WASHINGTON — More than half of school districts across the country have reported shortages in teachers, according to researchers who attended an event hosted Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education that focused on addressing these shortages.

“We know that the single most powerful predictor of [student] achievement is the presence of very experienced teachers, especially for students of color,” Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, told those assembled.

“Our investments in teachers are really an investment in children for our collective future.”

The shortfall of teachers across the country has become so serious that it has become a crisis, according to multiple state education leaders. Despite efforts to fill vacancies, the shortage persists.

No national database tracks the issue of how many U.S. classrooms are short of teachers for the 2022-23 school year. States, however, self-report “critical” shortages, Elaine Quesinberry, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said prior to the event.

Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin appear to be the only states to reduce shortages statewide this year compared to 2020-21, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislators.

A survey released by the U.S. Department of Education in August found that nationwide, schools have about three unfilled teaching positions on average. More than 200,000 classrooms across the country are left without qualified teachers, Darling-Hammond said.

“They’ve been occurring for a long time, but the pandemic really added a lot of stress to all educators,” Darling-Hammond said. “Three-quarters of them had to step in and take other duties or substitute teaching to fill vacancies.”

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has called on governors, state school chiefs and state policymakers to expand loan forgiveness, increase teacher compensation and pay students while they work as assistant teachers.

Schools also are searching for new solutions to the teacher deficit.

New Mexico started an initiative to provide a $35,000 stipend for year-long, immersive teacher residents, according to Dr. Kurt Steinhaus, the state’s secretary of education. That state had more than 1,000 teacher vacancies last year, before the onset of the residency program. That has been reduced by about 400.

Aurora Public Schools in Colorado approved in June a “pay for success” program to invest $7 million to boost teacher salaries each year and create a stipend program for high-turnover positions.

“I believe that teacher shortages are a byproduct of us as a nation not recognizing the value of educators as a society,” said Alex Marrero, superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

“We’re seeing a number of our local boards shifting to a four-day week and citing teacher recruitment and retention as one of the primary reasons for doing so,” said Margie Vandeven, commissioner of Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “That was not the original intent of placing that option for schools.”

The Nevada State Education Association estimated that almost 2,300 unfilled teacher positions existed as of December across the state’s 17 school districts. The number of teachers in Nevada decreased by 6% from 2011-12 to 2020-21, according to the National Education Association.

New Jersey started a program to recruit and train college students as substitute teachers in local school districts. Montclair State University’s induction coordinator, Rhena Jasey-Goodman, called the program “extremely successful.”

In Florida, almost 4,450 vacancies existed at the start of the 2022-23 school year, as reported by all school districts, according to the state’s Department of Education. The department, which ranked English as the most critical shortage this school year, said this represents less than 3% of teaching positions in the state.

“The notion of a large teacher shortage in Florida is a myth generated by media activists and teachers unions,” Cassie Palelis, the Florida Department of Education press secretary, said in a recent interview.

But In the 2020-21 school year, 59,117 courses across the state, or almost 10% of them, were taught by teachers not certified in the appropriate field, based on the Florida Department of Education’s data.

Vandeven told the audience that new funding and grants have been used to help develop, find and retain teachers within school districts. There has been “a lot of work” around professional development and mentorship to work for better retention, she said.

“School districts across the nation are challenged with competing with other companies and different businesses, including not-for-profit organizations who offer higher compensation, hybrid work-from-home opportunities, reduced work. Highly qualified teachers are leaving the profession for more flexible work lives.”

Almost 150 non-charter schools in Missouri and many rural Texas schools reduced the school week to four days to combat teacher shortages and potentially incentivize new employees.

Florida is turning to veterans to teach with five-year temporary education certificates as they complete their bachelor’s degrees. The authorization bill, SB 896 (2022), was unanimously passed by the Florida House and Senate.

To participate in the program, veterans must have served in the military for at least 48 months with an honorable or medical discharge; have a minimum of 60 college credits with a 2.5 grade-point average; pass a Florida subject area examination; clear a background screening; and be employed in a Florida school district.

Only 10 veterans have been hired through the program so far, according to Palelis. They are working in Volusia, Clay, Brevard, Monroe, Okaloosa, Citrus, Manatee and Levy counties.

More veteran teachers are expected in the new year, Palelis said, noting that Florida’s Department of Education has received over 500 applications from vets.

While state officials downplay the shortages, other educators say the shortfall is extremely serious.

“Florida’s public schools are in crisis, with thousands of vacancies for teachers and support staff,” said Andrew Spar, the Florida Education Association president, said in a statement.

“While we appreciate anyone with the qualities to make a good teacher, including U.S. military veterans, entering the teaching profession, a program like this will not solve the greatest challenge facing our schools unless we address the issues driving educators away — low pay and a lack of professional respect.”

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