Feeling the Teacher Shortage

As we’re gearing up for another school year, I can’t help but notice the copious amount of open teaching positions. I’m currently trying to fill a special education position. I had  3 people apply for the position (only two actually held the required certification). I’ve recently spoken with other principal/superintendent friends of mine who serve economically disadvantaged areas. All I can say is… wow. They are being hit hard by this shortage (that’s usually how it is. The disadvantaged areas get hit hardest). One principal friend of mine still has 5 or 6 openings and has received minimal interest. An assistant superintendent friend of mine in a disadvantaged area stated that this shortage has plagued her entire district. It’s widespread. School starts in a week or two! This is getting real!

Teacher shortages aren’t new. However, what’s most startling about this issue is that the number of shortages keeps increasing. States that weren’t experiencing shortages are now experiencing shortages and the majority of states/districts that were already experiencing shortages are now experiencing even worse shortages. Essentially, it comes down to this: it’s getting worse and it will continue to get worse before it gets better. Why? Well, let’s take a brief look.

It appears that years of ragging on the teaching profession, rising dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the profession, fear over unjust pension reform, the constant pummel of school initiatives and uninformed reforms, the punitive accountability movement (mostly related to constant standardized testing and questionable teacher evaluation methods such as Value-Added Measures), and increased work loads are really starting to leave their mark. There are entire books and dissertations written on almost every single one of the aforementioned issues (see almost anything written by Diane Ravitch between the years 2000 and 2018 for more information on these issues that have spurred an increasing teacher shortage).

If you were to analyze education history, you’d see an interesting trend. For instance, take project-based learning (PBL). PBL has been around since the 1600s in Italy when architecture students wanted more meaning and relevance in their learning. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, John Dewey brought PBL and experiential learning into focus. And now, in the 21st century, PBL is a major focus for many “innovative” schools. Though a seemingly unrelated topic, I mention PBL to demonstrate the cyclical nature of things in education. To combat the teacher shortage, I see politicians enacting some type of band-aid legislation that will help in the short term. For a time, we’ll see fluctuations in the nationwide teacher shortage. For a time, we’ll see more students entering college to become teachers. For a time, we’ll have copious amounts of candidates applying for our open positions. But, in the long run, band-aid legislation won’t help.

On both a micro and macro scale, how do we effectively combat the teacher shortage?

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Illinois Getting Rid of PARCC Tests… Can We Broaden the Curriculum and Focus on Performance-Based Assessments Now?

Illinois may be getting rid of PARCC (other states already have). For some, this is no surprise. Secondary educators lambasted PARCC testing and the tests were eventually removed from the high school setting. Others saw PARCC as another cyclical education reform that just so happened to bring about new types of assessments (“computer-based,” oh my!). PARCC replaced state-standardized tests like ISAT, which replaced IGAP and on down the road since the doom and gloom proclamations in 1983’s A Nation at Risk.

Obviously, in our test-based accountability system, PARCC will be replaced with something else. We’ve heard that the new tests may be shorter, allowing for teachers/administrators/districts to receive the results in an expeditious manner. What is more, it’s possible that the new tests will be adaptive in that test will adjust the difficulty of the questions based on student responses (similar to NWEA’s MAP assessments).

However, it’s my view that these changes aren’t enough. Sure, shorter tests will be good for teachers and students. Teachers and parents have decried that students are over assessed for years. Sure, more expeditious feedback is good. That’s always been one of the major drawbacks of these state-standardized tests. Sure, adaptive tests that adjust according to student responses could be a good thing, if this helps us better identify student deficiencies.

Yet, I’m not sure any of these adjustments will address a pressing issue facing all schools, but especially schools serving disadvantaged communities: narrowing of the curriculum. If these tests are tied to any federal funding (like what happened with Obama’s Race to the Top initiative), there will continue to be narrowing of the curriculum. If these test are used to evaluate, rate, and/or compare schools and districts, there will continue to be narrowing of the curriculum. If districts prioritize these tests and the data generated by them, there will continue to be narrowing of the curriculum. Point being, it’s a different means to the same end. We may have new tests on the horizon. But, the accountability movement/reform in education is still alive and well. When state-standardized test scores are used to evaluate schools/districts/teachers, narrowing of the curriculum will continue to occur.

What is more, as past research has shown, these state-standardized tests only assess low-level thinking skills, numb teacher and student creativity, and prepare students to take tests rather than to think critically and solve real-world problems. With more standardized tests, even though they’ve been shortened and allow teachers to receive feedback in a timely manner, I’m guessing we’ll still have tests that assess low-level thinking skills, decrease creativity, and don’t accurately show all that a student really knows.

I’ve always been an advocate of performance-based assessments, which challenge students to use higher-order thinking in order to create a product or complete a process. The essential components of performance-based assessments help to ensure complexity and higher-order thinking: relevant, real-world oriented, open-ended, time-bound, products presented to an authentic audience, embedded formative assessment and feedback.

Performance-based assessments are not new. In fact, they’ve been around in some form or another since the days of John Dewey. However, when accountability reforms increased the pressure facing today’s schools, we moved away from performance-based measures of learning to standardized measures. This pressure also forced the narrowing of the curriculum. Thus, I (and many others) appeal to our legislators and education policy makers to truly consider what’s best for our students, for our teachers, and for our schools. When moving forward with new state-standardized testing, we must consider all that we’ve learned from the pressures associated with these tests.

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State Standardized Testing: A Quasi-Debate Concerning Feedback

I recently engaged in a quasi-debate on Twitter with a few educators regarding the data generated from state standardized tests. An educator proclaimed that viewing state tests as a waste of time that reduce and limit classroom instruction is “ignorant of the bigger picture.” I immediately inquired, “Hmm… What exactly is the ‘bigger picture?’” A digital debate ensued.

First and foremost, solid research exists concerning the actual narrowing of school curricula as a result of state standardized testing and the pressure schools feel to do well on these tests. This pressure and the resulting narrowed/hallowed out curricula are especially prevalent in economically disadvantaged areas. Essentially, the exact opposite of this educator’s claim that standardized tests reduce and limit classroom instruction is true. This testing and the deleterious pressure put on schools as a result of this testing has been shown to reduce and limit classroom instruction.

Honestly, that’s not even where I found the deepest flaw in his proclamation (though that flaw is pretty significant and not to mention the research that suggests that state standardized tests don’t accurately show what students know and can do). After reading his edict, my mind immediately jumped to the idea of feedback. The feedback generated from state standardized tests is notoriously delayed, at least here in Illinois. Yet, I presume this issue would impact all states that are a part of the PARCC consortium.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of administering a state standardized test, you know that schools don’t receive the feedback generated by these tests for months after the test is administered (maybe even years). Even after these testing consortiums claimed that going computer-based would help expedite feedback, schools don’t receive the feedback much faster (if any faster at all) than previous paper-based state standardized tests. I’m sure most Illinois educators recall the Illinois Science Assessment (ISA). We administered this exam to students in 5th and 8th grade in the Spring of 2016. Frighteningly, we still haven’t received the results from that assessment.

I know state standardized testing feedback may help some districts make program decisions. This type of feedback might help from a macro perspective (finding trends in learning across schools/subgroup populations). Susan Brookhart describes feedback as “just-in-time, just-for-me information delivered when and where it can do the most good.” I love this quote! When considering assessment feedback, the question must be: how can this feedback be used immediately in the classroom, where it can have the biggest impact on student learning?  That being said, I find it much better/more efficient/more logical to use formative assessment feedback for the purpose of impacting student learning in the classroom (I know I’m not alone in this thought.  But, the amount of people in this debate who vehemently approved of our state testing prioritization concern me).

With that in mind, another question arises: should schools/districts/states limit or forgo state standardized testing (like Finland) in order to focus their time and attention on the formative assessments that generate feedback that is most useful to teachers and students in our classrooms (not to mention the money/resources it would save districts)?  Throughout my career in education, I’ve never known a time without state standardized testing. Many educators from my generation share that sentiment. It’s hard to imagine an education system without these tests. However, at this point, I see state standardized tests, with their delayed feedback, as mostly accountability measures with limited relevance to improving classroom instruction in a timely manner.

Important to note, I’m not advocating for zero standardized testing. I think some value can be derived from certain standardized tests. But, I find the way we prioritize state standardized testing problematic.

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Idealistic vs. Realistic Expectations Regarding Standardized Testing

I read an interesting blog post the other day regarding the controversial practice of using standardized test scores to determine school/teacher effectiveness and success. If you’ve read anything from Diane Ravitch, you’ve probably heard similar notions before. And, of course, whenever PISA results are released, people/schools/countries are clamoring to compare themselves. Also, for my school, PARCC testing begins next week.

I completely agree with Ravitch and other educators who suggest that there are faults within a system that puts too much emphasis on standardized measures and indicators for determining success. It’s impossible to glean all information simply from a school’s standardized test scores.

Idealistically, there’d be no standardized measures used to judge the effectiveness of teachers and schools. These tests don’t accurately demonstrate all that schools and students can do. There is so much more beyond test scores. We’ve all heard the stories about students who were bad test takers, but turn out to be successful later as lifelong learners. The success of these individuals is often attributed to skills/knowledge/abilities/etc. that can’t be measured (or aren’t measured easily). As Eisner said, “Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that is measured matters.” I remember reading that line and then discussing it in my doctoral coursework. It was empowering.

However, realistically, that’s not the current state of education in which we all serve. My superintendent requires deliverables. Our locally elected school board wants to see numbers, and good numbers at that (or at least numbers trending in the positive direction). When my superintendent feels the pressure to put up good numbers for the school board, he then requires the school principals to do what they must in order to achieve those numbers. The principals then work with their staff towards achieving and/or maintaining those numbers. Teachers then work with students and their parents to bring this goal to fruition. It’s like a top-down funnel that continually perpetuates the focus on standardized achievement scores.

Like many have said, this systematic change requires brave educators and change agents to step up/rise up against the system. We’ve seen some brave educators do such things, and often lose their employment as a result. We’ve seen parents and students “opt out” of standardized tests. For some parents, there were consequences for such actions. Realistically, we operate in a system that requires compliance regarding standardized achievement scores.

I’m not commenting on whether this is right or wrong. I’m just stating the truth. Yet, I do wonder what would happen if we took a different approach. Much of what I’ve read and researched proposes that the educators or parents/students within the system make the changes. I completely see the validity in that approach. I’m simply wondering if there is some way we can also educate our locally elected school board members (who serve the community) regarding the issues associated with high stakes, standardized measures of success? An approach like this may have been attempted before. If so, I’d like to learn more about it. But, what would this approach look like? Could students serve as the channels through which information regarding standardized achievement tests is shared with school board members? So many questions.

Of course, this type of adjustment on the part of the school board could have potential economic implications. These scores are used as indicators of how well a school is doing. Realtors use this information to determine if certain areas are “good” areas for homeowners. For many realtors, “the schools are good” is a major selling point. You don’t ever really hear them say, “this school is one of the most creative schools around,” or “this school’s approach to project-based learning is terrific!” Realtors aren’t educators, so it may be unrealistic to expect them to know these things. But, as the school board looks out for the best of the community, they want schools that perform well. At this point in time, performing well means obtaining high scores on standardized achievement tests. It’s a vicious cycle. Can it ever be broken or changed?