power needed to make any of these ladder steps actually mean anything.
"Provide an administrative framework" that gets school leaders to support effective teaching rather than just monitoring compliance. Yes, well. First the state has to actually mean it, because the compliance mindset starts there and just trickles down. The someone is going to have to fire a bunch of administrators who have compliance mindset so hardwired into their brain that nothing short of a lobotomy will remove it. Good luck with all of these.
Yeah, still need more.
Preparation and Support
Update teacher prep programs to reflect all those profiles (including the Profile of a Graduate). Not sure how this helps the induction of a new teacher.
Then there's some noise about looking over the guidelines for mentoring and coaching and make sure it's all "grounded in research" and "evidence-based practice" which would mean a lot more if it weren't coming from a state that has welcomed Teach for America, a program which is neither research- nor evidence-based. Also, if your research and evidence is based on standardized test scores, it's junk and useless (especially to every inductee who isn't teaching reading or math).
Get experienced teachers to be mentors. Duh. Both mentor and mentee should have reduced teaching load so they have time to do the mentoring thing. Which is absolutely correct, but how does that actually work? Will the district hire a 1/2-day teacher to pick up the slack for a year (and if so, who's mentoring that person). Or will the district absorb the slack by enlarging class sizes, turning mentoring into more work for everybody? Or will the district just take the same old route of assigning mentors based on which teachers have the same prep period as the newby? I mean, this reduced schedule is a good idea. It's the right idea. But it's also an expensive, schedule-snarking idea. I expect many dragged feet.
Improve professional development. Yes, please.
"Establish avenues" for new teachers to develop relationships with others in the school. Again, important and easy to say. Too many teacher first years are shaped by whoever the newby happens to eat lunch with. But hard to do, and therefor hard to get districts to do.
Fix that pay scale problem where you hit the middle of the scale and your wages stagnate. And do that magic career ladder thing again. Really, there's nothing mysterious about the compensation piece of all this. Everyone knows exactly what needs to be done; it's just that mostly they don't want to. So we get all these conversations on the theme of, "Can we pay them more without it actually costing the district more money?" The Magic Beans school of improved compensation.
Preparation and Support
Virginia is going to update that evaluation to match the profile things. And the evaluation will suck less, and emphasize growth, and are competency-based--uh-oh. Here comes a multi-item checklist that may or may not have anything to do with actual good teaching.
Make the professional development better, somehow. Use evidence-based stuff. (Is competency-based education or evaluation evidence based? No? Get some more magic beans in here!)
Also, get a teacher and school administrator advisory board to work with the General Assembly, Secretary of Education, and Board of Education. That way the General Assembly, Secretary of Education, and Board of Education can look like they're listening to actual educators without having to budge from their comfy offices and meeting rooms.
Reduce emphasis on standardized testing for accountability. Ding ding ding! We have a winner. "Recognize that deep and personalized learning requires that teachers have more autonomy to design their instructional practices." If you could get the legislature to actually understand this, you wouldn't need much of anything else.
Weight admin supervisory time toward newbys. In other words, give the new teachers more help, and leave your veterans alone.
More avenues for professional relationships. This sounds cheesy, but it's not. I taught in a district where for years the philosophy was that any minute a teacher spent anywhere other than in front of students in a classroom was a minute wasted. I barely knew what other people in my department were doing, let alone teachers in other parts of the building. It got in the way of becoming a better teacher, both in my general practice and for those specific students in those years. Teachers need the chance to talk to other teachers.
Let teachers own their own professional development. Help leaders develop cultures based on shared responsibility, vision, values, and culture.
Honestly, there's some real junk in this plan, but this third section of the third section is worth its weight in gold. Now if they can just get someone in positions of power to listen.
For any state interested in approaches other than wishful thinking or warm body snatching or letting their public system collapse, this Virginia plan is a place to start. It gets some things very wrong, but some other things very right.
Just remember, if your state is experiencing something that people are calling a teacher shortage, that is not a failure of teacher prep programs to produce teachers, and it's not a failure of gritless millenials and it's not a failure of education to be sufficiently inspiring-- it's a failure of your state's legislative and educational leaders to make the jobs appealing and rewarding enough to convince people to take them and stay in them. Every useful discussion among such leaders about trouble filing teacher positions has to start with a good long look in the mirror. After that, you can take a look at documents like this one.