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National education leaders hold teacher shortage summit in Chicago

Peter Medlin
Roberto Rodriguez, the U.S. Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary in the office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development.

The U.S. Department of Education hosted a regional summit on Thursday at the University of Illinois - Chicago. Leaders from 11 states gathered in a small university classroom to collect ideas on how to tackle teacher shortages.

Roberto Rodriguez stood up to speak first. He’s the U.S. Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development.

“It's," he said, "one of the most important challenges we have to tackle in public education.”

That’s why his department is holding three of these events across the country to brainstorm solutions.

And they chose to hold one here in Illinois because of the state’s work opening new pathways to become a teacher and prioritizing teacher diversity. Illinois state superintendent Tony Sanders says they’ve set diversity goals for teacher prep programs and invested in a new Teacher Vacancy Grant over the past few years.

“It's funded again this year for $45 million," said Sanders, "and it's giving resources to the top 20% of school districts that have 80% of the vacancies.”

Shortages look very different depending on the school. Low-income and schools with the higher numbers of students of color tend to have the most severe shortages. And some roles, like special education, early childhood & bilingual, tend to be the most difficult to fill.

So, with a problem so widespread, yet so specific to each school -- how can the federal government help?

Rodriguez says that, in 2021, the American Rescue Plan provided over $120 million to schools. He adds that upwards of 30% of those COVID relief dollars were spent on staffing issues.

One way to directly get teachers into those hard-to-staff roles that Rodriguez talked about is for schools to “Grow their Own.” That means recruiting high school students or paraprofessionals to get their teaching license -- which the school helps pay for.

Recently, more and more Illinois schools have experimented with those models, even growing their own principals too.

Rodriguez says the Department of Education is investing tens of millions of dollars in a type of “Grow Your Own” -- teacher apprenticeships. In 2021, the Biden Administration’s Department of Labor approved teaching as a registered apprenticeship. That opens up federal funding for states with apprenticeship programs.

Rodriguez says that 35 states now have teacher apprenticeships.

“Right now," he said, "we have over 1200 candidates across the country moving through those apprenticeships. We think that has a lot of promise.”

Illinois just launched its own pilot program this spring.

Jarvis Lundy is the director of educator diversity at The Hunt Institute -- an education non-profit. At the UIC event, he emphasized that it’s also important who those teachers are. Research shows it’s beneficial to all students when a school’s teacher demographics reflect their student demographics. And, Lundy says, that’s where “Growing Your Own” and recruiting paraprofessionals can have another advantage.

“If you look at a paraprofessional pool," said Lundy, "especially in early learning, it's almost flipped on its head, where you have a majority of teachers who are women of color. How do we identify and support those folks, if they'd like to become teachers?”

Zachary Levine also presented in Chicago. He’s the founding Executive Director of TEACH.org. He says they have two programs: Future Black Teachers and Future Latino Teachers, which support students who show an interest in becoming teachers.

“There was a survey of 1,000 Black high school students who wanted to become teachers when they were in high school," he said. "Six years later, 14 of them had become teachers -- which is 1.4% of them. That underscores the need for a support system.”

On the federal level, Rodriguez says the Department of Education recently invested $450 million into teacher diversity grants. That includes $15 million for Historically Black Colleges & Universities, Tribal Universities, & Hispanic Serving Institutions.

But, there’s also another problem to solve -- how can schools keep the good teachers they already have?

A recent Illinois survey showed the top two reasons teachers left the field are “salary” and “burnout.”

Illinois has a $40K ($40,000) minimum teacher salary. In Maryland all teachers will make at least $60K a year by 2026.

Burnout is more complicated. Rodriguez said teachers “are carrying a heavier load than they ever have,” and need more time to collaborate with each other.

Sanders says there needs to be more conversations about teacher working conditions. Illinois’ Teacher Vacancy Grants can be used getting teachers into the classroom -- with signing bonuses and housing stipends -- but also for retaining current teachers. They can use the money to forgive loans, pay for instructional coaching or to go get additional degrees.

Rodriguez says that the federal government has boosted Teacher Quality Partnership grants by over 30% and those grants also can be used for professional development and other retention goals.

Levine at TEACH.org said that addressing the student mental health crisis could go a long way.

“The curveball answer," he said, "is that social emotional support for students is actually going to be one of the biggest things we can do to alleviate the burden on teachers."

In the meantime, Levine says that he’s already been hearing interesting ideas at the regional meeting. For example, why not add an “interested in teaching” box students can check next to the “interested in the military” option?

It wouldn’t be the first time they looked to the military for ideas. Levine says that his organization has a program in four states borrowing U.S. Army recruitment techniques to entice potential teachers across the country.

And, so far, so good. He says that they’ve gotten almost 6,000 new, diverse recruits into teacher prep programs with that multi-stage strategy.

But from the federal government to the local level, school leaders like these know they’ll have to stay creative and keep investing if they want to bring in good teachers — and keep the ones they’ve got.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.