What was the impact of COVID on the Illinois teacher workforce? A new report examines what really happened
Is there a teacher shortage in Illinois? Which school positions are hard to staff? Did a ton of teachers leave the field during the pandemic? WNIJ's Peter Medlin spoke with Robin Steans of Advance Illinois – a nonpartisan education policy organization -- about their new report “The State of Our Educator Pipeline 2023” that set out to answer those questions and more.
Peter Medlin, WNIJ education reporter (PM): “People have been talking about teacher shortages for years, what does the data actually tell us?”
Robin Stains, president of Advance Illinois (RS): “So, the data is actually a lot more encouraging than I think people would expect just from reading the headlines, which doesn't mean we're out of the woods. I'm going to start with the good news, and I'm going to end with the troubled waters that I think we still have to navigate. The good news is that we've been adding teachers 1,000s of new positions: teaching positions, assistant principal positions, paraprofessional positions, etc. That's great. Illinois now is one of the best states in the country in terms of its teacher-pupil ratio. Now, partly, that's because we’ve been adding more teachers than the rest of the country. But also, we've been losing students at a faster clip than the rest of the country. So, we've lowered class sizes significantly. The other good news is that we're doing a better job during the pandemic of keeping teachers.”
PM: “Right, and it was a big fear, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, that there was going to be a mass exodus of people leaving the field.”
RS: “Absolutely. And we saw the opposite. We saw that retention of teachers improved during COVID, and retention of teachers within the same building improved. For now, we have outperformed the dire predictions by quite a lot and [Illinois is] doing better than many other states. I will offer one other bit of good news that I think is — it's not as directly-COVID related: it's been a real effort on the part of the state to grow the teacher pipeline, generally [to get] more people coming into the profession, and then more people staying once they're there. But the other part is that we need to diversify that pipeline. There's a strong mismatch between the diversity of the teaching force and our administrative workforce and our student population. We've been really doing a good job and we've been outpacing the country; we've been outpacing the Midwest by quite a lot in terms of increasing the diversity of candidates coming into the profession. That said, the mismatch is huge, and we still got a lot of work to do.”
PM: “[The report] talks about how -- just over the last five years -- we've added a lot more new teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals, right?”
RS: “Yes, and the demand for paraprofessionals has just skyrocketed. Unfortunately, that's one of the areas of real concern, because, well, the supply of paraprofessionals is dropping. So, the demand is increasing and the supply is dropping. That is the area of biggest shortage by far in the state but followed disturbingly and very persistently by shortages among special education teachers and bilingual teachers. Those are the two specialty areas that have long been a challenge. The state has been taking some targeted steps to try to get more special education teachers and to get more bilingual teachers into classrooms. But those are still the areas of significant shortage. So, those are the three top ones that showed up here.”
PM: “Is the growth in the teacher workforce consistent across different sorts of school districts?”
RS: “Yeah, it's fascinating. It really is. Every district of all backgrounds and types, we're adding teaching positions. About half of the districts in the state have at least one teacher vacancy. I think it might surprise your listeners that half of the districts don't have any vacancies. When you read about it, it seems so pervasive and so powerful that you assume it's affecting every district. I will add quickly, however, that even if you don't have an actual vacancy, that doesn't mean the shortage isn't affecting your district.
And the districts that are most likely to be affected are serving much higher numbers of students from low-income households, Black students, Latinx students, and bilingual students. In the schools that have a 5% vacancy rate or above, you've got four times the number of Black students as white students. Keep in mind that a 5% vacancy rate is twice the state average, the state average vacancy rate, just to anchor us, is 2.6%, which is not terrible in the scheme of things, but it's not great either. There are three times as many low-income students. 22% of the students in those schools are low income versus 8%, who are not low income. So, this is not playing out evenly. It is, it is affecting everybody, but it is not affecting all students equally.”
PM: “What's something about the teacher workforce, and the report that you think is more important than people might realize?”
RS: “The two things that I don't think come up as often is, in addition to the vacancies, we're seeing really low levels of teacher attendance. This has been a really difficult time, so I say that with zero criticism and a huge amount of empathy and respect for what teachers are going through. But we're not seeing that play out evenly either. Then the only other thing I'd add is that it matters that our teachers be well prepared. This is a hard job. I honestly think it's harder now than it's ever been.
We have made a number of creative efforts to make sure we don't have too many vacancies. We've really increased the short-term approvals and provisional licenses that are available to get teachers into classrooms. While it's still a relatively low level — only a couple percent of our teachers are on short-term approvals or provisional licenses — it's a huge uptick from what It's been. 16% of bilingual teachers are provisionally licensed or on short-term approvals. That's just huge. I don't know that we have organized ourselves to study the effect of that. Are these shortcuts that make sense? Are we cutting the right corners in the right way? Are we cutting the wrong corners in the wrong way? And are we going to pay a price for that in terms of what's available to our kids in classrooms? I think we need to pay close attention to that.”