Fixing Tennessee's Teacher Shortage

The Tennessee Department of Education released an interesting report this week about how they plan to address the state’s teacher shortage. In the twenty-page report, titled “Preparation Through Partnership: Strengthening Tennessee’s New Teacher Pipeline,” TDOE asserts is commitment to address this crisis. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Over 65,000 teachers show up to work in our public schools across the state. The state expects half of them to leave or retire within the next decade. Add to that the fact that the state’s student population is growing, and it’s clear that education is an excellent major for someone who plans on entering college now or in the near future.

Simply put, we need more young people to become teachers. Since its peak in the 2009-2010 school year, enrollment in teacher preparation programs has precipitously dropped by 42% in the following four years! Just barely over 4,000 teachers completed teacher preparation programs in the 2013-2014 school year (the most recent year for which I could find data), and that is substantially below the roughly 6,000 teaching openings available in the state each year.

Interestingly, TDOE has taken a different position and asserts in their report that the problem isn’t in widespread shortfalls in the numbers of teachers, but in certain subject areas, types of districts, and demographic categories of teachers. It’s true that Tennessee needs more minority teachers, when 36% percent of its students are non-white, as compared with only 14% of its teachers. However, I adamantly disagree that widespread shortfalls isn’t the problem; the numbers speak for themselves.  

TDOE believes that there’s a misalignment between the types of education degrees that students obtain versus the areas of need across the state, and if students majored in different areas, then it would correct the teacher shortage. The state’s greatest areas of need are in English as a Second Language (ESL), world languages, and science, but they later admit in their report that each district has its own individual hiring needs.

Their plan begins with releasing annual reports about the students who complete teacher prep programs in college and their placement and retention in public schools. This report will help them determine which universities are doing the best job of meeting the state’s needs and if new teachers are staying in the positions into which they’re hired. Additionally, the state will build a data collection and reporting system that will streamline that review process. Beginning on January 1, 2019 all teacher candidates will be required to complete the edTPA, which is a performance assessment that determines how prepared that person is to enter the teaching profession. Tennessee will also make $200,000 available in the form of grants to universities who are striving for gains in recruitment and training of new candidates with a focus on early literacy. TDOE will also make a $100,000 investment in grants to school districts to develop plans to increase diversity in their teaching force.

I have no issues with any of these efforts to address the teacher shortage, but it is entirely too limited to be effective. Their plan does not correct the primary reasons why people are not choosing to become teachers and why they are leaving the profession once they enter the classroom. Schools and its teachers are underfunded, teachers’ tenure has been substantially weakened, teachers are subjected to unfair and inconsistent teacher evaluation methods (i.e. the TEAM rubric and TVAAS), there has been a sharp increase of standardized testing. Some of these have be legislated and is out of the TDOE’s power to correct. One profound thing that they could do--but won’t--is eliminating the absurd over-testing of students. As a teacher, I didn’t enter the profession to teach to, or even worry obsessively, about a test. My colleagues should not be evaluated by the test scores of students who they don’t teach and never see during the school day. I joined the profession because I want to make a positive difference in other people’s lives. Over-testing is an unnecessary distraction and provides and undue stress on myself and my colleagues. Until TDOE realizes this, I believe the teacher shortage will not only continue, but worsen.