Robert C. Pianta is dean of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education.
As Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) prepares to take office in less than two weeks, Virginia is confronted with an ongoing public-education crisis that threatens the prospects of the next generation of Virginians as well as our state’s economic prosperity.
The acute shortage of teachers in Virginia — more than 1,000 classrooms did not have a teacher in 2016 after the number of vacancies increased by 40 percent in the past 10 years — means that too many students do not have their most important educational resource: the skilled educators who will prepare them to succeed in school and beyond.
Addressing the emergency occasioned by Virginia’s teacher shortage should be a top priority for Northam. Time and again, research has shown that classroom teachers, among the many factors we invest in to improve learning, have the greatest impact on student outcomes. The opportunity for Northam, his education team and teacher preparation programs across the commonwealth should not only be to expand the teacher preparation pipeline but also to ensure that the pipeline produces the most effective educators possible.
Virginians care deeply about the quality of our public-education system. In a poll conducted by Christopher Newport University prior to the November election, voters believed improving the quality of public schooling should be the foremost concern for the next governor. There is no better or more urgently needed approach to improving public education in Virginia than expanding and strengthening the educator workforce.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) took an important step toward expanding the teacher pipeline by issuing an emergency directive to the Virginia Board of Education to enable state institutions of higher education to offer four-year education majors. The directive rightly recognizes that streamlining the training process for teacher candidates — and reducing the time it takes to enter the classroom — has the potential to expand the state's educator workforce.
In addition to creating more and more flexible pathways for teacher candidates to enter the profession, as McAuliffe’s emergency directive does, any long-term strategy to increase the size and strength of the teacher corps should also include policies designed to retain in-practice teachers and enable partnerships among educator preparation programs and K-12 districts.
But we also know that just opening up more opportunities for teacher preparation does not ensure that every new teacher is ready to enter the classroom on Day One or that teachers in the field are being supported in ways that lead to increased student learning. So, as the state Board of Education and the Education Department devise the regulatory framework to address the teacher shortage, it is imperative that they also consider sensible, valid and practical ways in which teacher preparation programs provide evidence of the impact of their graduates and that efforts to retain experienced teachers are accompanied by support for those teachers’ effectiveness. More specifically, for preparation programs given the flexibility of a four-year degree, it is essential that they provide evidence that their new undergraduate training models lead to stronger educator preparation and student learning.
To enhance the commonwealth’s capacity to address the teacher shortage and other opportunities (e.g., early-childhood education, career and technical education, chronic absenteeism) a long-term investment that Northam would be wise to consider is a concerted effort to strengthen the education data infrastructure in our state. The commonwealth is awash in data, and yet too little of it is used to drive major policy decisions. A more robust data infrastructure — including data sharing and data analysis — would enable school and district leaders and state policymakers to make better-informed decisions about how to address workforce and other challenges to our education system.
However, there is no single solution at a single point in time that could quickly eliminate the teacher shortage. The forces that probably contributed to the sharp decrease in the number of teachers in Virginia — low pay compared with other professions, high levels of attrition among new teachers and the high cost and debt associated with teacher training, to name but a few — are not easily overcome by state-level policy alone.
But, by recognizing the severity of the emergency we face and the serious consequences of failing to act, Northam can take the vital next steps to build on the crisis-response work of his predecessor and develop long-term strategies that will reduce classroom vacancies.
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