Arizona Needs Teachers. Does the Answer Lie Beyond Recruitment?

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Arizona needs more teachers badly.

So badly, it seems, that the state is no longer requiring some educators to have a bachelor’s degree before they enter the classroom—merely that they be working toward one.

Arizona Gov. Doug Dacey heralded the changes as a way to ease the state’s teacher shortage when he signed them into law earlier this month. Under SB 1159, schools can recruit people without college degrees to their “school-based preparation programs” so long as candidates are enrolled in bachelor’s programs. (Under existing law, Arizona districts and charter schools can create their own teacher-prep programs, with approval from the state board of education.)

Critics have slammed the changes as essentially “on-the-job training” and a way to deflect from other teacher-recruitment strategies, like increasing pay.

Indeed, an expert EdSurge talked to says laws like SB 1159 are missing the point. The key to successfully mentoring new teachers and getting educators to stay is going to take a bigger change, he says—one that involves a complete shift in how we think about staffing classrooms.

Trying to Fill the Teacher Gap

Arizona teacher retention was looking bleak in January, when a report from school HR professionals found that roughly 1 in 3 teaching positions were vacant. The report tallied nearly 2,000 unfilled teaching positions and that 944 teachers had resigned during the first half of the school year.

By opening up hiring to teacher-candidates who are still working on earning their bachelor’s degrees, Dacey reasons that schools will have a wider pool of candidates to choose from.

The context of this policy change is significant. There has been a history of fights in the state legislature over public-school funding, voucher programs that support private schools and teacher credentials—with Republicans on one side advocating for more school choice, and Democrats joined by public school groups on the other side calling for support for public schools.

The latter are worried about permitting people who lack credentials to lead classrooms.

“You have to have some experience. It’s going to allow people to do on-the-job training, and that’s where it’s scary,” Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Educators Association, told CBS 5.

Other critics have accused Arizona Republicans, who championed the policy, of “watering down” teacher credentials for the benefit of private and charter schools.

“It is both frightening and terrifying that there is a concerted effort on the right to make schools places where fewer young adults want to be,” Carol Corbett Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, told Salon, “and then respond to the teacher shortage not by improving working conditions or pay, but by watering down credentials.”

Some schools are looking at the changes as an opportunity. Luis A. Perales, a leader at public-charter school Mexicayotl Academy of Excellence, said in a news release announcing the law’s signing that his charter school on the Arizona-Mexico border has trouble recruiting.

“Having more certification pathways will help us train and develop leadership positions internally, and create high-quality pathways for former students and community members who want to enter the classroom,” Perales says.

Addressing the Root Problem

Arizona isn’t alone in its scramble to find teachers ahead of the fall return to school. Some districts around the country are switching to four-day weeks in a bid to staunch teacher burnout and attract applicants. Starting this month, Indiana K-12 schools will be able to hire adjunct teachers who don’t have teaching experience but do have at least four years of experience in their subject area.

That’s similar to a teacher-job-applicant-pool-widening strategy Arizona has tried before. In 2017, it began allowing schools to fill teacher roles with workers so long as they had a bachelor’s degree and five years of work experience in the subject they’d be teaching.

If Arizona manages to get more potential teachers in the door using its new guidelines, what’s to say they’ll stay put?

Brent Maddin has a plan for that. He’s executive director of the Next Education Workforce Initiative at Arizona State University, where the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is working on a team-centered model of teaching. It’s meant to address what Maddin believes is the fundamental workforce-design flaw plaguing the profession, in which one teacher has to do it all in a classroom.

“We’ve built an education ecosystem with 3.5 million classrooms that have to be staged every single day. That’s 3.5 million points of potential crisis on a daily basis,” Maddin says. “When you move away from the ‘one teacher, one classroom’ model and bring a team of teachers around a shared roster of students, you buy yourself degrees of freedom and flexibility that has benefits for teachers and for students.”

Under a team-teaching model, Madden says, new teachers could lean into their strengths and take on more responsibility progressively. Students could build relationships with the teachers they click with. The idea is to give first-year, second-year and teacher trainees a better chance for success.

Madden says pilots of the model at local schools have been positive. Mesa Public Schools, one of the college’s largest partners, wants to expand the team-teaching strategy from 20 to more than 40 of its campuses.

The new Arizona law appears to have guardrails against letting new teachers take the reins alone, a key concern among critics. It stipulates that trainees can’t regularly instruct students without another full-time teacher or instructional coach present.

“I would say that among professional educators, this is perceived as another lowering of the standard for barrier to entry of the profession, which poses the risk of deprofessionalizing (teaching),” Madden says. “On the other side of that, anything we can do to create opportunities for caring adults to positively contribute to the development of young people is important, and we should think about the merits of that approach.”

But ultimately, continuing to focus on recruitment doesn’t address the root of Arizona’s teacher shortage problem, Madden says. The fundamental issue is the workforce design.

“Unambiguously, the idea of putting a less-than-prepared person (in a classroom) alone and responsible for the academic and social-emotional growth of young people by themselves is not, I believe, the intent of the law or what’s good or right for the profession or students,” he says.

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