Illinois teacher shortage crisis: quick fixes, long-range solutions

The Sycamore School District 427 Board of Education approved the labor contract between the district and the Sycamore Education Association teachers' union during their meeting Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022.

Teacher shortages are a growing crisis in Illinois. There are decreasing numbers of students entering college with the plans of becoming a teacher, and a higher number of teachers are leaving the profession or retiring early.

But there are ways of overcoming these concerns.

There are two key questions to ponder: Can our present system prepare enough new educators to overcome these shortages? And are the senior four-year schools able to close this gap?

Documenting the problem

In 2020, more than 6,000 teaching and support staff positions were reported unfilled in Illinois. Additionally, a 2020 study by the Illinois Teacher Retirement System showed a 50% increase in retirements over the previous year. A survey of Illinois teachers found one-third indicated they were considering leaving teaching. The three most reported reasons were “don’t want to be a teacher anymore,” “considering early-retirement and re-evaluating my career path” and “burnout.”

Quick fixes

For the 2021-22 school year, administrators considered bringing back retired teachers; current full-time teachers taking on more workload; employing visiting foreign teachers to fill immediate teacher shortages; and using paraprofessionals and not-fully-credentialed substitute teachers.

Low salaries persist

A research study published by Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, listed several major factors leading to high attrition of teachers throughout the country: inadequate compensation; poor teaching conditions; lack of administrative support; inadequate investments in preparation and mentoring; lack of respect and voice in school decision-making; and inadequate opportunities for learning and collaboration.

While the supply of new teachers is low, losing the retention battle contributes further to the growing shortages.

Illinois Public Act 101-0443 establishes minimum salary levels for full-time teachers in Illinois at $32,076, increasing to $40,000 in 2024. Illinois teacher average pay in 2020-2021 was reported as $69,300. States offering the highest average salaries were New York ($87,069), California ($84,531) and Massachusetts ($84,290). Those states with the lowest average salaries were Mississippi ($46,843), South Dakota ($48,984) and Florida ($49,102).

Long-range solution

Many of the short-term solutions involve getting more mileage out of existing faculty, retired faculty and increasingly, non-credentialed individuals. However, only increasing the supply of new people into the teacher preparation pipeline will solve the teacher shortage.

These components should be much more sustainable in overcoming the teacher and staff shortages in the years ahead. They are: Expanding educational pipelines to attract more students into teaching careers; changing existing higher education models to expand teacher preparation; and expanding partnerships and pathways for educational agencies to work together.

Educational pipelines

More high school students need to receive counseling for choosing teaching as a career option. Educators Rising programs have proved to attract significant numbers of high school students to learn about and consider teaching as a career option. These programs can be established as an extracurricular activity or as a course about the teaching profession. This could be offered as a dual-credit college course with a secondary school or nearby community college or four-year university. Recently, Illinois approved Career and Technical Student Organization status for the Educators Rising program, providing for unlocking of the federal Perkins Act funding for schools to go the club/extracurricular route.

These programs succeed in creating pathways into teaching for a diverse student population. School districts that add Educators Rising programs attract future teachers and encourage the district to help select students to consider being educators.

New educational models

Changes need to be made quickly to accommodate and solve the challenges that exist. Eastern Illinois University is attacking teacher shortages through the Rural School Initiative. EIU has partnered with regional offices of education and community colleges to create more dual-credit education courses for high school students; connect high schools and community colleges in supporting high school students interested in teaching; and provide monthly experiences for future teachers to visit schools and learn from P-12 educators.

Strong consideration needs to be giving to expand the teaching and awarding of baccalaureate degrees in more institutions than are presently responsible for preparing certified teachers. Granting community colleges the ability to now offer teacher baccalaureate degrees is a time that has come.

Partnerships and Pathways – another creative “grow your own” model has existing education components collaborating closely to create pathways for teacher education. In 2019, Southern Illinois University piloted a program titled Scaling Education Pathways in Illinois. The program provided funding to eight communities for an initiative that streamlines career paths for prospective teachers. The SIU partnership involves six area high schools, two community colleges and the senior institution of SIU. While students are still in high school, they can take two of SIU’s required teacher education program core curriculum classes through the partner community colleges and earn dual credit. Students also will receive College and Career Pathway Endorsements with their high school diplomas.

Call to action

Illinois is a state rich in potential and resources, and capable of being a leader in addressing the teacher shortage. We challenge elected school board members to recognize and implement solutions available to them.

If not already present, establish an Educators Rising club. If access and affordability are barriers to growing a new crop of teachers, partner with community colleges and neighboring universities to create pathways of teacher preparation. Doing so will increase the number of new teachers and advance the diversity of the teaching ranks.

Districts can call on their banks, industries, businesses and community foundations. Such funding can be used to develop scholarships to assist students on pathways to completing teacher preparation. School board members can contact state lawmakers to support and fund the creative new higher education paradigms and partnerships. Hopefully, these examples can be emulated at a quicker pace statewide. The need is now.

Every school district in the state would benefit from board members, regional superintendents and state legislators working together to implement sustainable solutions to the teacher shortage. It will be up to Illinois school boards to decide how to move forward.

We hope to have convinced Illinois school board members that the best solutions to overcoming the teaching shortages are right within their own school districts.

Hans A. Andrews is the Distinguished Fellow in Community College Leadership, Olney Central College, where he previously served as president. William A. “Bill” Marzano is a retired instructor at Illinois Valley Community College. They wrote this article for the Illinois Association of School Boards.