If you’re running a business and are seeing a shortage of qualified candidates to fill crucial positions, you can do one of several things. Among them: increase the wages for the position or lower the barrier to entry.
That’s precisely the dilemma many school districts in Connecticut and elsewhere are facing in their search for qualified teachers to fill certain classrooms. The shortages are most acute in bilingual education, world languages, math, science, speech and special education.
When school districts are unable to fill these positions by the beginning of the school year, the courses are essentially taught by long-term substitutes — which is fine if the substitute is a retired teacher who is fluent in the subject and knows how to handle a classroom.
It’s not so great if your only qualification is a bachelor’s degree in any subject, which is practically the only requirement to become a substitute in Connecticut. If you want to substitute the same class for more than 45 days, then you must have 12 credits in the subject area you are teaching, which is better than nothing but still pretty flimsy.
Enter Connecticut Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell, who told the State Board of Education at its annual retreat earlier this month that “structural barriers” and “overregulation” in the certification process are combining to create or exacerbate teacher shortages in critical areas. To make matters worse, in some cases these shortages are forcing school districts to skirt the law by failing to provide bilingual instruction to students the state says are entitled to it.
Wentzell wants to lower the barriers to entry to the teaching profession. I happen to think that’s a good thing, at least up to a point. I taught for 12 years in independent schools where certification was not an issue. Private secondary schools fancy themselves more like colleges, where no one has to be certified and the primary qualifications are expertise and passion in your subject area, along with an engaging personality.
But you don’t want to go too far in that direction, either. There should be more alternative routes to certification — or what Wentzell calls “innovative pathways into the profession” — but waivers to certification could present other problems. The last thing we need is teachers who cannot stand and deliver to students who need their help, though that’s pretty much the case right now in many of these critical subject areas.
Wentzell complained about the state’s 144-page certification regulation book, in which she said a “significant amount of the regulations are about how to keep people out.” But Wentzell complained most loudly about teacher preparation programs, which she said are unwilling to develop programs that help produce more teachers in shortage areas. She also indicated anecdotally that her conversations with college students enrolled in teacher preparation programs suggest they are largely unaware of which teaching specialties are most in demand. Wentzell’s observations prompted a sharp rebuke from Anne Dichele, dean of the Quinnipiac University School of Education.
As someone who has never worked in the public sector but knows a lot of people who do, it has always struck me that people in the government generally have a poor understanding of how markets work. Nowhere is that more apparent than in this struggle to fill teaching positions in critical subjects.
If I were running a company and was having trouble attracting certain types of workers, I’d start by raising the starting wages for those positions. As far as I can tell, Wentzell hasn’t suggested that.
But here’s what I’d do if I were the reigning monarch of Connecticut’s public schools. I’d raise the starting pay for only those teachers hired to teach in those critical subject areas.
Unfortunately, teachers unions have historically resisted this approach. They prefer the factory-floor model, in which everyone is essentially paid the same regardless of demand or performance, with the only wage distinctions coming as a result of seniority and how many degrees you have.
The unions typically advocate for higher wages for all teachers but even if we could afford that, how would more money for every teacher address shortages in specific content areas? Answer: it wouldn’t. The dime-a-dozen history instructor would still be paid the same as the in-demand bilingual teacher. We’d be back to square one.
If indeed Wentzell is correct — Dichele disputes it — that aspiring teachers are largely unaware of which subject areas are most in demand, then that problem needs to be addressed. But it raises a different question: should students in teacher education programs be steered into subjects based on demand? Shouldn’t they have a passion for the subject?
If I love to write and want to teach literature and composition, can I magically become passionate about special education just because there are more jobs in that area? Teaching isn’t like working on an automobile assembly line where one can be equally happy installing doors or dashboards. On the other hand, it’s possible someone who is interested in becoming a bilingual teacher but sees more opportunity in publishing could be enticed into the classroom for the right price.
Education is complicated alright. But sometimes it’s not as complicated as the experts would have us believe.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
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