Arizona Education: Teacher Shortage

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In a recent Arizona Department of Education survey, well over half the districts responding reported having teacher vacancies. The report also reveals teachers are leaving Arizona. We’ll see how one first-time teacher faces the challenges of a new job and then Arizona Education Association president Andrew Morrill and Jennifer Johnson, the executive director of Support Our Schools Arizona, will discuss the teacher shortage.

TED SIMONS: Joining us now to discuss Arizona's teacher shortage is Arizona education association president, Andrew Morrill. And Jennifer Johnson, the executive director of support our schools Arizona. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Good evening.

TED SIMONS: This business of the teacher shortage, why? What's going on out there? Why is this happening?

ANDREW MORRILL: Arizona policy direction over about the last six to eight years has put teachers on a very shaky four-legged stool. Just quickly, the compensation that is so bad teachers are paying to stay in the profession they love compared to earlier years of salary. Working conditions, which have removed supports at the same time we are heaping on expectations, in some cases very good expectations of students. Third, a toxic testing environment where too many decisions are being made tied to a single test score, and then a punish and perish evaluation system, does nothing to support better performance but punishing the easy few.

TED SIMONS: I want to get to each of those in a second. Do you agree are those major issues? I mean, lots of folks grow up wanting to be a teacher. And now we're finding that they become a teacher, they leave Arizona. What's going on with that?

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Right. I would certainly echo Andrew's comments. I think certainly compensation is an issue when you think about the qualifications and the skillsets that Arizona teachers bring to the service in their classroom. Those are competitive skills they could market in other ways for far greater compensation. We have to come to grips with that in terms of competition. Secondly, we know that teachers need support. They deserve support in the classroom. With slashing school budgets, schools are finding it harder and harder to provide the necessary support. Absent the kind of support teachers get discouraged and frustrated when decisions are made around single test scores or evaluation systems that aren't fully developed or fully resourced. And, third, quite frankly from a parental perspective, it is about the level of public respect that we pay to the profession. Teachers never enter the profession hoping to get rich. They are willing to put up with the challenges and meet the expectations placed on them, but they want to do so in a community that values what they do.

TED SIMONS: How do you elevate the public perception of educators?

ANDREW MORRILL: I taught high school English for about 17 years, northwest side of Tucson in the Morena District. There are a number of ways. Engagement by the community. Talk to teachers. For folks to come into our schools, talk to teachers and ask what are the challenges that you're facing? Because something that the reformers don't normally understand or talk about, what is good for teachers and what's good for students in a classroom are virtually the same thing. Engaged parents, voting community members. Folks that attend governing board meetings, see what's happening in their schools. The other thing, we are going to have to apply principles in the private sector that are not often talked about. One of the things you do to raise value of a profession, you increase compensation, increase support. We have to apply principles of value the way we do in other professions.

TED SIMONS: What is the pay range for Arizona teachers? What are we looking at here, general terms?

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Starting salary somewhere in the $30,000, $31,000, probably the highest paid, most experienced, highest credentialed teacher is somewhere in the $60,000 --

ANDREW MORRILL: One of the things that people don't think about. There are thousands and thousands of teachers in Arizona teaching more than 15 years. No comma in their paycheck. You think about that. They are 15 years or more in the classroom, there is no comma in that paycheck. What happens, the profession that they love, value-based profession, they leave in debt and they leave in tears and it's happened more than once that I have talked to a teacher that said I want to say because my kids need me. They're not talking about their own children. They're talking about the students in their classroom but they can't afford to stay in -- to stay in the profession.

TED SIMONS: Or they leave in tears or in frustration, or they just leave. How Arizona pay scale compare to other states?

ANDREW MORRILL: Bottom of the list. Bottom of the list. Which is appropriate, we're last in per-pupil funding, last in -- our own state economy that we apply toward public education. We are at the bottom of every good list, matching our rhetoric with how we try to retain them.

TED SIMONS: Classroom resources. Problems that teachers face there. Can that be improved?

JENNIFER JOHNSON: It can. I think with a -- a modest investment, we can devote more resources to the classroom, in forms of teacher mentors. We know that makes a tremendous difference in attracting teachers to the profession, and in keeping them in the classroom and protecting that investment. Materials, access to technology. Time is a resource. Time for teachers to work together in professional learning communities and do the kinds of things we want them to do.

TED SIMONS: Andrew mentioned a toxic testing environment. Talk about the testing requirements and impact of those requirements on teachers. We have heard teachers -- are teachers able just to give a well-rounded education these days?

ANDREW MORRILL: I can tell you what it felt like. I started teaching in 1988. I was elected into an office to represent the profession in 2004. Over that amount of time, and especially after no child left behind, fewer and fewer decisions were made in the classroom. Fewer and fewer decisions made by governing boards which are elected out of the community of taxpayers, one of the essential principals of a district public school, more were made at the state level and federal level and more were tied to standardized test scores.

TED SIMONS: We keep moving here regarding the teachers coming and going. There are a lot of older teachers who are ready to retire, correct?

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Correct. Over 25% of the current educators in Arizona are eligible to retire in less than four years.

TED SIMONS: Impact, the lack of experience of teachers coming in.

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Huge issue.

ANDREW MORRILL: And alternative certification programs -- remember, two schools of thought. One says if you want to elevate the profession and increase retention, put supports in, do something with the compensation that is meaningful more than rhetorical. The other school of thought Arizona has played with, lower the bar, lower the qualification indicators, do away with certification, pretend it is a series of hoops rather than a set of quality indicators for who we want in our classrooms.

TED SIMONS: How do you go streamline, without losing perspective of what a teacher should be qualified to do?

ANDREW MORRILL: You compromise one of the essential qualifications. There are three. Academic mastery of the content area that you are teaching, proof that you actually know how to take that content area and teach it, and then a clinical supervision, we call student teaching or field experience. Some of those have to go in an alternative certification program. If you shorten, you shortchange.

TED SIMONS: Do you agree with that?

JENNIFER JOHNSON: I do. Arizona has tried alternative certification in the past with very little success. There are not long lines of people waiting to become teachers in Arizona. We have created an environment where it is very challenging for someone to actually publicly admit that I want to be a teacher. Alternative certification has been around. We have tried it. I was a superintendent, in fact, a high school principal at the time that the Arizona began to implement alternative certification. And there were not hordes of people coming in, and quite frankly when they did get in, without extraordinary efforts to support them, they didn't stay.

ANDREW MORRILL: This is really --

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Just bringing lots of new teachers in isn't the solution to the problem. It is bringing the right teachers in and being able to have an environment that keeps them in the classroom.

TED SIMONS: Doesn't that circle back to the public perception, again, people think teachers do X, Y, and, Z, in reality it is more of an A, B, C.

ANDREW MORRILL: Well one of the things everybody teaching for a number of years comes to be familiar with, most of the public went through schools and they retain a kind of expertise. Yes, I sat in classrooms -- but I kind of know what is involved in teaching, I kind of know what's involved with teaching. It has changed a great deal and changing rapidly now. The point Dr. Johnson is making bears repeating. Alternative certification programs bring people in faster but they don't stay because they lack some of the essential preparation.

TED SIMONS: We talked about some things that can be politically addressed. Certainly are being politically talked about now. Concept of more education, is it politically feasible right now to get that increased funding, and, if not, how do you move forward? How do you get better?

JENNIFER JOHNSON: I do think a substantial number of Arizona parents and Arizona taxpayers who don't have children in school are willing to make the investment that it takes to bring our teacher compensation in line, and to solve this problem. They are willing to make that investment and they want and expect their policy makers to make those decisions.

TED SIMONS: Do you agree with that?

ANDREW MORRILL: I do. The Gallop polling that came out recently said that one of the things parents say most is fund our schools, pay teachers what it takes to keep them. They know, just as they know their students are more than test scores, they know good educators in the classroom are what students need and voters in the year 2000 in Arizona said we want our districts to keep up with inflation costs, so they can at least keep their heads above water. We are in a lawsuit about that. Let's hope it resolves quickly and we put money where it needs to be.

TED SIMONS: Yes or no, Arizona is facing a crisis in education?

ANDREW MORRILL: Arizona is facing a shortage of people willing to teach under the current conditions. We actually have thousands of folks holding certificates, they are unwilling to teach in conditions that we have created.

TED SIMONS: Is that a yes or no?

ANDREW MORRILL: You decide.

TED SIMONS: Yes or no, are we facing a crisis in education here in the state?

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Absolutely, absolutely. Classrooms not being filled by the kinds of teachers we aspire to have for our children and there are teachers who are leaving once the school year starts. Those are issues. There are solutions. It is not just about is there a crisis and the conversation stops there, there are solutions within our grasp.

ANDREW MORRILL: Thousands of teachers that are staying in the schools are part of the story. We have great folks. We need to keep them.

TED SIMONS: Thank you both so much. Good conversation. That's it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Andrew Morrill:Arizona Education Association president,Jennifer Johnson :Executive director of Support Our Schools Arizona

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