HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – Many kids probably aren’t quite ready to start hearing the phrase “back to school” just yet. But for teachers, school administrators and education officials, getting prepared for a return to the classroom this time of year is a big deal.
This year, the stakes are a bit higher, and the preparation efforts a bit greater.
Monday, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) unveiled a strategic plan to recruit and retain educators, known as the “Foundation of Our Economy.”
The plan, which outlines several strategies to increase the number of teachers, comes just over a week after lawmakers from both parties agreed to a substantial education funding boost in the new state budget. Even though education professionals and officials are celebrating the funding increase, concerns over staffing shortages linger just weeks before the start of the new school year.
“What we’re trying to do here today is make sure that every school building is open on day one,” said Acting Education Secretary Eric Hagarty. “And that all the programs and services kids need are available to them on day one so that we don’t get to a place where we see some of the negative consequences that could be associated with lack of action on this topic,” he added.
Hagarty was joined this morning by education professionals throughout the state to explain the benefits of PDE’s new three-year strategic plan.
“I like to say that teaching is the profession that makes all other professions possible,” said Laura Boyce, Executive Director of Teach Plus Pennsylvania. “And that’s why Pennsylvania’s educator shortage is the biggest threat facing not only our educational system, but our future prosperity as a commonwealth,” she added.
Ten years ago, roughly 20,000 teachers were entering the workforce annually. Last year, that number was just 6,000.
“Over the last decade, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in people entering the field of education,” said Hagarty.
The drop in new teachers comes as more and more educators decide to retire or leave the profession. Professionals at today’s event said the COVID-19 Pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for educators and that many feel underappreciated, as indicated in a recent statewide survey.
Findings from the survey include a section titled: “Educator Well-Being and the Effects of the Pandemic.” The section states: “Teachers interviewed expressed general agreement that teacher well-being is at the lowest point that teachers have witnessed in their careers. Exacerbated greatly by the pandemic, teachers noted that they are being expected to make sure that their students are well when they are not well themselves.”
“Pennsylvania’s educators pour their hearts into helping our most precious resource, our children. It’s time to elevate teachers, the most important profession in our society, to the level of appreciation and prestige that they deserve,” said Boyce, who’s also a former high school teacher and elementary and middle school principal. “Our entire society quite literally falls apart if we don’t have great teachers,” she added.
The education workforce shortage is not limited to just teachers.
“First, it started off with the ability to get substitutes. When you talk about personnel, even from a bus driver perspective, they’re facing the same kind of employment squeeze that we’re hearing from industries all across,” said State Senator Scott Martin (R-Lancaster), Chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
With the historic budget increase for education and some recent changes to the public-school code, lawmakers and officials are looking to provide more pathways into the education workforce.
Recent changes to the public-school code include a pathway for out-of-state teachers to have reciprocity for certification in Pennsylvania, as well as a three-year moratorium on “Basic Skills Testing.”
“That requirement was a significant hurdle to many of our students in teacher education. And even if it wasn’t a hurdle, it cost them hundreds of dollars that was unnecessary,” said John Ward, President of the Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators (PAC-TE).
Officials say the code changes will complement the efforts and actions contained in the strategic plan.
The plan specifically addresses five-educator workforce focus areas from 2022-2025:
- Meeting the educator staffing needs of rural, suburban, and urban areas;
- Building a diverse workforce representative of the students we serve;
- Operating a rigorous, streamlined, and customer service-oriented certification process;
- Ensuring high-quality preparation experiences for aspiring educators; and
- Ensuring educator access to high-quality and relevant professional growth and leadership development opportunities.
PDE and education professionals emphasized the need to streamline the certification process and diversify the education workforce.
“Less than seven-percent of Pennsylvania’s teachers are people of color. We need to attract and retain great educators from a multitude of different backgrounds,” said Hagarty. “We know that students have the best chance for success when they have the opportunity to interact with educators who look like them and have shared backgrounds and experiences,” he added.
“Our children in Pennsylvania deserve educators who look like them, who hail from their communities, who share their experiences and recognize the rich assets that those children bring to their schools each and every single day,” said Dr. Andrea Terrero Gabbadon with the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium. “Together, a racially diverse educator workforce and culturally responsive and sustaining practices have been found to positively influence the academic outcomes and educational experiences of all children,” she added.
Hagarty says the new plan is pivotal to grow a profession that everyone depends on at some point.
“Teaching is the profession that unlocks the workforce for all other professions so we must find ways to encourage more individuals to answer the call and enter the classroom,” said Hagarty. “Being an educator is rarely glamorous. Oftentimes, it might also feel thankless. But it’s so critically important. Our teachers are role models, cheerleaders and champions for our students,” Hagarty added.