By Senator Vincent Hughes and Sharif El-Mekki
A decade ago, Pennsylvania certified 20,000 new teachers. Last year, that number was down to 6,000. Chronic understaffing, along with underfunding, is driving increased burnout and shorter teaching careers.
That loss of teachers is particularly concerning among communities of color which make up 37 percent of the student body, but only 7 percent of teachers.
Simply put, Pennsylvania’s teacher workforce is not keeping up with a rapidly diversifying student body, leading to a classroom experience that is less than ideal for both the teacher and the student.
While schools across Pennsylvania prepare to welcome returning students over the next few weeks, education leaders in Harrisburg will be getting to work with new tools designed to expand the teaching profession and make it more diverse.
There’s no question that Pennsylvania’s training and recruitment system for teachers is outdated and broken. Even before the pandemic intensified a dangerous cycle of burnout and understaffing, Pennsylvania was losing ground among the states in diversifying its teacher corps and steering new generations to this venerated but too-often maligned profession.
How do we change that trajectory? By engaging students long before they enter college.
Think of the profession as a pipeline. The main source needs to increase dramatically to increase the final output. And, yes, there are leaks along the way that must be patched as well.
But let’s start with our main source: high school students. Connecting more high school students, especially students of color, to a post-secondary career in teaching is a critical first step.
To do that, bipartisan legislation passed last month expands dual enrollment opportunities for all public-school students, creating more partnerships between high schools and colleges – both four-year institutions and community colleges. Not only does it ramp up a student’s transition to higher ed, but also saves students on tuition as well.
In addition, the new legislation establishes a pathway for the creation of career and technical education programs in the education field. This allows high schools to create a specialized program in education. This type of expansion will increase access to education-related careers during high school and help ensure the education job pipeline flows.
To support the expansion of those dual enrollment programs, the Commonwealth is restoring its dual enrollment funding, which will help colleges and universities cover the costs of these expanded programs.
We must continue to partner with organizations like the Center for Black Educator Development which provides critical early exposure and clinical experiences for high school students through their in-school teacher academies and their out-of-school time paid teacher apprenticeships.
And what about the leaks along the pipeline?
Research has shown that there are often bureaucratic hurdles for prospective teachers to complete their training. Those can often be duplicative testing requirements, that can discourage a student from entering an educator preparation program.
To address that, the recently passed legislation allows the Department of Education to waive one of the testing requirements for entrance into a teacher preparation program. In other states, this has proven successful.
Mississippi recently waived one of its testing requirements and the number of students entering educator preparation programs increased by more than 400%.
By contract, Pennsylvania has been slow to make changes in developing an education workforce that is prepared for future challenges.
Clearly, that needed to change to avert a looming teacher shortage crisis that affects all communities.
What also needed to change was how the Commonwealth kept track of who was entering the profession. There was limited data on students entering education preparation programs and students completing their certification. Without understanding, in detail, where those gaps – or leaks – were in the demographics of the profession it became increasingly difficult to address the problem.
By requiring the Department of Education to now collect and publish that data, lawmakers have set up a feedback system to help craft additional policies to target and support teacher recruitment.
It will take a sustained effort from state and local officials to increase the number of students entering the teaching profession and to increase the diversity of those students. We were encouraged to see the Department of Education’s recent plan to strengthen the educator workforce and know that the combination of the Department’s increased efforts and our legislation can make a difference.
This legislation, which was the product of bipartisan collaboration and input from teachers, college and university leaders and school officials, is a critical step on the path to restoring and repairing the teacher pipeline – and strengthening our education workforce for years to come.
In addition, the new legislation establishes a pathway for the creation of career and technical education programs in the education field. These expanded options will help improve access to education related careers during high school and ensure the education job pipeline grows.
Sen. Vincent Hughes, the author the teacher recruitment and training legislation, serves Philadelphia and Montgomery counties, and is Democratic Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Sharif El-Mekki is CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development.